THE SKY OVER Loch Laggan was full of low-hanging clouds, pearl grey, mirrored in the black water of the lake. Spring had not yet arrived; a crust of ice and snow lay over the shore, ripples of yellow sand from an autumn tide still preserved beneath. The crisp cold smell of pine and fresh-cut wood rose from the forest. A gravel road wound up from the northern shores of the lake to the complex of the covert, and Temeraire turned to follow it up the low mountain.
A quadrangle of several large wooden sheds stood together on a level clearing near the top, open in the front and rather like half a stable in appearance; men were working outside on metal and leather: obviously the ground crews, responsible for the maintenance of the aviators' equipment. None of them so much as glanced up at the dragon's shadow crossing over their workplace, as Temeraire flew on to the headquarters.
The main building was a very medieval sort of fortification: four bare towers joined by thick stone walls, framing an enormous courtyard in the front and a squat, imposing hall that sank directly into the mountaintop and seemed to have grown out of it. The courtyard was almost entirely overrun. A young Regal Copper, twice Temeraire's size, sprawled drowsing over the flagstones with a pair of brown-and-purple Winchesters even smaller than Volatilus sleeping right on his back. Three mid-sized Yellow Reapers were in a mingled heap on the opposite side of the courtyard, their white-striped sides rising and falling in rhythm.
As Laurence climbed down, he discovered the reason for the dragons' choice of resting place: the flagstones were warm, as if heated from below, and Temeraire murmured happily and stretched himself on the stones beside the Yellow Reapers as soon as Laurence had unloaded him.
A couple of servants had come out to meet him, and they took the baggage off his hands. He was directed to the back of the building, through narrow dark corridors, musty smelling, until he came out into another open courtyard that emerged from the mountainside and ended with no railing, dropping off sheer into another ice-strewn valley. Five dragons were in the air, wheeling in graceful formation like a flock of birds; the point-leader was a Longwing, instantly recognizable by the black-and-white ripples bordering its orange-tipped wings, which faded to a dusky blue along their extraordinary length. A couple of Yellow Reapers held the flanking positions, and the ends were anchored by a pale greenish Grey Copper to the left, and a silver-grey dragon spotted with blue and black patches to the right; Laurence could not immediately identify its breed.
Though their wings beat in wholly different time, their relative positions hardly changed, until the Longwing's signal-midwingman waved a flag; then they switched off smoothly as dancers, reversing so the Longwing was flying last. At some other signal Laurence did not see, they all backwinged at once, performing a perfect loop and coming back into the original formation. He saw at once that the maneuver gave the Longwing the greatest sweep over the ground during the pass while retaining the protection of the rest of the wing around it; naturally it was the greatest offensive threat among the group.
"Nitidus, you are still dropping low in the pass; try changing to a six-beat pattern on the loop." It was the deep resounding voice of a dragon, coming from above; Laurence turned and saw a golden-hued dragon with the Reaper markings in pale green and the edges of his wings deep orange, perched on an outcropping to the right of the courtyard: he bore no rider and no harness, save, if it could be called so, a broad golden neck-ring studded with rounds of pale green jade stone.
Laurence stared. Out in the valley, the wing repeated its looping pass. "Better," the dragon called approvingly. Then he turned his head and looked down. "Captain Laurence?" he said. "Admiral Powys said you would be arriving; you come in good time. I am Celeritas, training master here." He spread his wings for lift and leapt easily down into the courtyard.
Laurence bowed mechanically. Celeritas was a mid-weight dragon, perhaps a quarter of the size of a Regal Copper; smaller even than Temeraire's present juvenile size. "Hm," he said, lowering his head to inspect Laurence closely; the deep green irises of his eyes seemed to turn and contract around the narrowed pupil. "Hm, well, you are a good deal older than most handlers; but that is often all to the good when we must hurry along a young dragon, as in Temeraire's case I think we must."
He lifted his head and called out into the valley again, "Lily, remember to keep your neck straight on the loop." He turned back to Laurence. "Now then. He has no special offensive capabilities showing, as I understand it?"
