LAURENCE ROSE EARLY the next morning and breakfasted alone, to have a little time before the training would begin. He had examined the new harness carefully last night, looking over each neat stitch and testing all the solid rings; Temeraire had also assured him that the new gear was very comfortable, and that the crewmen had been attentive to his wishes. He felt some gesture was due, and so having made some calculations in his head, he now walked out to the workshops.
Hollin was already up and working in his stall, and he stepped out at once on catching sight of Laurence. "Morning to you, sir; I hope there is nothing wrong with the harness?" the young man asked.
"No; on the contrary, I commend you and your colleagues highly," Laurence said. "It looks splendid, and Temeraire tells me he is very happy in it; thank you. Kindly tell the others for me that I will be having an additional half-crown for each man disbursed with their pay."
"Why, that is very kind of you, sir," Hollin said, looking pleased but not terribly surprised; Laurence was very glad to see his reaction. An extra ration of rum or grog was of course not a desirable reward to men who could buy liquor easily from the village below, and soldiers and aviators were paid better than sailors, so he had puzzled over an appropriate amount: he wanted to reward their diligence, but he did not want to seem as though he were trying to purchase the men's loyalty.
"I also wish to commend you personally," Laurence added, more relaxed now. "Levitas's harness looks in much better order, and he seems more comfortable. I am obliged to you: I know it was not your duty."
"Oh! Nothing to it," Hollin said, smiling broadly now. "The little fellow was made so happy, I was right glad to have done it. I'll give him a look over now and again to make sure he's staying in good order. Seems to me he's a little lonely," he added.
Laurence would never go so far as to criticize another officer to a crewman; he contented himself with saying merely, "I think he was certainly grateful for the attention, and if you should have the time, I would be glad of it."
It was the last moment that he had time to spare concern for Levitas, or anything beyond the tasks immediately before him. Celeritas had satisfied himself that he understood Temeraire's flying capabilities, and now that Temeraire had his fine new harness, their training began in earnest. From the beginning, Laurence was staggering straight to bed after supper, and having to be woken by the servants at the first light of morning; he could barely muster any sort of conversation at the dinner table, and he spent every free moment either dozing with Temeraire in the sun or soaking in the heat of the baths.
Celeritas was merciless and tireless both. There were countless repetitions of this wheeling turn, or that pattern of swoops and dives; then flying short bombing runs at top speed, during which the bellmen hurled practice bombs down at targets on the valley floor. Long hours of gunnery-practice, until Temeraire could hear a full volley of eight rifles go off behind his ears without so much as blinking; crew maneuvers and drills until he no longer twitched when he was clambered upon or his harness shifted; and to close every day's work, another long stretch of endurance training, sending him around and around until he had nearly doubled the amount of time he could spend aloft at his quickest pace.
Even while Temeraire was sprawled panting in the training courtyard and getting his wind back, the training master had Laurence practice moving about the harness both on Temeraire's back and upon rings hung over the cliff wall, to increase his skill at a task that other aviators had been doing from their earliest years in the service. It was not too unlike moving about the tops in a gale, if one imagined a ship moving at a pace of thirty miles in an hour and turning completely sideways or upside down at any moment; his hands slipped free constantly during the first week, and without the paired carabiners he would have plummeted to his death a dozen times over.
And as soon as they were released from the day's flight training, they were handed straight over to an old captain, Joulson, for drilling in aerial signaling. The flag and flare signals for communicating general instructions were much the same as in the Navy, and the most basic gave Laurence no difficulty; but the need to coordinate quickly between dragons in mid-air made the usual technique of spelling out more unusual messages impractical. As a result, there was a vastly longer list of signals, some requiring as many as six flags, and all of these had to be beaten into their heads, for a captain could not rely solely upon his signal-officer. A signal seen and acted upon even a moment more quickly might make all the difference in the world, so both captain and dragon must know them all; the signal-officer was merely a safeguard, and his duty more to send signals for Laurence and call his attention to new signals in battle than to be the sole source of translation.
