THE RIFLE-BALL PASSED so close it stirred Laurence's hair; the crack of return fire sounded behind him, and Temeraire slashed out at the French dragon as they swept past, raking the deep blue hide with long gashes even as he twisted gracefully to avoid the other dragon's talons.
"It's a Fleur-de-Nuit, sir, the coloring," Granby shouted, wind whipping away at his hair, as the blue dragon pulled away with a bellow and wheeled about for another attempt at the formation, its crew already clambering down to stanch the bleeding: the wounds were not disabling.
Laurence nodded. "Yes. Mr. Martin," he called, more loudly, "get the flash-powder ready; we will give them a show on their next pass." The French breed were heavily built and dangerous, but they were nocturnal by nature, and their eyes sensitive to sudden flashes of bright light. "Mr. Turner, the flash-powder warning signal, if you please."
A quick confirmation came from Messoria's signal-ensign; the Yellow Reaper was herself engaged in fending off a spirited attack against the front of the formation by a French middleweight. Laurence reached out to pat Temeraire's neck, catching his attention. "We are going to give the Fleur-de-Nuit a dose of flash-powder," he shouted. "Hold this position, and wait for the signal."
"Yes, I am ready," Temeraire said, a deep note of excitement ringing in his voice; he was almost trembling.
"Pray be careful," Laurence could not help adding; the French dragon was an older one, judging by its scars, and he did not want Temeraire to be hurt through overconfidence.
The Fleur-de-Nuit arrowed towards them, trying once again to barrel between Temeraire and Nitidus: the goal was clearly to split apart the formation, injuring one or the other dragon in the process, which would leave Lily vulnerable to attack from behind on a subsequent pass. Sutton was already signaling a new maneuver which would bring them about and give Lily an angle of attack against the Fleur-de-Nuit, which was the largest of the French assailants, but before it could be accomplished this next run had to be deflected.
"All hands at the ready; stand by on the powder," Laurence said, using the speaking-trumpet to amplify his orders, as the massive blue-and-black creature came roaring towards them. The speed of the engagement was far beyond anything Laurence had ever before experienced. In the Navy, an exchange of fire might last five minutes; here a pass was over in less than one, and then a second came almost immediately. This time the French dragon was angling closer towards Nitidus, wanting nothing more to do with Temeraire's claws; the smaller Pascal's Blue would not be able to hold his position against the great bulk. "Hard to larboard; close with him!" he shouted to Temeraire.
Temeraire answered at once; his great black wings abruptly swiveled and tilted them towards the Fleur-de-Nuit, and Temeraire closed more swiftly than a typical heavy-combat dragon would have been able to do. The enemy dragon jerked and looked at them in reflex, and Laurence shouted, "Light the powder," as he caught a glimpse of the pale white eyes.
He only just closed his own eyes in time; the brilliant flash was visible even through his eyelids, and the Fleur-de-Nuit bellowed in pain. Laurence opened his eyes again to find Temeraire slashing fiercely at the other dragon, carving deep strokes into its belly, and his riflemen strafing the bellmen on the other side. "Temeraire, hold your position," Laurence called; Temeraire was in danger of falling behind in his enthusiasm for fighting off the other dragon.
With a start, Temeraire beat his wings in a flurry and lunged back into his place in the formation; Sutton's signal-ensign raised the green flag, and as a unit they all wheeled around in a tight loop, Lily already opening her jaws and hissing: the Fleur-de-Nuit was still flying blind, and streaming blood into the air as its crew tried to guide it away.
"Enemy above! Enemy above!" Maximus's larboard lookout was pointing frantically upwards; even as the boy shrilled, a terrible thick roaring like thunder sounded in their ears and drowned him out: a Grand Chevalier came plummeting down towards them. The dragon's pale belly had allowed it to blend into the heavy cloud cover undetected by the lookouts, and now it descended towards Lily, great claws opening wide; it was nearly twice her size, and outweighed even Maximus.
Laurence was shocked to see Messoria and Immortalis both suddenly drop; he realized belatedly it was the reflex which Celeritas had warned them of, so long ago: a reaction to being startled from above. Nitidus had given a startled jerk of his wings, but recovered, and Dulcia had kept her position, but Maximus had put on a burst of speed and overshot the others, and Lily herself was wheeling around in instinctive alarm. The formation had dissolved into chaos, and she was wholly exposed.
"Ready all guns; straight at him!" he roared, signaling frantically to Temeraire; it was unnecessary, for after a moment's hovering, Temeraire had already launched himself to Lily's defense. The Chevalier was too close to deflect him entirely, but if they could strike him before he was able to latch on to Lily, they could still save her from a fatal mauling, and give her time to strike back.
The four other French dragons were all coming about again. Temeraire put on a burst of sudden speed and just barely slid past the reaching claws of the P��cheur-Couronne, and collided with the great French beast with all his claws outstretched even as the Chevalier slashed at Lily's back.
