"NO, THROW YOUR chest out deeper, like so." Laetificat stood up on her haunches and demonstrated, the enormous barrel of her red-and-gold belly expanding as she breathed in.
Temeraire mimicked the motion; his expansion was less visually dramatic, as he lacked the vivid markings of the female Regal Copper and was of course less than a fifth of her size as yet, but this time he managed a much louder roar. "Oh, there," he said, pleased, dropping back down to four legs. The cows were all running around their pen in manic terror.
"Much better," Laetificat said, and nudged Temeraire's back approvingly. "Practice every time you eat; it will help along your lung capacity."
"I suppose it is hardly news to you how badly we need him, given how our affairs stand," Portland said, turning to Laurence; the two of them were standing by the side of the field, out of range of the mess the dragons were about to make. "Most of Bonaparte's dragons are stationed along the Rhine, and of course he has been busy in Italy; that and our naval blockades are all that is keeping him from invasion. But if he gets matters arranged to his satisfaction on the Continent and frees up a few aerial divisions, we can say hail and farewell to the blockade at Toulon; we simply do not have enough dragons of our own here in the Med to protect Nelson's fleet. He will have to withdraw, and then Villeneuve will go straight for the Channel."
Laurence nodded grimly; he had been reading the news of Bonaparte's movements with great alarm since the Reliant had put into port. "I know Nelson has been trying to lure the French fleet out to battle, but Villeneuve is not a fool, even if he is no seaman. An aerial bombardment is the only hope of getting him out of his safe harbor."
"Which means there is no hope, not with the forces we can bring to it at present," Portland said. "The Home Division has a couple of Longwings, and they might be able to do it; but they cannot be spared. Bonaparte would jump on the Channel Fleet at once."
"Ordinary bombing would not do?"
"Not precise enough at long range, and they have poisoned shrapnel guns at Toulon. No aviator worth a shilling would take his beast close to the fortifications." Portland shook his head. "No, but there is a young Longwing in training, and if Temeraire will be kind enough to hurry up and grow, then perhaps together they might shortly be able to take the place of Excidium or Mortiferus at the Channel, and even one of those two might be sufficient at Toulon."
"I am sure he will do everything in his power to oblige you," Laurence said, glancing over; the dragon in question was on his second cow. "And I may say that I will do the same. I know I am not the man you wished in this place, nor can I argue with the reasoning that would prefer an experienced aviator in so critical a role. But I hope that naval experience will not prove wholly useless in this arena."
Portland sighed and looked down at the ground. "Oh, hell," he said. It was an odd response to make, but Portland looked anxious, not angry, and after a moment he added, "There is just no getting around it; you are not an aviator. If it were simply a question of skill or knowledge, that would mean difficulties enough, but – " He stopped.
Laurence did not think, from the tone, that Portland meant to question his courage. The man had been more amiable this morning; so far, it seemed to Laurence that aviators simply took clannishness to an extreme, and once having admitted a fellow into their circle, their cold manners fell away. So he took no offense, and said, "Sir, I can hardly imagine where else you believe the difficulty might lie."
"No, you cannot," Portland said, uncommunicatively. "Well, and I am not going to borrow trouble; they may decide to send you somewhere else entirely, not to Loch Laggan. But I am running ahead of myself: the real point is that you and Temeraire must get to England for your training soonest; once you are there, Aerial Command can best decide how to deal with you."
"But can he reach England from here, with no place to stop along the way?" Laurence asked, diverted by concern for Temeraire. "It must be more than a thousand miles; he has never flown further than from one end of the island to the other."
"Closer to two thousand, and no; we would never risk him so," Portland said. "There is a transport coming over from Nova Scotia; a couple of dragons joined our division from it three days ago, so we have its position pretty well fixed, and I think it is less than a hundred miles away. We will escort you to it; if Temeraire gets tired, Laetificat can support him for long enough to give him a breather."
Laurence was relieved to hear the proposed plan, but the conversation made him aware how very unpleasant his circumstances would be until his ignorance was mended. If Portland had waved off his fears, Laurence would have had no way of judging the matter for himself. Even a hundred miles was a good distance; it would take them three hours or more in the air. But that at least he felt confident they could manage; they had flown the length of the island three times just the other day, while visiting Sir Edward, and Temeraire had not seemed tired in the least.
"When do you propose leaving?" he asked.
"The sooner, the better; the transport is headed away from us, after all," Portland said. "Can you be ready in half an hour?"
Laurence stared. "I suppose I can, if I have most of my things sent back to the Reliant for transport," he said dubiously.
"Why would you?" Portland said. "Laet can carry anything you have; we shan't weigh Temeraire down."
"No, I only mean that my things are not packed," Laurence said. "I am used to waiting for the tide; I see I will have to be a little more beforehand with the world from now on."
Portland still looked puzzled, and when he came into Laurence's room twenty minutes later he stared openly at the sea-chest that Laurence had turned to this new purpose. There had hardly been time to fill half of it; Laurence paused in the act of putting in a couple of blankets to take up the empty space at the top. "Is something wrong?" he asked, looking down; the chest was not so large that he thought it would give Laetificat any difficulty.
"No wonder you needed the time; do you always pack so carefully?" Portland said. "Could you not just throw the rest of your things into a few bags? We can strap them on easily enough."
Laurence swallowed his first response; he no longer needed to wonder why the aviators looked, to a man, rumpled in their dress; he had imagined it due to some advanced technique of flying. "No, thank you; Fernao will take my other things to the Reliant, and I can manage perfectly well with what I have here," he said, putting the blankets in; he strapped them down and made all fast, then locked the chest. "There; I am at your service now."