To Laurence's embarrassment, Temeraire proved quicker to learn the signals than himself; even Joulson was more than a little taken aback at the dragon's proficiency. "And he is old to be learning them, besides," he told Laurence. "Usually we start them on the flags the very day after hatching. I did not like to say so before, not to be discouraging, but I expected him to have a good deal of trouble. If a dragonet is a bit slow and does not learn all the signals by the end of their fifth or sixth week, he struggles with the last ones sadly; but here Temeraire is already older than that, and learning them as though he were fresh from the egg."
But though Temeraire had no exceptional difficulty, the effort of memorization and repetition was still as tiring as their more physical duties. Five weeks of rigorous work passed this way, without even a break on Sundays; they progressed together with Maximus and Berkley through the increasingly complex maneuvers that had to be learned before they could join the formation, and all the time the dragons were growing enormously. By the end of this period, Maximus had almost reached his full adult size, and Temeraire was scarcely one man's height less in the shoulder, though much leaner, and his growth was now mostly in bulk and in his wings rather than his height.
He was beautifully proportionate throughout: his tail was long and very graceful; his wings fit elegantly against his body and looked precisely the right size when fanned out. His colors had intensified, the black hide turning hard and glossy save for the soft nose, and the blue and pale grey markings on the edges of his wings spreading and becoming opalescent. To Laurence's partial eye, he was the handsomest dragon in the entire covert, even without the great shining pearl blazoned upon his chest.
The constant occupation, along with the rapid growth, had at least temporarily eased Temeraire's unhappiness. He was now larger than any of the other dragons but Maximus; even Lily was shorter than he was, though her wingspan was still greater. Though Temeraire did not push himself forward and was not given precedence by the feeders, Laurence saw on the occasions when he observed that most of the other dragons did unconsciously give way to him at feeding times, and if Temeraire did not come to be friendly with any of them, he seemed too busy to pay it mind, much as Laurence himself with the other aviators.
For the most part, they were company for each other; they were rarely apart except while eating or sleeping, and Laurence honestly felt little need of other society. Indeed, he was glad enough for the excuse, which enabled him to avoid Rankin's company almost entirely. By answering with reserve on all occasions when he was not able to do so, he felt he had at least halted the progress of their acquaintance, if not partly undone it. His and Temeraire's acquaintance with Maximus and Berkley progressed, at least, which kept them from being wholly isolated from their fellows, though Temeraire continued to prefer sleeping outside on the grounds, rather than in the courtyard with the other dragons.
They had already been assigned Temeraire's ground crew: besides Hollin as the head, Pratt and Bell, armorer and leatherworker respectively, formed the core, along with the gunner Calloway. Many dragons had no more, but as Temeraire continued to grow, the masters were somewhat grudgingly granted assistants: first one and then a second for each, until Temeraire's complement was only a few men short of Maximus's. The harness-master's name was Fellowes; he was a silent but dependable man, with some ten years of experience in his line, and more to the point skillful at coaxing additional men out of the Corps; he managed to get Laurence eight harness-men. They were badly wanted, as Laurence persisted in having Temeraire out of the gear whenever possible; he needed the full harness put on and off far more often than most dragons.
Save for these hands, the rest of Temeraire's crew would be composed entirely of officers, gentlemen born; and even the hands were the equivalent of warrant officers or their mates. It was strange to Laurence, used to commanding ten raw landsmen to every able seaman. There was none of the bosun's brutal discipline here; such men could not be struck or started, and the worst punishment was to turn a man off. Laurence could not deny he liked it better, though he felt unhappily disloyal at admitting of any fault in the Navy, even to himself.
Nor was there any fault to be found in the caliber of his officers, as he had imagined; at least, not more than in his prior experience. Half of his riflemen were completely raw midwingmen who had barely yet learned which end of a gun to hold; however, they seemed willing enough, and were improving quickly: Collins was overeager but had a good eye, and if Donnell and Dunne still had some difficulty in finding the target, they were at least quick in reloading. Their lieutenant, Riggs, was somewhat unfortunate: hasty-tempered and excitable, given to bellowing at small mistakes; he was himself a fine shot, and knew his work, but Laurence would have preferred a steadier man to guide the others. But he did not have free choice of men; Riggs had seniority and had served with distinction, so at least merited his position, which made him superior to several officers with whom Laurence had been forced to serve in the Navy.