"No, sir." The answer and the address were automatic; tone and attitude alike both declared the dragon's rank, and habit carried Laurence along through his surprise. "And Sir Edward Howe, who identified his species, was of the opinion that it was unlikely he should develop such, though not out of the question – "
"Yes, yes," Celeritas interrupted. "I have read Sir Edward's work; he is an expert on the Oriental breeds, and I would trust his judgment in the matter over my own. It is a pity, for we could well do with one of those Japanese poison-spitters, or waterspout-makers: now that would be useful against a French Flamme-de-Gloire. But heavy-combat weight, I understand?"
"He is at present some nine tons in weight, and it is nearly six weeks since he was hatched," Laurence said.
"Good, that is very good, he ought to double that," Celeritas said, and he rubbed the side of a claw over his forehead thoughtfully. "So. All is as I had heard. Good. We will be pairing Temeraire with Maximus, the Regal Copper currently here in training. The two of them together will serve as a loose backing arc for Lily's formation – that is the Longwing there." He gestured with his head out at the formation wheeling in the valley, and Laurence, still bewildered, turned to watch it for a moment.
The dragon continued, "Of course, I must see Temeraire fly before I can determine the specific course of your training, but I need to finish this session, and after a long journey he will not show to advantage in any case. Ask Lieutenant Granby to show you about and tell you where to find the feeding grounds; you will find him in the officers' club. Come back with Temeraire tomorrow, an hour past first light."
This was a command; an acknowledgment was required. "Very good, sir," Laurence said, concealing his stiffness in formality. Fortunately, Celeritas did not seem to notice; he was already leaping back up to his higher vantage point.
Laurence was very glad that he did not know where the officers' club was; he felt he could have used a quiet week to adjust his thinking, rather than the fifteen minutes it took him to find a servant who could point him in the right direction. Everything which he had ever heard about dragons was turned upon its head: that dragons were useless without their handlers; that unharnessed dragons were only good for breeding. He no longer wondered at all the anxiety on the part of the aviators; what would the world think, to know they were trained – given orders – by one of the beasts they supposedly controlled?
Of course, considered rationally, he had long possessed proofs of dragon intelligence and independence, in Temeraire's person; but these had developed gradually over time, and he had unconsciously come to think of Temeraire as a fully realized individual without extending the implication to the rest of dragonkind. The first surprise past, he could without too much difficulty accept the idea of a dragon as instructor, but it would certainly create a scandal of extraordinary proportions among those who had no similar personal experience.
It had not been so long, only shortly before the Revolution in France had cast Europe into war again, since the proposal had been made by Government that unharnessed dragons ought to be killed, rather than supported at the public expense and kept for breeding; the rationale offered had been a lack of need at that present time, and that their recalcitrance likely only hurt the fighting bloodlines. Parliament had calculated a savings of more than ten million pounds per annum; the idea had been seriously considered, then dropped abruptly without public explanation. It was whispered, however, that every admiral of the Corps stationed in range of London had jointly descended upon the Prime Minister and informed him that if the law were passed, the entire Corps would mutiny.
He had previously heard the story with disbelief; not for the proposal, but for the idea that senior officers – any officers – would behave in such a way. The proposal had always seemed to him wrong-minded, but only as the sort of foolish short-sightedness so common among bureaucrats, who thought it better to save ten shillings on sailcloth and risk an entire ship worth six thousand pounds. Now he considered his own indifference with a sense of mortification. Of course they would have mutinied.
Still preoccupied with his thoughts, he walked through the archway to the officers' club without attention, and only caught the ball that hurtled at his head by reflex. A mingled cheer and cry of protest both went up at once.
"That was a clear goal, he's not on your team!" A young man, barely out of boyhood, with bright yellow hair, was complaining.
"Nonsense, Martin. Certainly he is; aren't you?" Another of the participants, grinning broadly, came up to Laurence to take the ball; he was a tall, lanky fellow, with dark hair and sunburnt cheekbones.
"Apparently so," Laurence said, amused, handing over the ball. He was a little astonished to find a collection of officers playing children's games indoors, and in such disarray. In his possession of coat and neckcloth, he was more formally dressed than all of them; a couple had even taken off their shirts entirely. The furniture had been pushed pell-mell into the edges of the room, and the carpet rolled up and thrust into a corner.