Portland called in a couple of his midwingmen to carry the chest; Laurence followed them outside, and was witness, for the first time, to the operation of a full aerial crew. Temeraire and he both watched with interest from the side as Laetificat stood patiently under the swarming ensigns, who ran up and down her sides as easily as they hung below her belly or climbed upon her back. The boys were raising up two canvas enclosures, one above and one below; these were like small, lopsided tents, framed with many thin and flexible strips of metal. The front panels which formed the bulk of the tent were long and sloped, evidently to present as little resistance to the wind as possible, and the sides and back were made of netting.
The ensigns all looked to be below the age of twelve; the midwingmen ranged more widely, just as aboard a ship, and now four older ones came staggering with the weight of a heavy leather-wrapped chain they dragged in front of Laetificat. The dragon lifted it herself and laid it over her withers, just in front of the tent, and the ensigns hurried to secure it to the rest of the harness with many straps and smaller chains.
Using this strap, they then slung a sort of hammock made of chain links beneath Laetificat's belly. Laurence saw his own chest tossed inside along with a collection of other bags and parcels; he winced at the haphazard way in which the baggage was stowed, and was doubly grateful that he had been careful in his packing: he was confident they might turn his chest completely about a dozen times without casting his things into disarray.
A large pad of leather and wool, perhaps the thickness of a man's arm, was laid on top of all, then the hammock's edges were drawn up and hooked to the harness as widely as possible, spreading the weight of the contents and pressing them close to the dragon's belly. Laurence felt a sense of dissatisfaction with the proceedings; he privately thought he would have to find a better arrangement for Temeraire, when the time came.
However, the process had one significant advantage over naval preparations: from beginning to end it took fifteen minutes, and then they were looking at a dragon in full light-duty rig. Laetificat reared up on her legs, shook out her wings, and beat them half a dozen times; the wind was strong enough to nearly stagger Laurence, but the assembled baggage did not shift noticeably.
"All lies well," Laetificat said, dropping back down to all fours; the ground shook with the impact.
"Lookouts aboard," Portland said; four ensigns climbed on and took up positions at the shoulders and hips, above and below, hooking themselves on to the harness. "Topmen and bellmen." Now two groups of eight midwingmen climbed up, one going into the tent above, the other below: Laurence was startled to perceive how large the enclosures really were; they seemed small only by virtue of comparison with Laetificat's immense size.
The crews were followed in turn by the twelve riflemen, who had been checking and arming their guns while the others rigged out the gear. Laurence noticed Lieutenant Dayes leading them, and frowned; he had forgotten about the fellow in the rush. Dayes had offered no apology; now most likely they would not see one another for a long time. Perhaps it was for the best; Laurence was not sure that he could have accepted the apology, after hearing Temeraire's story, and as it was impossible to call the fellow out, the situation would have been uncomfortable to say the least.
The riflemen having boarded, Portland walked a complete circuit around and beneath the dragon. "Very good; ground crew aboard." The handful of men remaining climbed into the belly-rigging and strapped themselves in; only then did Portland himself ascend, Laetificat lifting him up directly. He repeated his inspection on the top, maneuvering around on the harness with as much ease as any of the little ensigns, and finally came to his position at the base of the dragon's neck. "I believe we are ready; Captain Laurence?"
Laurence belatedly realized he was still standing on the ground; he had been too interested in the process to mount up himself. He turned, but before he could clamber onto the harness, Temeraire reached out carefully and put him aboard, mimicking Laetificat's action. Laurence grinned privately and patted the dragon's neck. "Thank you, Temeraire," he said, strapping himself in; Portland had pronounced his improvised harness adequate for the journey, although with a disapproving air. "Sir, we are ready," he called to Portland.
"Proceed, then; smallest goes aloft first," Portland said. "We will take the lead once in the air."
Laurence nodded; Temeraire gathered himself and leapt, and the world fell away beneath them.
Aerial Command was situated in the countryside just south-east of Chatham, close enough to London to permit daily consultation with the Admiralty and the War Office; it had been an easy hour's flight from Dover, with the rolling green fields he knew so well spread out below like a checkerboard, and London a suggestion of towers in the distance, purple and indistinct.
Although the dispatches had long preceded him to England and he must have been expected, Laurence was not called to the office until the next morning. Even then he was kept waiting outside Admiral Powys's office for nearly two hours. At last the door opened; stepping inside, he could not help glancing curiously from Admiral Powys to Admiral Bowden, who was sitting to the right of the desk. The precise words had not been intelligible out in the hall, but he could not have avoided overhearing the loud voices, and Bowden was still red-faced and frowning.
"Yes, Captain Laurence, do come in," Powys said, waving him in with a fat-fingered hand. "How splendid Temeraire looks; I saw him eating this morning: already close on nine tons, I should say. You are to be most highly commended. And you fed him solely on fish the first two weeks, and also while on the transport? Remarkable, remarkable indeed; we must consider amending the general diet."
"Yes, yes; this is beside the point," Bowden said impatiently.
Powys frowned at Bowden, then continued, perhaps a little too heartily, "In any case, he is certainly ready to begin training, and of course we must do our best to bring you up to the mark as well. Of course we have confirmed you in your rank; as a handler, you would be made captain anyway. But you will have a great deal to do; ten years' training is not to be made up in a day."
Laurence bowed. "Sir, Temeraire and I are both at your service," he said, but with reserve; he perceived in both men the same odd constraint about his training that Portland had displayed. Many possible explanations for that constraint had occurred to Laurence during the two weeks aboard the transport, most of them unpleasant. A boy of seven, taken from his home before his character had been truly formed, might easily be forced to accept treatment which a grown man would never endure, and yet of course the aviators themselves would consider it necessary, having gone through it themselves; Laurence could think of no other cause that would make them all so evasive about the subject.