The permanent aerial crew, the topmen and bellmen responsible for managing Temeraire's equipage during flight, and the senior officers and lookouts, were not yet settled. Most of the currently unassigned junior officers at the covert would first be given a chance to take positions upon Temeraire during the course of his training before final assignment was made; Celeritas had explained that this was a common technique used to ensure that the aviators practiced handling as many types of dragon as possible, as the techniques varied greatly depending on the breed. Martin had done well in his stint, and Laurence had hopes that he might be able to get the young midwingman a permanent berth; several other promising young men had also recommended themselves to him.
The only matter of real concern to him was the question of his first lieutenant. He had been disappointed in the first three candidates assigned him: all were adequate, but none of them struck him as gifted, and he was particular for Temeraire's sake, even if he would not have been for his own. More unpleasantly, Granby had just been assigned in his turn, and though the lieutenant was executing his duties in perfect order, he was always addressing Laurence as "sir" and pointedly making his obedience at every turn; it was an obvious contrast with the behavior of the other officers, and made them all uneasy. Laurence could not help but think with regret of Tom Riley.
That aside, he was satisfied, though increasingly eager to be done with maneuver drills; fortunately Celeritas had pronounced Temeraire and Maximus almost ready to join the formation. There were only the last complex maneuvers to be mastered, those flown entirely upside down; the two dragons were in the midst of practicing these in a clear morning when Temeraire remarked to Laurence, "That is Volly over there, coming towards us," and Laurence lifted his head to see a small grey speck winging its way rapidly to the covert.
Volly sailed directly into the valley and landed in the training courtyard, a violation of the covert rules when a practice was in session, and Captain James leapt off his dragon's back to talk to Celeritas. Interested, Temeraire righted himself and stopped in mid-air to watch, tumbling about all the crew except Laurence, who was by now used to the maneuver; Maximus kept going a little longer until he noticed that he was alone, then turned and flew back despite Berkley's roared protests.
"What do you suppose it is?" Maximus asked in his rumbling voice; unable to hover himself, he was obliged to fly in circles.
"Listen, you great lummox; if it is any of your affair you will be told," Berkley said. "Will you get back to maneuvers?"
"I do not know; perhaps we could ask Volly," Temeraire said. "And there is no sense in our doing maneuvers anymore; we already know all of these," he added. He sounded so mulish that Laurence was startled; he leaned forward, frowning, but before he could speak, Celeritas called them in, urgently.
"There has been an air battle in the North Sea, off Aberdeen," he said with no preliminaries, when they had scarcely landed. "Several dragons of the covert outside Edinburgh responded to distress signals from the city; though they drove off the French attack, Victoriatus was wounded. He is very weak and having difficulty staying in the air: the two of you are large enough to help support him and bring him in more quickly. Volatilus and Captain James will lead you; go at once."
Volly took the lead and flew off at a tearing speed, showing them his heels easily: he kept only just within the limits of their sight. Maximus could not keep up even with Temeraire, however, so with flag-signals and some hasty shouting back and forth through the speaking-trumpets, Berkley and Laurence agreed that Temeraire would go on ahead, and his crew would send up regular flares to mark the direction for Maximus.
The arrangements made, Temeraire pulled away very rapidly; going, Laurence thought, a little too fast. The distance was not very great as the dragon flew; Aberdeen was some 120 miles distant, and the other dragons would be coming towards them, closing the distance from the other side. Still, they would need to be able to fly the same distance again to bring Victoriatus in, and even though they would be flying over land, not ocean, they could not land and rest with the wounded dragon leaning upon them: there would be no getting him off the ground again. Some moderation of speed would be necessary.
Laurence glanced down at the chronometer strapped down to Temeraire's harness, waited for the minute hand to shift, then counted wingbeats. Twenty-five knots: too high. "Gently, if you please, Temeraire," he called. "We have a good deal of work ahead of us."