"Lieutenant John Granby, unassigned," the dark-haired man said. "Have you just arrived?"
"Yes; Captain Will Laurence, on Temeraire," Laurence said, and was startled and not a little dismayed to see the smile fall off Granby's face, the open friendliness vanishing at once.
"The Imperial!" The cry was almost general, and half the boys and men in the room disappeared past them, pelting towards the courtyard. Laurence, taken aback, blinked after them.
"Don't worry!" The yellow-haired young man, coming up to introduce himself, answered his look of alarm. "We all know better than to pester a dragon; they're only going to have a look. Though you might have some trouble with the cadets; we have a round two dozen of 'em here, and they make it their mission to plague the life out of everyone. Midwingman Ezekiah Martin, and you can forget my first name now that you have it, if you please."
Informality was so obviously the usual mode among them that Laurence could hardly take offense, though it was not in the least what he was used to. "Thank you for the warning; I will see Temeraire does not let them bother him," he said. He was relieved to see no sign of Granby's attitude of dislike in Martin's greeting, and wished he might ask the friendlier of the two for guidance. However, he did not mean to disobey orders, even if given by a dragon, so he turned to Granby and said formally, "Celeritas tells me to ask you to show me about; will you be so good?"
"Certainly," Granby said, trying for equal formality; but it sat less naturally on him, and he sounded artificial and wooden. "Come this way, if you please."
Laurence was pleased when Martin fell in with them as Granby led the way upstairs; the midwingman's light conversation, which did not falter for an instant, made the atmosphere a great deal less uncomfortable. "So you are the naval fellow who snatched an Imperial out of the jaws of France. Lord, it is a famous story; the Frogs must be gnashing their teeth and tearing their hair over it," Martin said exultantly. "I hear you took the egg off an hundred-gun ship; was the battle very long?"
"I am afraid rumor has magnified my accomplishments," Laurence said. "The Amitie was not a first-rate at all, but a thirty-six, a frigate; and her men were nearly falling down for thirst. Her captain offered a very valiant defense, but it was not a very great contest; ill fortune and the weather did our work for us. I can claim only to have been lucky."
"Oh! Well, luck is nothing to sneeze at, either; we would not get very far if luck were against us," Martin said. "Hullo, have they put you at the corner? You will have the wind howling at all hours."
Laurence came into the circular tower room and looked around his new accommodation with pleasure; to a man used to the confines of a ship's cabin, it seemed spacious, and the large, curved windows a great luxury. They looked out over the lake, where a thin grey drizzle had started; when he opened them, a cool wet smell came blowing in, not unlike the sea, except for the lack of salt.
His bandboxes were piled a little haphazardly together beside the wardrobe; he looked inside this with some concern, but his things had been put away neatly enough. A writing desk and chair completed the furnishings, beside the plain but ample bed. "It seems perfectly quiet to me; I am sure it will do nicely," he said, unbuckling his sword and laying it upon the bed; he did not feel comfortable taking off his coat, but he could at least reduce the formality of his appearance a little by this measure.
"Shall I show you to the feeding grounds now?" Granby said stiffly; it was his first contribution to the conversation since they had left the club.
"Oh, we ought to show him the baths first, and the dining hall," Martin said. "The baths are something to see," he added to Laurence. "They were built by the Romans, you know; and they are why we are all here at all."
"Thank you; I would be glad to see them," Laurence said; although he would have been happy to let the obviously unwilling lieutenant escape, he could not say otherwise now without being rude; Granby might be discourteous, but Laurence did not intend to stoop to the same behavior.
They passed the dining hall on the way; Martin, chattering away, told him that the captains and lieutenants dined at the smaller round table, then midwingmen and ensigns at the long rectangle. "Thankfully, the cadets come in and eat earlier, for the rest of us would starve if we had to hear them squalling throughout our meals, and then the ground crews eat after us," he finished.
"Do you never take your meals separately?" Laurence asked; the communal dining was rather odd, for officers, and he thought wistfully that he would miss being able to invite friends to his own table; it had been one of his greatest pleasures, ever since he had won enough in prize-money to afford it.