His heart sank further as Powys said, "Now then; we must send you to Loch Laggan," for it was the place Portland had mentioned, and been so anxious about. "There is no denying that it is the best place for you," Powys went on. "We cannot waste a moment in making you both ready for duty, and I would not be surprised if Temeraire were up to heavy-combat weight by the end of the summer."
"Sir, I beg your pardon, but I have never heard of the place, and I gather it is in Scotland?" Laurence asked; he hoped to draw Powys out.
"Yes, in Inverness-shire; it is one of our largest coverts, and certainly the best for intensive training," Powys said. "Lieutenant Greene outside will show you the way, and mark a covert along the route for you to spend the night; I am sure you will have no difficulty in reaching the place."
It was clearly a dismissal, and Laurence knew he could not make any further inquiry. In any event, he had a more pressing request. "I will speak to him, sir," he said. "But if you have no objection, I would be glad to stop the night at my family home in Nottinghamshire; there is room enough for Temeraire, and deer for him to eat." His parents would be in town at this time of year, but the Galmans often stayed in the country, and there might be some chance of seeing Edith, if only briefly.
"Oh, certainly, by all means," Powys said. "I am sorry I cannot give you a longer furlough; you have certainly deserved it, but I do not think we can spare the time: a week might make all the difference in the world."
"Thank you, sir, I perfectly understand," Laurence said, and so bowed and departed.
Armed by Lieutenant Greene with an excellent map showing the route, Laurence began his preparations at once. He had taken some time in Dover to acquire a collection of light bandboxes; he thought that their cylindrical shape might better lie against Temeraire's body, and now he transferred his belongings into them. He knew he made an unusual sight, carrying a dozen boxes more suitable for ladies' hats out to Temeraire, but when he had strapped them down against Temeraire's belly and seen how little they added to his profile, he could not help feeling somewhat smug.
"They are quite comfortable; I do not notice them at all," Temeraire assured him, rearing up on his back legs and flapping to make certain they were well seated, just as Laetificat had done back in Madeira. "Can we not get one of those tents? It would be much more comfortable for you to ride out of the wind."
"I have no idea how to put it up, though, my dear," Laurence said, smiling at the concern. "But I will do well enough; with this leather coat they have given me, I will be quite warm."
"It must wait until you have your proper harness, in any case; the tents require locking carabiners. Nearly ready to go, then, Laurence?" Bowden had come upon them and interjected himself into the conversation without any notice. He joined Laurence standing before Temeraire's chest and stooped a little to examine the bandboxes. "Hm, I see you are bent on turning all our customs upside down to suit yourself."
"No, sir, I hope not," Laurence said, keeping his temper; it could not serve to alienate the man, for he was one of the senior commanders of the Corps, and might well have a say in what postings Temeraire received. "But my sea-chest was awkward for him to bear, and these seemed the best replacement I could manage on short notice."
"They may do," Bowden said, straightening up. "I hope you have as easy a time putting aside the rest of your naval thinking as your sea-chest, Laurence; you must be an aviator now."
"I am an aviator, sir, and willingly so," Laurence said. "But I cannot pretend that I intend to put aside the habits and mode of thinking formed over a lifetime; whether I intended it or no, I doubt it would even be possible."
Bowden fortunately took this without anger, but he shook his head. "No, it would not. And so I told – well. I have come to make something clear: you will oblige me by refraining from discussing, with those not in the Corps, any aspects of your training. His Majesty sees fit to give us our heads to achieve the best performance of our duty; we do not care to entertain the opinions of outsiders. Do I make myself clear?"
"Perfectly," Laurence said grimly; the peculiar command bore out all his worst suspicions. But if none of them would come out and make themselves plain, he could hardly make an objection; it was infuriating. "Sir," he said, making up his mind to try again to draw out the truth, "if you would be so good as to tell me what makes the covert in Scotland more suitable than this for my training, I would be grateful to know what to expect."
"You have been ordered to go there; that makes it the only suitable place," Bowden said sharply. Yet then he seemed to relent, for he added, in a less harsh tone, "Laggan's training master is especially adept at bringing inexperienced handlers along quickly."
"Inexperienced?" Laurence said, blankly. "I thought an aviator had to come into the service at the age of seven; surely you do not mean that there are boys already handling dragons at that age."
"No, of course not," Bowden said. "But you are not the first handler to come from outside the ranks, or without as much training as we might care for. Occasionally a hatchling will have a fit of distemper, and we must take anyone we can get it to accept." He gave a sudden snorting laugh. "Dragons are strange creatures, and there is no understanding them; some of them even take a liking to sea-officers." He slapped Temeraire's side, and left as abruptly as he had come; without a word of parting, but in apparently better humor, and leaving Laurence hardly less perplexed than before.
The flight to Nottinghamshire took several hours, and afforded him more leisure than he liked to consider what awaited him in Scotland. He did not like to imagine what Bowden and Powys and Portland all expected him to disapprove so heartily, and he still less liked to try to imagine what he should do if he found the situation unbearable.
He had only once had a truly unhappy experience in his naval service: as a freshly made lieutenant of seventeen he had been assigned to the Shorewise, under Captain Barstowe, an older man and a relic of an older Navy, where officers had not been required to be gentlemen as well. Barstowe was the illegitimate son of a merchant of only moderate wealth and a woman of only moderate character; he had gone to sea as a boy in his father's ships and been pressed into the Navy as a foremast hand. He had displayed great courage in battle and a keen head for mathematics, which had won him promotion first to master's-mate, then to lieutenant, and even by a stroke of luck to post-rank, but he had never lost any of the coarseness of his background.