"I am not tired at all," Temeraire said, but he slowed regardless; Laurence made his new speed as fifteen knots: a good pace, and one that Temeraire could sustain almost indefinitely.
"Pass the word for Mr. Granby," Laurence said; shortly, the lieutenant clambered forward to Laurence's position at the base of Temeraire's neck, swapping carabiners quickly to move himself along. "What is your estimate of the best rate the injured dragon can be maintaining?" Laurence asked him.
For once, Granby did not respond with cold formality, but thoughtfully; all the aviators had immediately become very grave on the moment of hearing of the injured dragon. "Victoriatus is a Parnassian," he said. "A large mid-weight: heavier than a Reaper. They don't have heavy-combat dragons at Edinburgh, so the others supporting him must be mid-weights; they cannot be making more than twelve miles per hour."
Laurence paused to convert between knots and miles, then nodded; Temeraire was going almost twice as quickly, then. Taking into account Volly's speed in bringing the message, they had perhaps three hours before they would need to start looking for the other party. "Very good. We may as well use the time; have the topmen and bellmen exchange places for practice, and then I think we will try some gunnery."
He felt quite calm and settled himself, but he could feel Temeraire's excitement transmitting itself through a faint twitching along the back of his neck; of course this was Temeraire's first action, of any sort, and Laurence stroked the twitching ridge soothingly. He swapped around his carabiners and turned to observe the maneuvers he had ordered. In sequence, a topman climbed down to the belly-rigging at the same time as a bellman climbed up to the back on the other side, the two weights balancing each other. As the man who had just climbed up locked himself into place, he tugged on the signal-strap, colored in alternating sections of black and white, and pulled it ahead a section; in a moment it advanced again, indicating that the man below had locked himself in as well. All went smoothly: Temeraire was presently carrying three topmen and three bellmen, and the exchange took less than five minutes all told.
"Mr. Allen," Laurence said sharply, calling one of the lookouts to order: an older cadet, soon to be made ensign, neglecting his duty to watch the other men at their work. "Can you tell me what is in the upper north-west? No, do not turn round and look; you must be able to answer that question the moment it is asked. I will speak with your instructor; mind your work now."
The riflemen took up their positions, and Laurence nodded to Granby to give the order; the topmen began throwing out the flat ceramic disks used for targeting, and the riflemen took turns attempting to shoot them out of the air as they flew past. Laurence watched and frowned. "Mr. Granby, Mr. Riggs, I make twelve targets out of twenty; you concur? Gentlemen, I hope I need not say that this will not do against French sharpshooters. Let us begin again, at a slower rate: precision first, speed second, Mr. Collins, so pray do not be so hasty."
He kept them at it for a full hour, then had the hands go through the complicated harness adjustments for storm flying; afterwards he himself went down below and observed the men stationed below while they reverted to fair-weather rigging. They did not have the tents aboard, so he could not have them practice going to quarters and breaking down full gear, but they did well enough at the rigging changes, and he thought they would have done well even with the additional equipment.
Temeraire occasionally glanced around to watch throughout these maneuvers, his eyes bright; but for the most part he was intent on his flying, rising and falling in the air to catch the best currents, driving himself forward with great steady beats, each thrust fully carried through. Laurence laid his hand upon the long, ropy muscles of Temeraire's neck, feeling them move smoothly as though oiled beneath the skin, and was not tempted to distract him with conversation; there was no need. He knew without speaking that Temeraire shared his satisfaction at putting their joint training to real purpose at last. Laurence had not wholly realized his own sense of quiet frustration to have been in some sense demoted from a serving officer to a schoolboy, until he now found himself again engaged in active duty.
The three hours were nearly up by the chronometer, and it was time to begin preparing to give support to the injured dragon; Maximus was perhaps half an hour behind them, and Temeraire would have to carry Victoriatus alone until the Regal Copper caught up. "Mr. Granby," Laurence said, as he latched himself back in to his normal position at the base of the neck, "let us clear the back; all the men below, save for the signal-ensign and the forward lookouts."