"Of course, if someone is sick, a tray will be sent up," Martin said. "Oh, are you hungry? I suppose you had no dinner. Hi, Tolly," he called, and a servant crossing the room with a stack of linens turned to look at them, an eyebrow raised. "This is Captain Laurence; he has just flown in. Can you manage something for him, or must he wait until supper?"
"No, thank you; I am not hungry. I was speaking only from curiosity," Laurence said.
"Oh, there's no trouble about it," the man Tolly said, answering directly. "I dare say one of the cooks can cut you a fair slice or two and dish up some potatoes; I will ask Nan. Tower room on the third floor, yes?" He nodded and went on his way without even waiting for a reply.
"There, Tolly will take care of you," Martin said, evidently without the least consciousness of anything out of the ordinary. "He is one of the best fellows; Jenkins is never willing to oblige, and Marvell will get it done, but he will moan about it so that you wish you hadn't asked."
"I imagine that you have difficulty finding servants who are not bothered by the dragons," Laurence said; he was beginning to adjust to the informality of the aviators' address among themselves, but to find a similar degree in a servant had bemused him afresh.
"Oh, they are all born and bred in the villages hereabouts, so they are used to it and us," Martin said, as they walked through the long hall. "I suppose Tolly has been working here since he was a squeaker; he would not bat an eye at a Regal Copper in a tantrum."
A metal door closed off the stairway leading down to the baths; when Granby pulled it open, a gust of hot, wet air came out and steamed in the relative cold of the corridor. Laurence followed the other two down the narrow, spiraling stair; it went down for four turns and opened abruptly into a large bare room, with shelves of stone built out of the walls and faded paintings upon the walls, partly chipped away: obvious relics of Roman times. One side held heaps of folded and stacked linens, the other a few piles of discarded clothes.
"Just leave your things on the shelves," Martin said. "The baths are in a circuit, so we come back out here again." He and Granby were already stripping.
"Have we time to bathe now?" Laurence asked, a little dubiously.
Martin paused in taking off his boots. "Oh, I thought we would just stroll through; no, Granby? It is not as though there is a need to rush; supper will not be for a few hours yet."
"Unless you have something urgent to attend to," Granby said to Laurence, so ungraciously that Martin looked between them in surprise, as if only now noticing the tension.
Laurence compressed his lips and held back a sharp word; he could not be checking every aviator who might be hostile to a Navy man, and to some extent he understood the resentment. He would have to win through it, just like a new midwingman fresh on board. "Not in the least" was all he said. Though he was not sure why they had to strip down merely to tour the baths, he followed their example, save that he arranged his clothes with more care into two neat stacks, and laid his coat atop them rather than creasing it by folding.
Then they left the room by a corridor to the left, and passed through another metal door at its end. He saw the sense in undressing as soon as they were through: the room beyond was so full of steam he could barely see past arm's length, and he was dripping wet instantly. If he had been dressed, his coat and boots would have been ruined, and everything else soaked through; on naked skin the steam was luxurious, just shy of being too hot, and his muscles unwound gratefully from the long flight.
The room was tiled, with benches built out of the walls at regular intervals; a few other fellows were lying about in the steam. Granby and Martin nodded to a couple of them as they led the way through and into a cavernous room beyond; this one was even warmer, but dry, and a long, shallow pool ran very nearly its full length. "We are right under the courtyard now, and there is why the Corps has this place," Martin said, pointing.
Deep niches were built into the long wall at regular intervals, and a fence of wrought-iron barred them from the rest of the room while leaving them visible. Perhaps half the niches were empty; the other half were padded with fabric, and each held a single massive egg. "They must be kept warm, you see, since we cannot spare the dragons to brood over them, or let them bury them near volcanoes or suchlike, as they would in nature."
"And there is no space to make a separate chamber for them?" Laurence said, surprised.
"Of course there is space," Granby said rudely; Martin glanced at him and leapt in hastily, before Laurence could react.
"You see, everyone is in and out of here often, so if one of them begins to look a bit hard we are more likely to notice it," he said hurriedly.
Still trying to rein in his temper, Laurence let Granby's remark pass and nodded to Martin; he had read in Sir Edward's books how unpredictable dragon egg hatching was, until the very end; even knowing the species could only narrow the process down to a span of months or, for the larger breeds, years.