What was worse, Barstowe had been conscious of his own lack of social graces, and resentful of those who, in his mind, made him feel that lack. It was not an unmerited resentment: there were many officers who looked askance and murmured at him; but he had seen in Laurence's easy and pleasing manners a deliberate insult, and he had been merciless in punishing Laurence for them. Barstowe's death of pneumonia three months into the voyage had possibly saved Laurence's own life, and at the least had freed him from an endless daze of standing double or triple watches, a diet of ship's biscuit and water, and the perils of leading a gun-crew composed of the worst and most unhandy men aboard.
Laurence still had an instinctive horror when he thought of the experience; he was not in the least prepared to be ruled over by another such man, and in Bowden's ominous words about the Corps taking anyone a hatchling would accept, he read a hint that his trainer or perhaps his fellow trainees would be of such a stamp. And while Laurence was not a boy of seventeen anymore, nor in so powerless a position, he now had Temeraire to consider, and their shared duty.
His hands tightened on the reins involuntarily, and Temeraire looked around. "Are you well, Laurence?" he asked. "You have been so quiet."
"Forgive me, I have only been woolgathering," Laurence said, patting Temeraire's neck. "It is nothing. Are you tiring at all? Should you like to stop and rest awhile?"
"No, I am not tired, but you are not telling the truth: I can hear you are unhappy," Temeraire said anxiously. "Is it not good that we are going to begin training? Or are you missing your ship?"
"I find I am become transparent before you," Laurence said ruefully. "I am not missing my ship at all, no, but I will admit I am a little concerned about our training. Powys and Bowden were very odd about the whole thing, and I am not sure what sort of reception we will meet in Scotland, or how we shall like it."
"If we do not care for it, surely we can just go away again?" Temeraire said.
"It is not so easy; we are not at liberty, you know," Laurence said. "I am a King's officer, and you are a King's dragon; we cannot do as we please."
"I have never met the King; I am not his property, like a sheep," Temeraire said. "If I belong to anyone, it is you, and you to me. I am not going to stay in Scotland if you are unhappy there."
"Oh dear," Laurence said; this was not the first time Temeraire had showed a distressing tendency to independent thought, and it seemed to only be increasing as he grew older and started to spend more of his time awake. Laurence was not himself particularly interested in political philosophy, and he found it sadly puzzling to have to work out explanations for what to him seemed natural and obvious. "It is not ownership, exactly; but we owe him our loyalty. Besides," he added, "we would have a hard time of it keeping you fed, were the Crown not paying for your board."
"Cows are very nice, but I do not mind eating fish," Temeraire said. "Perhaps we could get a large ship, like the transport, and go back to sea."
Laurence laughed at the image. "Shall I turn pirate king and go raiding in the West Indies, and fill a covert with gold from Spanish merchant ships for you?" He stroked Temeraire's neck.
"That sounds exciting," Temeraire said, his imagination clearly caught. "Can we not?"
"No, we are born too late; there are no real pirates anymore," Laurence said. "The Spanish burned the last pirate band out of Tortuga last century; now there are only a few independent ships or dragon-crews, at most, and those always in danger of being brought down. And you would not truly like it, fighting only for greed; it is not the same as doing one's duty for King and country, knowing that you are protecting England."
"Does it need protecting?" Temeraire asked, looking down. "It seems all quiet, as far as I can see."
"Yes, because it is our business and the Navy's to keep it so," Laurence said. "If we did not do our work, the French could come across the Channel; they are there, not very far to the east, and Bonaparte has an army of a hundred thousand men waiting to come across the moment we let him. That is why we must do our duty; it is like the sailors on the Reliant, who cannot always be doing just as they like, or the ship will not sail."
In response to this, Temeraire hummed in thought, deep in his belly; Laurence could feel the sound reverberating through his own body. Temeraire's pace slowed a little; he glided for a while and then beat back up into the air in a spiral before leveling out again, very much like a fellow pacing back and forth. He looked around again. "Laurence, I have been thinking: if we must go to Loch Laggan, then there is no decision to be made at present; and because we do not know what may be wrong there, we cannot think of something to do now. So you should not worry until we have arrived and seen how matters stand."
"My dear, this is excellent advice, and I will try to follow it," Laurence said, adding, "but I am not certain that I can; it is difficult not to think of."
"You could tell me again about the Armada, and how Sir Francis Drake and Conflagratia destroyed the Spanish fleet," Temeraire suggested.
"Again?" Laurence said. "Very well; although I will begin to doubt your memory at this rate."
"I remember it perfectly," Temeraire said with dignity. "But I like to hear you tell it."
What with Temeraire making him repeat favorite sections and asking questions about the dragons and ships which Laurence thought even a scholar could not have answered, the rest of the flight passed without giving him leisure to worry any further. Evening was far advanced by the time they finally closed in upon his family's home at Wollaton Hall, and in the twilight all the many windows glowed.
Temeraire circled over the house a few times out of curiosity, his pupils open very wide; Laurence, peering down himself, made a count of lit windows and realized that the house could not be empty; he had assumed it would be, the London Season being still in full train, but it was now too late to seek another berth for Temeraire. "Temeraire, there ought to be an empty paddock behind the barns, to the south-east there; can you see it?"
"Yes, there is a fence around it," Temeraire said, looking. "Shall I land there?"
"Yes, thank you; I am afraid I must ask you to stay there, for the horses would certainly have fits if you came anywhere near the stables."
When Temeraire had landed, Laurence climbed down and stroked his warm nose. "I will arrange for you to have something to eat as soon as I have spoken with my parents, if they are indeed home, but that may take some time," he said apologetically.
"You need not bring me food tonight; I ate well before we left, and I am sleepy. I will eat some of those deer over there in the morning," Temeraire said, settling himself down and curling his tail around his legs. "You should stay inside; it is colder here than Madeira was, and I do not want you to fall sick."