"Very good, sir," Granby said, nodding, and turned at once to arrange it. Laurence watched him work with mingled satisfaction and irritation. For the first time in the past week, Granby had been going about his duties without that air of stiff resentment, and Laurence could easily perceive the effects: the speed of nearly every operation improved; myriad small defects in harness placement and crew positioning, previously invisible to his own inexperienced eye, now corrected; the atmosphere among the men more relaxed. All the many ways in which an excellent first lieutenant could improve the life of a crew, and Granby was now proven capable of them all, but that only made his earlier attitude more regrettable.
Volatilus turned and came flying back towards them only shortly after they had cleared the top; James pulled him about and cupped his hands around his mouth to call to Laurence. "I've sighted them, two points to the north and twelve degrees down; you'll need to drop to come up under them, for I don't think he can get any more elevation." He signaled the numbers with hand gestures as he spoke.
"Very good," Laurence called back, through his speaking-trumpet, and had the signal-ensign wave a confirmation with flags; Temeraire was large enough now that Volly could not get so close as to make verbal communication certain.
Temeraire stooped into a dive at his quick signal, and very soon Laurence saw a speck on the horizon rapidly enlarge into the group of dragons. Victoriatus was instantly identifiable; he was larger by half than either of the two Yellow Reapers struggling to keep him aloft. Though the injuries were already under thick bandages applied by his crew, blood had seeped through showing the slashing marks where the dragon had evidently taken blows from the enemy beasts. The Parnassian's own claws were unusually large, and stained with blood as well; his jaws also. The smaller dragons below looked crowded, and there was no one aboard the injured dragon but his captain and perhaps half a dozen men.
"Signal the two supporters: prepare to stand aside," Laurence said; the young signal-ensign waved the colored flags in rapid sequence, and a prompt acknowledgment came back. Temeraire had already flown around the group and positioned himself properly: he was just below and to the back of the second supporting dragon.
"Temeraire, are you quite ready?" Laurence called. They had practiced this maneuver in training, but it would be unusually difficult to carry out here: the injured dragon was barely beating his wings, and his eyes were half-shut with pain and exhaustion; the two supporters were clearly worn out themselves. They would have to drop out of the way smoothly, and Temeraire dart in very quickly, to avoid having Victoriatus collapse into a deadly plummet that would be impossible to arrest.
"Yes; please let us hurry, they look so very tired," Temeraire said, glancing back. His muscles were tightly gathered, they had matched the others' pace, and nothing more could be gained by waiting.
"Signal: exchange positions on lead dragon's mark," Laurence said. The flags waved; the acknowledgment came. Then on both sides of the foremost of the two supporting dragons, the red flags went out, and then were swapped for the green.
The rear dragon dropped and peeled aside swiftly as Temeraire lunged. But the forward dragon went a little too slowly, his wings stuttering, and Victoriatus began to tilt forward as the Reaper tried to descend away and make room. "Dive, damn you, dive!" Laurence roared at the top of his lungs; the smaller dragon's lashing tail was dangerously near Temeraire's head, and they could not move into place.
The Reaper gave up the maneuver and simply folded his wings; he dropped out of the way like a stone. "Temeraire, you must get him up a little so you can come forward," Laurence shouted again, crouched low against the neck; Victoriatus's hindquarters had settled over Temeraire's shoulders instead of further back, and the great belly was less than three feet overhead, barely kept up by the injured dragon's waning strength.
Temeraire showed with a bob of his head that he had heard and understood; he beat up rapidly at an angle, pushing the slumping Parnassian back up higher through sheer strength, then snapped his wings closed. A brief, sickening drop: then his wings fanned out again. With a single great thrust, Temeraire had himself properly positioned, and Victoriatus came heavily down upon them again.
Laurence had a moment of relief; then Temeraire cried out in pain. He turned and saw in horror that in his confusion and agony, Victoriatus was scrabbling at Temeraire, and the great claws had raked Temeraire's shoulder and side. Above, muffled, he heard the other captain shouting; Victoriatus stopped, but Temeraire was already bleeding, and straps of the harness were hanging loose and flapping in the wind.