"We think the Anglewing over there may hatch soon; that would be famous," Martin went on, pointing at a golden-brown egg, its sides faintly pearlescent and spotted with flecks of brighter yellow. "That is Obversaria's get; she is the flag-dragon at the Channel. I was signal-ensign aboard her, fresh out of training, and no beast in her class can touch her for maneuvering."
Both of the aviators looked at the eggs with wistful expressions, longingly; of course each of those represented a rare chance of promotion, and one even more uncertain than the favor of the Admiralty, which might be courted or won by valor in the field. "Have you served with many dragons?" Laurence asked Martin.
"Only Obversaria and then Inlacrimas; he was injured in a skirmish over the Channel a month ago, and so here I am on the ground," Martin said. "But he will be fit for duty again in a month, and I got a promotion out of it, so I shouldn't complain; I am just made midwingman," he added proudly. "And Granby here has been with more; four, is that not right? Who before Laetificat?"
"Excursius, Fluitare, and Actionis," Granby answered, very briefly.
But the first name had been enough; Laurence finally understood, and his face hardened. The fellow likely was friend to Lieutenant Dayes; at any rate, the two of them had been the equivalent of shipmates until recently, and it was now clear to him that Granby's offensive behavior was not simply the general resentment of an aviator for a naval officer shoehorned into his service, but also a personal matter, and thus in some sense an extension of Dayes's original insult.
Laurence was far less inclined to tolerate any slight for such a cause, and he said abruptly, "Let us continue, gentlemen." He allowed no further delays during the remainder of the tour, and let Martin carry the conversation as he would, without giving any response that might draw it out. They came back to the dressing room after completing the circuit of the baths, and once dressed again, Laurence said quietly but firmly, "Mr. Granby, you will take me to the feeding grounds now; then I may set you at liberty." He had to make it clear to the man that the disrespect would not be tolerated; if Granby were to make another fling, he would have to be checked, and better by far were that to occur in private. "Mr. Martin, I am obliged to you for your company, and your explanations; they have been most valuable."
"You are very welcome," Martin said, looking between Laurence and Granby uncertainly, as if afraid of what might happen if he left them alone. But Laurence had made his hint quite unmistakable, and despite the informality Martin seemed able to see that it had nearly the weight of an order. "I will see you both at supper, I imagine; until then."
In silence Laurence continued with Granby to the feeding grounds, or rather to a ledge that overlooked them, at the far end of the training valley. The mouth of a natural cul-de-sac was visible at the far end of the valley, and Laurence could see several herdsmen there on duty; Granby explained, in a flat voice, that when signaled from the ledge, these would pick out the appropriate number of beasts for a dragon and send them into the valley, where the dragon might hunt them down and eat, so long as no training flight was in progress.
"It is straightforward enough, I trust," Granby said, in conclusion; his tone was highly disagreeable, and yet another step over the line, as Laurence had feared.
"Sir," Laurence said quietly. Granby blinked in momentary confusion, and Laurence repeated, "It is straightforward enough, sir."
He hoped it would be enough to warn Granby off from further disrespect, but almost unbelievably, the lieutenant answered back, saying, "We do not stand on ceremony here, whatever you may have been used to in the Navy."
"I have been used to courtesy; where I do not receive it, I will insist at the least on the respect due to rank," Laurence said, his temper breaking loose; he glared savagely at Granby, and felt the color coming into his face. "You will amend your address immediately, Lieutenant Granby, or by God I shall have you broken for insubordination; I do not imagine that the Corps takes quite so light a view of it as one might gather from your behavior."
Granby went very pale; the sunburn across his cheeks stood out red. "Yes, sir," he said, and stood sharply at attention.
"Dismissed, Lieutenant," Laurence said at once, and turned away to gaze out over the field with arms clasped behind his back until Granby had left; he did not want to even look at the fellow again. With the sustaining flush of righteous anger gone, he was tired, and miserable to have met with such treatment; in addition he now had to anticipate with dismay the consequences he knew would follow on his having checked the man. Granby had seemed on their first instant of meeting to be friendly and likable by nature; even if he were not, he was still one of the aviators, and Laurence an interloper. Granby's fellows would naturally support him, and their hostility could only make Laurence's circumstances unpleasant.