"There is something very curious about a six-week-old creature playing nursemaid," Laurence said, amused; yet even as he spoke, he could hardly believe Temeraire was so young. Temeraire had seemed in most respects mature straight out of the shell, and ever since hatching he had been drinking up knowledge of the world with such enthusiasm that the gaps in his understanding were vanishing with astonishing speed. Laurence no longer thought of him as a creature for whom he was responsible, but rather as an intimate friend, already the dearest in his life, and one to be depended upon without question. The training lost a little of its dread for Laurence as he looked up at the already-drowsing Temeraire, and Barstowe he put aside in his memory as a bugbear. Surely there could be nothing ahead which they could not face together.
But his family he would have to face alone. Coming to the house from the stable side, he could see that his first impression from the air had been correct: the drawing room was brightly lit, and many of the bedrooms had candlelight in them. It was certainly a house party, despite the time of year.
He sent a footman to let his father know he was home, and went up to his room by the back stairs to change. He would have liked a bath, but he thought he had to go down at once to be civil; anything else might smack of avoidance. He settled for washing his face and hands in the basin; he had brought his evening rig, fortunately. He looked strange to himself in the mirror, wearing the new bottle-green coat of the Corps with the gold bars upon the shoulders in place of epaulettes; it had been bought in Dover, having been partly made for another man and adjusted hastily while Laurence waited, but it fit well enough.
More than a dozen people were assembled in the drawing room, besides his parents; the idle conversation died down when he entered, then resumed in hushed voices and followed him through the room. His mother came to meet him; her face was composed but a little fixed in its expression, and he could feel her tension as he bent to kiss her cheek. "I am sorry to descend on you unannounced in this fashion," he said. "I did not expect to find anyone at home; I am only here for the night, and bound for Scotland in the morning."
"Oh, I am sorry to hear it, my dear, but we are very happy to have you even briefly," she said. "Have you met Miss Montagu?"
The company were mostly long-standing friends of his parents whom he did not know very well, but as he had suspected might be the case, their neighbors were among the party, and Edith Galman was there with her parents. He was not sure whether to be pleased or unhappy; he felt he ought to be glad to see her, and for the opportunity which would otherwise not have come for so long; yet there was a sense of a whispering undercurrent in the glances thrown his way by the whole company, deeply discomfiting, and he felt wholly unprepared to face her in so public a setting.
Her expression as he bowed over her hand gave him no hint of her feelings: she was of a disposition not easily ruffled, and if she had been startled by the news of his coming, she had already recovered her poise. "I am glad to see you, Will," she said, in her quiet way, and though he could not discover any particular warmth in her voice, he thought at least she did not seem angry or upset.
Unfortunately, he had no immediate opportunity to exchange a private word with her; she had already been engaged in conversation with Bertram Woolvey, and with her customary good manners, she turned back once they had completed their greetings. Woolvey made him a polite nod, but did not make any move to yield his place. Though their parents moved in the same circles, Woolvey had not been required to pursue any sort of occupation, being his father's heir, and lacking any interest in politics, he spent his time hunting in the country or playing for high stakes in town. Laurence found his conversation monotonous, and they had never become friends.
In any event, he could not avoid paying his respects to the rest of the company; it was difficult to meet open stares with equanimity, and the only thing less welcome than the censure in many voices was the note of pity in others. By far the worst moment was coming to the table where his father was playing whist; Lord Allendale looked at Laurence's coat with heavy disapproval and said nothing to his son at all.
The uncomfortable silence which fell upon their corner of the room was very awkward; Laurence was saved by his mother, who asked him to make up a fourth in another table, and he gratefully sat down and immersed himself in the intricacies of the game. His table companions were older gentlemen, Lord Galman and two others, friends and political allies of his father; they were dedicated players and did not trouble him with much conversation beyond what was polite.
He could not help glancing towards Edith from time to time, though he could not catch the sound of her voice. Woolvey continued to monopolize her company, and Laurence could not help but dislike seeing him lean so close and speak to her so intimately. Lord Galman had to gently call his attention back to the cards after his distraction delayed them; Laurence apologized to the table in some embarrassment and bent his head over his hand again.
"You are off to Loch Laggan, I suppose?" Admiral McKinnon said, giving him a few moments in which to recapture the thread of play. "I lived not far from there, as a boy, and a friend of mine lived near Laggan village; we used to see the flights overhead."
"Yes, sir; we are to train there," Laurence said, making his discard; Viscount Hale, to his left, continued the play, and Lord Galman took the trick.
"They are a queer lot over there; half the village goes into service, but the locals go up, the aviators don't come down, except now and again to the pub to see one of the girls. Easier than at sea for that, at least, ha, ha!" Having made this coarse remark, McKinnon belatedly recalled his company; he glanced over his shoulder in some embarrassment to see if any of the ladies had overheard, and dropped the subject.
Woolvey took Edith in to supper; Laurence unbalanced the table by his presence and had to sit on the far side, where he could have all the pain of seeing their conversation with none of the pleasure of participating in it. Miss Montagu, on his left, was pretty but sulky-looking, and she neglected him almost to the point of rudeness to speak to the gentleman on her other side, a heavy gamester whom Laurence knew by name and reputation rather than personally.
To be snubbed in such a manner was a new experience for him and an unpleasant one; he knew he was no longer a marriageable man, but he had not expected this to have so great an impact upon his casual reception, and to find himself valued less than a wastrel with blown hair and mottled red cheeks was particularly shocking. Viscount Hale, on his right, was only interested in his food, so Laurence found himself sitting in almost complete silence.