They were losing elevation rapidly; Temeraire was struggling to keep flying under the other dragon's weight. Laurence fought with his carabiners, yelling at the signal-ensign to let the men below know. The boy scrambled partway down the neck-strap, waving the white-and-red flag wildly; in a moment Laurence gratefully saw Granby climbing up with two other men to bandage the wounds, reaching the gashes more quickly than he could. He stroked Temeraire, called reassurance to him in a voice that struggled not to break; Temeraire did not spare the effort to turn and reply, but bravely kept beating his wings, though his head was drooping with the strain.
"Not deep," Granby shouted, from where they worked to pad the gashes, and Laurence could breathe and think clearly again. The harness was shifting upon Temeraire's back; aside from a great deal of lesser rigging, the main shoulder-strap had been nearly cut through, saved only by the wires that ran through it. But the leather was parting, and as soon as it went the wires would break under the strain of all the men and gear currently riding below.
"All of you; take off your harnesses and pass them to me," Laurence said to the signal-ensign and the lookouts; the three boys were the only ones left above, besides him. "Take a good grip on the main harness and get your arms or legs tucked beneath." The leather of the personal harnesses was thick, solidly stitched, well-oiled; the carabiners were solid steel: not quite as strong as the main harness, but nearly so.
He slung the three harnesses over his arm and clambered along the back-strap to the broader part of the shoulders. Granby and the two midwingmen were still working on the injuries to Temeraire's side; they spared him a puzzled look, and Laurence realized they could not see the nearly severed shoulder-band: it was hidden from their view by Temeraire's foreleg. There was no time to call them forward to help in any case; the band was rapidly beginning to give way.
He could not come at it normally; if he tried to put his weight on any of the rings along the shoulder-band, it would certainly break at once. Working as quickly as he could under the roaring pressure of the wind, he hooked two of the harnesses together by their carabiners, then looped them around the back-strap. "Temeraire, stay as level as you can," he shouted; then, clinging to the ends of the harnesses, he unlocked his own carabiners and climbed carefully out onto the shoulder, held by nothing more secure than his grip on the leather.
Granby was shouting something at him; the wind was tearing it away, and he could not make out the words. Laurence tried to keep his eyes fixed on the straps; the ground below was the beautiful, fresh green of early spring, strangely calm and pastoral: they were low enough that he could see white dots of sheep. He was in arm's reach now; with a hand that shook slightly, he latched the first carabiner of the third loose harness onto the ring just above the cut, and the second onto the ring just below. He pulled on the straps, throwing his weight against them as much as he dared; his arms ached and trembled as if with high fever. Inch by inch, he drew the small harness tighter, until at last the portion between the carabiners was the same size as the cut portion of the band and was taking much of its weight: the leather stopped fraying away.
He looked up; Granby was slowly climbing towards him, snapping onto rings as he came. Now that the harness was in place, the strain was not an immediate danger, so Laurence did not wave him off, but only shouted, "Call up Mr. Fellowes," the harness-master, and pointed to the spot. Granby's eyes widened as he came over the foreleg and saw the broken strap.
As Granby turned to signal below for help, bright sunlight abruptly fell full on his face; Victoriatus was shuddering above them, wings convulsing, and the Parnassian's chest came heavily down on Temeraire's back. Temeraire staggered in mid-air, one shoulder dipping under the blow, and Laurence was sliding along the linked harness straps, wet palms giving him no purchase. The green world was spinning beneath him, and his hands were already tired and slick with sweat; his grip was failing.
"Laurence, hold on!" Temeraire called, head turned to look back at him; his muscles and wing-joints were shifting as he prepared to snatch Laurence out of the air.
"You must not let him fall," Laurence shouted, horrified; Temeraire could not try to catch him except by tipping Victoriatus off his back, and sending the Parnassian to his death. "Temeraire, you must not!"