But there had been no alternative; open disrespect could not be borne, and Granby had known very well that his behavior was beyond the pale. Laurence was still downcast when he turned back inside; his spirits rose only as he walked into the courtyard and found Temeraire awake and waiting for him. "I am sorry to have abandoned you so long," Laurence said, leaning against his side and petting him, more for his own comfort than Temeraire's. "Have you been very bored?"
"No, not at all," Temeraire said. "There were a great many people who came by and spoke to me; some of them measured me for a new harness. Also, I have been talking to Maximus here, and he tells me we are to train together."
Laurence nodded a greeting to the Regal Copper, who had acknowledged the mention of his name by opening a sleepy eye; Maximus lifted his massive head enough to return the gesture, and then sank back down. "Are you hungry?" Laurence asked, turning back to Temeraire. "We must be up early to fly for Celeritas – that is the training master here," he added, "so you will likely not have time in the morning."
"Yes, I would like to eat," Temeraire said; he seemed wholly unsurprised to have a dragon as training master, and in the face of his pragmatic response, Laurence felt a little silly for his own first shock; of course Temeraire would see nothing strange in it.
Laurence did not bother strapping himself back on completely for the short hop to the ledge, and there he dismounted to let Temeraire hunt without a passenger. The uncomplicated pleasure of watching the dragon soar and dive so gracefully did a great deal to ease Laurence's mind. No matter how the aviators should respond to him, his position was secure in a way that no sea captain could hope for; he had experience in managing unwilling men, if it came to that in his crew, and at least Martin's example showed that not all the officers would be prejudiced against him from the beginning.
There was some other comfort also: as Temeraire swooped and snatched a lumbering shaggy-haired cow neatly off the ground and settled down to eat it, Laurence heard enthusiastic murmuring and looked up to see a row of small heads poking out of the windows above. "That is the Imperial, sir, is he not?" one of the boys, sandy-haired and round-faced, called out to him.
"Yes, that is Temeraire," Laurence answered. He had always made an effort towards the education of his young gentlemen, and his ship had been considered a prime place for a squeaker; he had many family and service friends to do favors for, so he had fairly extensive experience of boys, most of it favorable. Unlike many grown men, he was not at all uncomfortable in their company, even if these were younger than most of his midshipmen ever had been.
"Look, look, how smashing," another one, smaller and darker, cried and pointed; Temeraire was skimming low to the ground and collecting up all three sheep that had been released for him, before stopping to eat again.
"I dare say you all have more experience of dragonflight than I; does he show to advantage?" he asked them.
"Oh, yes," was the general and enthusiastic response. "Corners on a wink and a nod," the sandy-haired boy said, adopting a professional tone, "and splendid extension; not a wasted wingbeat. Oh, ripping," he added, dissolving back into a small boy, as Temeraire backwinged to take the last cow.
"Sir, you haven't picked your runners yet, have you?" another dark-haired one asked hopefully, which at once set up a clamor among all the others; all of them announcing their worthiness for what Laurence gathered was some position to which particularly favored cadets were assigned, in a dragon-crew.
"No; and I imagine when I do it will be on the advice of your instructors," he said, with mock severity. "So I dare say you ought to mind them properly the next few weeks. There, have you had enough?" he asked, as Temeraire rejoined him on the ledge, landing directly on the edge with perfect balance.
"Oh yes, they were very tasty; but now I am all over blood, may we go and wash up?" Temeraire said.
Laurence realized belatedly this had been omitted from his tour; he glanced up at the children. "Gentlemen, I must ask you for direction; shall I take him to the lake for bathing?"
They all stared down at him with round surprised eyes. "I have never heard of bathing a dragon," one of them said.
The sandy-haired one added, "I mean, can you imagine trying to wash a Regal? It would take ages. Usually they lick their chops and talons clean, like a cat."
"That does not sound very pleasant; I like being washed, even if it is a great deal of work," Temeraire said, looking at Laurence anxiously.
Laurence suppressed an exclamation and said equably, "Certainly it is a great deal of work, but so are many other things that ought to be done; we shall go to the lake at once. Only wait here a moment, Temeraire; I will go and fetch some linens."