Still more unpleasantly, without conversation of his own to command his attention, Laurence could not help overhearing while Woolvey spoke at length and with very little accuracy on the state of the war and England's readiness for invasion. Woolvey was ridiculously enthusiastic, speaking of how the militia would teach Bonaparte a lesson if he dared to bring across his army. Laurence was forced to fix his gaze upon his plate to conceal his expression. Napoleon, master of the Continent, with a hundred thousand men at his disposal, to be turned back by militia: pure foolishness. Of course, it was the sort of folly that the War Office encouraged, to preserve morale, but to see Edith listening to this speech approvingly was highly unpleasant.
Laurence thought she might have kept her face turned away deliberately; certainly she made no effort to meet his eye. He kept his attention for the most part fixed upon his plate, eating mechanically and sunk into uncharacteristic silence. The meal seemed interminable; thankfully, his father rose very shortly after the women had left them, and on returning to the drawing room, Laurence at once took the opportunity to make his apologies to his mother and escape, pleading the excuse of the journey ahead.
But one of the servants, out of breath, caught him just outside the door of his room: his father wanted to see him in the library. Laurence hesitated; he could send an excuse and postpone the interview, but there was no sense in delaying the inevitable. He went back downstairs slowly nevertheless, and left his hand on the door just a moment too long: but then one of the maids came by, and he could not play the coward anymore, so he pushed it open and went inside.
"I wonder at your coming here," Lord Allendale said the moment the door had shut: not even the barest pleasantry. "I wonder at it indeed. What do you mean by it?"
Laurence stiffened but answered quietly, "I meant only to break my journey; I am on my way to my next posting. I had no notion of your being here, sir, or having guests, and I am very sorry to have burst in upon you."
"I see; I suppose you imagined we would remain in London, with this news making a nine days' wonder and spectacle of us? Next posting, indeed." He surveyed Laurence's new coat with disdain, and Laurence felt at once as poorly dressed and shabby as when he had suffered such inspections as a boy brought in fresh from playing in the gardens. "I am not going to bother reproaching you. You knew perfectly well what I would think of the whole matter, and it did not weigh with you: very well. You will oblige me, sir, by avoiding this house in future, and our residence in London, if indeed you can be spared from your animal husbandry long enough to set foot in the city."
Laurence felt a great coldness descend on him; he was very tired suddenly, and he had no heart at all to argue. He heard his own voice almost as if from a distance, and there was no emotion in it at all as he said, "Very good, sir; I shall leave at once." He would have to take Temeraire to the commons to sleep, undoubtedly scaring the village herd, and buy him a few sheep out of his own pocket in the morning if possible or ask him to fly hungry if not; but they would manage.
"Do not be absurd," Lord Allendale said. "I am not disowning you; not that you do not deserve it, but I do not choose to enact a melodrama for the benefit of the world. You will stay the night and leave tomorrow, as you declared; that will do very well. I think nothing more needs to be said; you may go."
Laurence went back upstairs as quickly as he was able; closing the door of his bedroom behind him felt like allowing a burden to slip off his shoulders. He had meant to call for a bath, but he did not think he could bear to speak to anyone, even a maid or a footman: to be alone and quiet was everything. He consoled himself with the reminder that they could leave early in the morning, and he would not have to endure another formal meal with the company, nor exchange another word with his father, who rarely rose before eleven even in the country.
He looked at his bed a moment longer; then abruptly he took an old frock coat and a worn pair of trousers from his wardrobe, exchanged these for his evening dress, and went outside. Temeraire was already asleep, curled neatly about himself, but before Laurence could slip away again, one of his eyes half-opened, and he lifted his wing in instinctive welcome. Laurence had taken a blanket from the stables; he was as warm and comfortable as he could wish, stretched upon the dragon's broad foreleg.
"Is all well?" Temeraire asked him softly, putting his other foreleg protectively around Laurence, sheltering him more closely against his breast; his wings half-rose, mantling. "Something has distressed you. Shall we not go at once?"
The thought was tempting, but there was no sense in it; he and Temeraire would both be the better for a quiet night and breakfast in the morning, and in any case he was not going to creep away as if ashamed. "No, no," Laurence said, petting him until his wings settled again. "There is no need, I assure you; I have only had words with my father." He fell silent; he could not shake the memory of the interview, his father's cold dismissiveness, and his shoulders hunched.
"Is he angry about our coming?" Temeraire asked.
Temeraire's quick perception and the concern in his voice were like a tonic for his weary unhappiness, and it made Laurence speak more freely than he meant to. "It is an old quarrel at heart," he said. "He would have had me go into the Church, like my brother; he has never counted the Navy an honorable occupation."
"And is an aviator worse, then?" Temeraire said, a little too perceptive now. "Is that why you did not like to leave the Navy?"
"In his eyes, perhaps, the Corps is worse, but not in mine; there is too great a compensation." He reached up to stroke Temeraire's nose; Temeraire nuzzled back affectionately. "But truly, he has never approved my choice of career; I had to run away from home as a boy for him to let me go to sea. I cannot allow his will to govern me, for I see my duty differently than he does."
Temeraire snorted, his warm breath coming out as small trails of smoke in the cool night air. "But he will not let you sleep inside?"
"Oh, no," Laurence said, and felt a little embarrassed to confess the weakness that had brought him out to seek comfort in Temeraire. "I only felt I would rather be with you, than sleep alone."
But Temeraire did not see anything unusual in it. "So long as you are quite warm," he said, resettling himself carefully and sweeping his wings forward a little, to encircle them from the wind.
"I am very comfortable; I beg you to have no concern," Laurence said, stretching out upon the broad, firm limb, and drawing the blanket around himself. "Good night, my dear." He was suddenly very tired, but with a natural physical fatigue: the bone-deep, painful weariness was gone.