"Laurence!" Temeraire cried again, his claws flexing; his eyes were wide and distressed, and his head waved back and forth in denial. Laurence could see he did not mean to obey. He struggled to keep hold of the leather straps, to try and climb up; if he fell, it was not only his own life which would be forfeit, but the injured dragon and all his crew still aboard.
Granby was there suddenly, seizing Laurence's harness in both his hands. "Lock onto me," he shouted. Laurence saw at once what he meant. With one hand still clinging to the linked harnesses, he locked his loose carabiners onto the rings of Granby's harness, then transferred his grip to Granby's chest-straps. Then the midwingmen reached them; all at once there were many strong hands grabbing at them, drawing Laurence and Granby back up together to the main harness, and they held Laurence in place while he locked his carabiners back onto the proper rings.
He could scarcely breathe yet, but he seized his speaking-trumpet and called urgently, "All is well." His voice was hardly audible; he pulled in a deep breath and tried again, more clearly this time: "I am fine, Temeraire; only keep flying." The tense muscles beneath them unwound slowly, and Temeraire beat up again, regaining a little of the elevation they had lost. The whole process had lasted perhaps fifteen minutes; he was shaking as if he had been on deck throughout a three-day gale, and his heart was thundering in his breast.
Granby and the midwingmen looked scarcely more composed. "Well done, gentlemen," Laurence said to them, as soon as he trusted his voice to remain steady. "Let us give Mr. Fellowes room to work. Mr. Granby, be so good as to send someone up to Victoriatus's captain and see what assistance we can provide; we must take what precautions we can to keep him from further starts."
They gaped at him a moment; Granby was the first to recover his wits, and began issuing orders. By the time Laurence had made his way, very cautiously, back to his post at the base of Temeraire's neck, the midwingmen were wrapping Victoriatus's claws with bandages to prevent him from scratching Temeraire again, and Maximus was coming into sight in the distance, hurrying to their assistance.
The rest of the flight was relatively uneventful, if the effort involved in supporting a nearly unconscious dragon through the air were ever to be considered ordinary. As soon as they landed Victoriatus safely in the courtyard, the surgeons came hurrying to see to both him and Temeraire; to Laurence's great relief, the cuts indeed proved quite shallow. They were cleaned and inspected, pronounced minor, and a loose pad placed over them to keep the torn hide from being irritated; then Temeraire was set loose and Laurence told to let him sleep and eat as much as he liked for a week.
It was not the most pleasant way to win a few days of liberty, but the respite was infinitely welcome. Laurence immediately walked Temeraire to an open clearing near the covert, not wanting to strain him by another leap aloft. Though the clearing was upon the mountain, it was relatively level, and covered in soft green grass; it faced south, and the sun came into it nearly the entire day. There the two of them slept together from that afternoon until late in the next, Laurence stretched out upon Temeraire's warm back, until hunger woke them both.
"I feel much better; I am sure I can hunt quite normally," Temeraire said; Laurence would not hear of it. He walked back up to the workshops and roused the ground crew instead. Very shortly they had driven a small group of cattle up from the pens and slaughtered them; Temeraire devoured every last scrap and fell directly back to sleep.
Laurence a little diffidently asked Hollin to arrange for the servants to bring him some food; it was enough like asking the man for personal service to make Laurence uncomfortable, but he was reluctant to leave Temeraire. Hollin took no offense; but when he returned, Lieutenant Granby was with him, along with Riggs and a couple of the other lieutenants.
"You should go and have something hot to eat, and a bath, and then sleep in your own bed," Granby said quietly, having waved the others off a little distance. "You are all over blood, and it is not warm enough yet for you to sleep outside without risk to your health. I and the other officers will take it in turns to stay with him; we will fetch you at once if he wakes, or if any change should occur."
Laurence blinked and looked down at himself; he had not even noticed that his clothes were spattered and streaked with the near-black of dragon blood. He ran a hand over his unshaven face; he was clearly presenting a rather horrible picture to the world. He looked up at Temeraire; the dragon was completely unaware of his surroundings, sides rising and falling with a low, steady rumble. "I dare say you are right," he said. "Very well; and thank you," he added.