"Oh, I will bring you some!" The sandy-haired boy vanished from the windows; the rest immediately followed, and scarcely five minutes later the whole half a dozen of them had come spilling out onto the ledge with a pile of imperfectly folded linens whose provenance Laurence suspected.
He took them anyway, thanking the boys gravely, and climbed back aboard, making a mental note of the sandy-haired fellow; it was the sort of initiative he liked to see and considered the making of an officer.
"We could bring our carabiner belts tomorrow, and then we could ride along and help," the boy added now, with a too-guileless expression.
Laurence eyed him and wondered if this was forwardness to discourage, but he was secretly cheered by the enthusiasm, so he contented himself with saying firmly, "We shall see."
They stood watching from the ledge, and Laurence saw their eager faces until Temeraire came around the castle and they passed out of sight. Once at the lake, he let Temeraire swim about to clean off the worst of the gore, then wiped him down with particular care. It was appalling to a man raised to daily holystoning of the deck that aviators should leave their beasts to keep themselves clean, and as he rubbed down the sleek black sides, he suddenly considered the harness. "Temeraire, does this chafe you at all?" he asked, touching the straps.
"Oh, not very often now," Temeraire said, turning his head to look. "My hide is getting a great deal tougher; and when it does bother me I can shift it a little, and then it is better straightaway."
"My dear, I am covered with shame," Laurence said. "I ought never have kept you in it; from now on you shall not wear it for an instant while it is not necessary for our flying together."
"But is it not required, like your clothing?" Temeraire said. "I would not like anyone to think I was not civilized."
"I shall get you a larger chain to wear about your neck, and that will serve," Laurence said, thinking of the golden collar Celeritas wore. "I am not going to have you suffering for a custom that so far as I can tell is nothing but laziness; and I am of a mind to complain of it in the strongest terms to the next admiral I see."
He was as good as his word and stripped the harness from Temeraire the moment they landed in the courtyard. Temeraire looked a little nervously at the other dragons, who had been watching with interest from the moment the two of them had returned with Temeraire still dripping from the lake. But none of them seemed shocked, only curious, and once Laurence had detached the gold-and-pearl chain and wrapped it around one of Temeraire's talons, rather like a ring, Temeraire relaxed entirely and settled back down on the warm flagstones. "It is more pleasant not to have it on; I had not realized how it would be," he confided quietly to Laurence, and scratched at a darkened spot on his hide where a buckle had rested and crushed together several scales into a callus.
Laurence paused in cleaning the harness and stroked him in apology. "I do beg your forgiveness," he said, looking at the galled spot with remorse. "I will try and find a poultice for these marks."
"I want mine off, too," chirped one of the Winchesters suddenly, and flitted down from Maximus's back to land in front of Laurence. "Will you, please?"
Laurence hesitated; it did not seem right to him to handle another man's beast. "I think perhaps your own handler is the only one who ought to remove it," he said. "I do not like to give offense."
"He has not come for three days," the Winchester said sadly, his small head drooping; he was only about the size of a couple of draft horses, and his shoulder barely topped Laurence's head. Looking more closely, Laurence could see his hide was marked with streaks of dried blood, and the harness did not look particularly clean or well-kept, unlike those of the other dragons; it bore stains and rough patches.
"Come here, and let me have a look at you," Laurence said quietly, as he took up the linens, still wet from the lake, and began to clean the little dragon.
"Oh, thank you," the Winchester said, leaning happily into the cloth. "My name is Levitas," he added shyly.
"I am Laurence, and this is Temeraire," Laurence said.
"Laurence is my captain," Temeraire said, the smallest hint of belligerence in his tone, and an emphasis on the possessive; Laurence looked up at him in surprise, and paused in his cleaning to pat Temeraire's side. Temeraire subsided, but watched with his pupils narrowed to thin slits while Laurence finished.
"Shall I see if I cannot find what has happened to your handler?" he told Levitas with a final pat. "Perhaps he is not feeling well, but if so I am sure he will be well soon."
"Oh, I do not think he is sick," Levitas said, with that same sadness. "But that feels much better already," he added, and rubbed his head gratefully against Laurence's shoulder.