He woke very early, just before sunrise, as Temeraire's belly rumbled strongly enough for the sound to rouse them both. "Oh, I am hungry," Temeraire said, waking up bright-eyed, and looked eagerly over at the herd of deer milling nervously in the park, clustered against the far wall.
Laurence climbed down. "I will leave you to your breakfast, and go to have my own," he said, giving Temeraire's side one final pat before turning back to the house. He was in no fit state to be seen; fortunately, with the hour so early, the guests were not yet about, and he was able to gain his bedroom without any encounter which might have rendered him still more disreputable.
He washed briskly, put on his flying dress while a manservant repacked his solitary piece of baggage, and went down as soon as he thought acceptable. The maids were still laying the first breakfast dishes out upon the sideboard, and the coffeepot had just been laid upon the table. He had hoped to avoid all the party, but to his surprise, Edith was at the breakfast table already, though she had never been an early riser.
Her face was outwardly calm, her clothing in perfect order and her hair drawn up smoothly into a golden knot, but her hands betrayed her, clenched together in her lap. She had not taken any food, only a cup of tea, and even that sat untouched before her. "Good morning," she said, with a brightness that rang false; she glanced at the servants as she spoke. "May I pour for you?"
"Thank you," he said, the only possible reply, and took the place next to her; she poured coffee for him and added half a spoonful of sugar and cream each, exactly to his tastes. They sat stiffly together, neither eating nor speaking, until the servants finished the preparations and left the room.
"I hoped I might have a chance to speak with you before you left," she said quietly, looking at him at last. "I am so very sorry, Will; I suppose there was no other alternative?"
He needed a moment to understand she meant his going into harness; despite his anxieties on the subject of his training, he had already forgotten to view his new situation as an evil. "No, my duty was clear," he said, shortly; he might have to tolerate criticism from his father on the subject, but he would not accept it from any other quarter.
But in the event, Edith only nodded. "I knew as soon as I heard that it would be something of the sort," she said. She bowed her head again; her hands, which had been twisting restlessly over each other, stilled.
"My feelings have not altered with my circumstances," Laurence said at last, when it was clear she would say nothing more. He felt he already had received his answer, by her lack of warmth, but she would not say, later on, that he had not been true to his word; he would let her be the one to put an end to their understanding. "If yours have, you need merely say a word to silence me." Even as he made the offer, he could not help but feel resentment, and he could hear an unaccustomed coldness creeping into his voice: a strange tone for a proposal.
She drew a quick, startled breath, and said almost fiercely, "How can you speak so?" For a moment he hoped again; but she went on at once to say, "Have I ever been mercenary; have I ever reproached you for following your chosen course, with all its attendant dangers and discomforts? If you had gone into the Church, you would certainly have had any number of good livings settled upon you; by now we could have been comfortable together in our own home, with children, and I should not have had to spend so many hours in fear for you away at sea."
She spoke very fast, with more emotion than he was used to seeing in her, and spots of color standing high on her cheeks. There was a great deal of justice in her remarks; he could not fail to see it, and be embarrassed at his own resentment. He half-reached out his hand to her, but she was already continuing: "I have not complained, have I? I have waited; I have been patient; but I have been waiting for something better than a solitary life, far from the society of all my friends and family, with only a very little share of your attention. My feelings are just as they have always been, but I am not so reckless or sentimental as to rely on feeling alone to ensure happiness in the face of every possible obstacle."
Here at last she stopped. "Forgive me," Laurence said, heavy with mortification: every word seemed a just reproach, when he had been pleased to think himself ill-used. "I should not have spoken, Edith; I had better have asked your pardon for having placed you in so wretched a position." He rose from the table and bowed; of course he could not stay in her company now. "I must beg you to excuse me; pray accept all my best wishes for your happiness."
But she was rising also, and shaking her head. "No, you must stay and finish your breakfast," she said. "You have a long journey ahead of you; I am not hungry in the least. No, I assure you, I am going." She gave him her hand and a smile that trembled very slightly. He thought she meant to make a polite farewell, but if that was her intention, it failed at the last moment. "Pray do not think ill of me," she said, very low, and left the room as quickly as she might.
She need not have worried; he could not. On the contrary, he felt only guilt for having felt coldly towards her even for a moment, and for having failed in his obligation to her. Their understanding had been formed between a gentleman's daughter with a respectable dowry and a naval officer with few expectations but handsome prospects. He had reduced his standing through his own actions, and he could not deny that nearly all the world would have disagreed with his own assessment of his duty in the matter.
And she was not unreasonable in asking more than an aviator could give. Laurence had only to think of the degree of his attention and affection which Temeraire commanded to realize he could have very little left to offer a wife, even on those rare occasions when he would be at liberty. He had been selfish in making the offer, asking her to sacrifice her own happiness to his comfort.
He had very little heart or appetite left for his breakfast, but he did not want to stop along his way; he filled his plate and forced himself to eat. He was not left in solitude long; only a little while after Edith had gone, Miss Montagu came downstairs, dressed in a too-elegant riding habit, something more suitable for a sedate canter through London than a country ride, which nevertheless showed her figure to great advantage. She was smiling as she came into the room, which expression turned instantly to a frown to see him the only one there, and she took a seat at the far end of the table. Woolvey shortly joined her, likewise dressed for riding; Laurence nodded to them both with bare civility and paid no attention to their idle conversation.
Just as he was finishing, his mother came down, showing signs of hurried dressing and lines of fatigue around her eyes; she looked into his face anxiously. He smiled at her, hoping to reassure, but he could see he was not very successful: his unhappiness and the reserve with which he had armored himself against his father's disapproval and the curiosity of the general company was visible in his face, with all he could do.
"I must be going shortly; will you come and meet Temeraire?" he asked her, thinking they might have a private few minutes walking, at least.