Granby nodded; and with a last look up at the sleeping Temeraire, Laurence took himself back to the castle. Now that it had been brought to mind, the sensation of dirt and sweat was unpleasant upon his skin; he had gotten soft, with the luxury of daily bathing at hand. He stopped by his room only long enough to exchange his stained clothes for fresh, and went straight to the baths.
It was shortly after dinner, and many of the officers had a habit of bathing at this hour; after Laurence had taken a quick plunge into the pool, he found the sweat-room very crowded. But as he came in, several fellows made room for him; he gladly took the opened place, and returned the nods of greeting around the room before he laid himself down. He was so tired that it only occurred to him after his eyes were closed in the blissful heat that the attention had been unusual, and marked; he almost sat up again with surprise.
"Well flown; very well flown, Captain," Celeritas told him that evening, approvingly, when he belatedly came to report. "No, you need not apologize for being tardy. Lieutenant Granby has given me a preliminary account, and with Captain Berkley's report I know well enough what happened. We prefer a captain be more concerned for his dragon than for our bureaucracy. I trust Temeraire is doing well?"
"Thank you, sir, yes," Laurence said gratefully. "The surgeons have told me there is no cause for alarm, and he says he is quite comfortable. Have you any duties for me during his recovery?"
"Nothing other than to keep him occupied, which you may find enough of a challenge," Celeritas said, with the snort that passed for a chuckle with him. "Well, that is not quite true; I do have one task for you. Once Temeraire is recovered, you and Maximus will be joining Lily's formation straightaway. We have had nothing but bad news from the war, and the latest is worse: Villeneuve and his fleet have slipped out of Toulon under cover of an aerial raid against Nelson's fleet; we have lost track of them. Under the circumstances, and given this lost week, we cannot wait any longer. Therefore it is time to assign your flight crew, and I would like your requests. Consider the men who have served with you these last weeks, and we will discuss the matter tomorrow."
Laurence walked slowly back out to the clearing after this, deep in thought. He had begged a tent from the ground crews and brought along a blanket; he thought he would be quite comfortable once he had pitched it by Temeraire's side, and he liked the idea better than spending the whole night away. He found Temeraire still sleeping peacefully, the flesh around the bandaged area only ordinarily warm to the touch.
Having satisfied himself on this point, Laurence said, "A word with you, Mr. Granby," and led the lieutenant some short distance away. "Celeritas has asked me to name my officers," he said, looking steadily at Granby; the young man flushed and looked down. Laurence continued, "I will not put you in the position of refusing a post; I do not know what that means in the Corps, but I know in the Navy it would be a serious mark against you. If you would have the least objection, speak frankly; that will be an end to the matter."
"Sir," Granby began, then shut his mouth abruptly, looking mortified: he had used the term so often in veiled insolence. He started over again. "Captain, I am well aware I have done little enough to deserve such consideration; I can only say that if you are willing to overlook what my past behavior has been, I would be very glad of the opportunity." This speech was a little stilted in his mouth, as if he had tried to rehearse it.
Laurence nodded, satisfied. His decision had been a near thing; if it had not been for Temeraire's sake, he was not sure he could have borne to thus expose himself to a man who had behaved disrespectfully towards him, despite Granby's recent heroics. But Granby was so clearly the best of the lot that Laurence had decided to take the risk. He was well-pleased with the reply; it was fair enough and respectful even if awkwardly delivered. "Very good," he said simply.
They had just begun walking back when Granby suddenly said, "Oh, damn it; I may not be able to word it properly, but I cannot just leave things at that: I have to tell you how very sorry I am. I know I have been playing the scrub."
Laurence was surprised by his frankness, but not displeased, and he could never have refused an apology offered with so much sincerity and feeling as was obvious in Granby's tone. "I am very happy to accept your apology," he said, quietly but with real warmth. "For my part, all is forgotten, I assure you, and I hope that henceforth we may be better comrades than we have been."
They stopped and shook hands; Granby looked both relieved and happy, and when Laurence tentatively inquired for his recommendations for other officers, he answered with great enthusiasm, as they made their way back towards Temeraire's side.READ MORE >>