Temeraire gave a low displeased rumble and flexed his talons against the stone; with an alarmed chirp, Levitas flew straightaway up to Maximus's back and nestled down small against the other Winchester again. Laurence turned to Temeraire. "Come now, what is this jealousy?" he said softly. "Surely you cannot begrudge him a little cleaning when his handler is neglecting him."
"You are mine," Temeraire said obstinately. After a moment, however, he ducked his head in a shamefaced way and added in a smaller voice, "He would be easier to clean."
"I would not give up an inch of your hide were you twice Laetificat's size," Laurence said. "But perhaps I will see if some of the boys would like to wash him, tomorrow."
"Oh, that would be good," Temeraire said, brightening. "I do not quite understand why his handler has not come; you would never stay away so long, would you?"
"Never in life, unless I was kept away by force," Laurence said. He did not understand it himself; he could imagine that a man harnessed to a dim beast would not necessarily find the creature's company satisfying intellectually, but at the least he would have expected the easy affection with which he had seen James treat Volatilus. And though even smaller, Levitas was certainly more intelligent than Volly. Perhaps it was not so strange that there would be less dedicated men among aviators as well as in any other branch of the service, but with the shortage of dragons, it seemed a great pity to see one of them reduced to unhappiness, which could not help but affect the creature's performance.
Laurence carried Temeraire's harness with him out of the castle yard and over to the large sheds where the ground crews worked; though it was late in the day, there were several men still sitting out in front, smoking comfortably. They looked at him curiously, not saluting, but not unfriendly, either. "Ah, you'd be Temeraire's," one of them said, reaching out to take the harness. "Has it broken? We'll be having a proper harness ready for you in a few days, but we can patch it up in the meantime."
"No, it merely needs cleaning," Laurence said.
"You haven't a harness-tender yet; we can't be assigning you your ground crew till we know how he's to be trained," the man said. "But we'll see to it; Hollin, give this a rub, would you?" he called, catching the attention of a younger man who was working on a bit of leatherwork inside.
Hollin came out, wiping grease off onto his apron, and took the harness in big, capable-looking hands. "Right you are; will he give me any trouble, putting it back on him after?" he asked.
"That will not be necessary, thank you; he is more comfortable without it, so merely leave it beside him," Laurence said firmly, ignoring the looks this won him. "And Levitas's harness requires attention as well."
"Levitas? Well now, I'd say that's for his captain to speak to his crew about," the first man said, sucking on his pipe thoughtfully.
That was perfectly true; nevertheless, it was a poor-spirited answer. Laurence gave the man a cold, steady look, and let silence speak for him. The men shifted a little uncomfortably under his glare. He said, very softly, "If they need to be rebuked to do their duty, then it must be arranged; I would not have thought any man in the Corps would need to hear anything but that a dragon's well-being was at risk to seek to amend the situation."
"I'll do it along of dropping off Temeraire's," Hollin said hurriedly. "I don't mind; he's so small it won't take me but a few shakes."
"Thank you, Mr. Hollin; I am glad to see I was not mistaken," Laurence said, and turned back to the castle; he heard the murmur behind him of "Regular Tartar, he is; wouldn't fancy being on his crew." It was not a pleasant thing to hear, at all; he had never been considered a hard captain, and he had always prided himself on ruling his men by respect rather than fear or a heavy hand; many of his crew had been volunteers.
He was conscious, too, of guilt: by speaking so strongly, he had indeed gone over the head of Levitas's captain, and the man would have every right to complain. But Laurence could not quite bring himself to regret it; Levitas was clearly neglected, and it in no way fit his sense of duty to leave the creature in discomfort. The informality of the Corps might for once be of service to him; with any luck the hint might not be taken as direct interference, or as truly outrageous as it would have been in the Navy.
It had not been an auspicious first day; he was both weary and discouraged. There had been nothing truly unacceptable as he had feared, nothing so bad he could not bear it, but also nothing easy or familiar. He could not help but long for the comforting strictures of the Navy which had encompassed all his life, and wish impractically that he and Temeraire might be once again on the deck of the Reliant, with all the wide ocean around them.READ MORE >>