"Temeraire?" Lady Allendale said blankly. "William, you do not mean you have your dragon here, do you? Good Heavens, where is he?"
"Certainly he is here; how else would I be traveling? I left him outside behind the stables, in the old yearling paddock," Laurence said. "He will have eaten by now; I told him to make free of the deer."
"Oh!" said Miss Montagu, overhearing; curiosity evidently overcame her objections to the company of an aviator. "I have never seen a dragon; pray may we come? How famous!"
It was impossible to refuse, although he would have liked to, so when he had rung for his baggage, the four of them went out to the field together. Temeraire was sitting up on his haunches, watching the morning fog gradually burn away over the countryside; against the cold grey sky he loomed very large, even from a considerable distance.
Laurence stopped for a moment to pick up a bucket and rags from the stables, then led his suddenly reluctant party on with a certain relish at Woolvey and Miss Montagu's dragging steps. His mother was not unalarmed herself, but she did not show it, save by holding Laurence's arm a little more tightly, and stopping several paces back as he went to Temeraire's side.
Temeraire looked at the strangers with interest as he lowered his head to be washed; his chops were gory with the remains of the deer, and he opened his jaws to let Laurence clean away the blood from the corners of his mouth. There were three or four sets of antlers upon the ground. "I tried to bathe in that pond, but it is too shallow, and the mud came into my nose," he told Laurence apologetically.
"Oh, he talks!" Miss Montagu exclaimed, clinging to Woolvey's arm; the two of them had backed away at the sight of the rows of gleaming white teeth: Temeraire's incisors were already larger than a man's fist, and with a serrated edge.
Temeraire was taken aback at first; but then his pupils widened and he said, very gently, "Yes, I talk," and to Laurence, "Would she perhaps like to come up on my back, and see around?"
Laurence could not repress an unworthy flash of malice. "I am sure she would; pray come forward, Miss Montagu, I can see you are not one of those poor-spirited creatures who are afraid of dragons."
"No, no," she said palely, drawing back. "I have trespassed on Mr. Woolvey's time enough, we must be going for our ride." Woolvey stammered a few equally transparent excuses as well, and they escaped at once together, stumbling in their haste to be away.
Temeraire blinked after them in mild surprise. "Oh, they were just afraid," he said. "I thought she was like Volly at first. I do not understand; it is not as though they were cows, and anyway I have just eaten."
Laurence concealed his private sentiment of victory and drew his mother forward. "Do not be afraid at all, there is not the least cause," he said to her softly. "Temeraire, this is my mother, Lady Allendale."
"Oh, a mother, that is special, is it not?" Temeraire said, lowering his head to look at her more closely. "I am honored to meet you."
Laurence guided her hand to Temeraire's snout, and once she made the first tentative touch to the warm hide, she soon began petting the dragon with more confidence. "Why, the pleasure is mine," she said. "And how soft! I would never have thought it."
Temeraire made a pleased low rumble at the compliment and the petting, and Laurence looked at the two of them with a great deal of his happiness restored; he thought how little the rest of the world should matter to him, when he was secure in the good opinion of those he valued most, and in the knowledge that he was doing his duty. "Temeraire is a Chinese Imperial," he told his mother, with unconcealed pride. "One of the very rarest of all dragons: the only one in all Europe."
"Truly? How splendid, my dear; I do recall having heard before that Chinese dragons are quite out of the common way," she said. But she still looked at him anxiously, and there was a silent question in her eyes.
"Yes," he said, trying to answer it. "I count myself very fortunate, I promise you. Perhaps we will take you flying someday, when we have more time," he added. "It is quite extraordinary; there is nothing to compare to it."
"Oh, flying, indeed," she said indignantly, yet she seemed satisfied on a deeper level. "When you know perfectly well I cannot even keep myself on a horse. What I should do on a dragon's back, I am sure I do not know."
"You would be strapped on quite securely, just as I am," Laurence said. "Temeraire is not a horse, he would not try to have you off."
Temeraire said earnestly, "Oh yes, and if you did fall off, I dare say I could catch you," which was perhaps not the most reassuring remark, but his desire to please was very obvious, and Lady Allendale smiled up at him anyway.
"How very kind you are; I had no idea dragons were so well-mannered," she said. "You will take prodigious care of William, will you not? He has always given me twice as much anxiety as any of my other children, and he is forever getting himself into scrapes."
Laurence was a little indignant to hear himself described so, and to have Temeraire say, "I promise you, I will never let him come to harm."
"I see I have delayed too long; shortly the two of you will have me wrapped in cotton batting and fed on gruel," he said, bending to kiss her cheek. "Mother, you may write to me care of the Corps at Loch Laggan covert, in Scotland; we will be training there. Temeraire, will you sit up? I will sling this bandbox again."
"Perhaps you could take out that book by Duncan?" Temeraire asked, rearing up. "The Naval Trident? We never finished reading about the battle of the Glorious First, and you might read it to me as we go."
"Does he read to you?" Lady Allendale asked Temeraire, amused.
"Yes; you see, I cannot hold them myself, for they are too small, and also I cannot turn the pages very well," Temeraire said.
"You are misunderstanding; she is only shocked to learn that I am ever to be persuaded to open a book; she was forever trying to make me sit to them when I was a boy," Laurence said, rummaging in one of his other boxes to find the volume. "You would be quite astonished at how much of a bluestocking I am become, Mother; he is quite insatiable. I am ready, Temeraire."
She laughed and stepped back to the edge of the field as Temeraire put Laurence up, and stood watching them, shading her eyes with one hand, as they drove up into the air; a small figure, vanishing with every beat of the great wings, and then the gardens and the towers of the house rolled away behind the curve of a hill.READ MORE >>