She shrieked in pain and fury, thrashing; the three dragons were all entangled now, beating their wings furiously in opposite directions, clawing and slashing. Lily could not spit upwards; they had to somehow get her loose, but Temeraire was much smaller than the Chevalier, and Laurence could see the enormous dragon's claws sinking deeper into Lily's flesh, even though her crew were hacking at the iron-hard talons with axes.
"Get a bomb up here," Laurence snapped to Granby; they would have to try and hurl one into the Chevalier's belly-rigging, despite the danger of missing and striking Temeraire or Lily.
Temeraire kept slashing away in a blind passion, his sides belling out for breath; he roared so tremendously that his body vibrated with the force and Laurence's ears ached. The Chevalier shuddered with pain; somewhere on his other side, Maximus also roared, blocked from Laurence's sight by the French dragon's bulk. The attack had its effect: the Chevalier bellowed in his deep hoarse voice, and his claws sprang free.
"Cut loose," Laurence shouted. "Temeraire, cut loose; get between him and Lily." In answer, Temeraire pulled himself free and dropped. Lily was moaning, streaming blood, and she was losing elevation rapidly. Having driven off the Chevalier was not enough: the other dragons were now as great a danger to her until she could get back aloft into fighting position. Laurence heard Captain Harcourt calling orders whose words he could not make out; abruptly Lily's belly-rigging fell away like a great net sinking down through the clouds, and bombs, supplies, baggage, all went tumbling down and vanished into the waters of the Channel below; her ground crew were all tying themselves to the main harness instead.
Thus lightened, Lily shuddered and made a great effort, beating back up into the sky; the wounds were being packed with white bandages, but even at a distance Laurence could see she would need stitching. Maximus had the Chevalier engaged, but the P��cheur-Couronne and the Fleur-de-Nuit were falling into a small wedge formation with the other French middle-weight, preparing to take a dash at Lily again. Temeraire maintained position just above Lily and hissed threateningly, his bloody claws flexing; but she was climbing too slowly.
The battle had turned into a wild melee; though the other British dragons had now recovered from their initial fright, they were in no sort of order. Harcourt was wholly occupied with Lily's difficulties, and the last French dragon, a P��cheur-Raye, was fighting Messoria far below. Clearly the French had identified Sutton as the commander, and were keeping him out of the way; a strategy Laurence could grimly admire. He had no authority to take command, he was the most junior captain in the party, but something had to be done.
"Turner," he said, catching his signal-ensign's attention; but before he gave any order, the other British dragons were already wheeling around and in motion.
"Signal, sir, form up around leader," Turner said, pointing.
Laurence looked back and saw Praecursoris swinging into Maximus's usual place with signal-flags waving: not being limited to the formation's pace, Choiseul and the big dragon had gone on ahead of them, but his lookouts had evidently caught sight of the battle and he had now returned. Laurence tapped Temeraire's shoulder to draw his attention to the signal. "I see it," Temeraire called back, and at once backwinged and settled into his proper position.
Another signal flashed out, and Laurence brought Temeraire up and in closer; Nitidus also pulled in more tightly, and together they closed the gap in the formation where Messoria would normally have been. Formation rise together, the next signal came, and with the other dragons around her, Lily took heart and was able to beat up more strongly: the bleeding had stopped at last. The trio of French dragons had separated; they could no longer hope to succeed with a collective charge, not straight into Lily's jaws, and the formation would be up to the level of the Chevalier in a moment.
Maximus break away, the signal flashed: Maximus was still engaged in close quarters with the Chevalier, and rifles were cracking away on both sides. The great Regal Copper gave a final slash of his claws and pushed away: just a fraction too soon, for the formation was not yet high enough, and another few moments were necessary before Lily would be able to strike.
The Chevalier's crew now saw his fresh danger and sent the big dragon back aloft, a great deal of shouting going on aboard in French. Though he was bleeding from many wounds, the Chevalier was so large that these did not hamper him severely, and he was still able to climb quicker than the injured Lily. After a moment, Choiseul signaled, Formation hold elevation, and they gave up the pursuit.
The French dragons came together at a distance into a loose cluster, wheeling around as they considered their next attack. But then they all turned as one and fled rapidly north-east, the P��cheur-Raye disengaging from Messoria also. Temeraire's lookouts were all calling out and pointing to the south, and when Laurence looked over his shoulder he saw ten dragons flying towards them at great speed, British signals flashing out from the Longwing in the lead.
The Longwing was indeed Excidium; he and his formation accompanied them along the rest of the journey to the Dover covert, the two heavyweight Chequered Nettles among them taking it in turn to support Lily on the way. She was making reasonable progress, but her head was drooping, and she made a very heavy landing, her legs trembling so that the crew only barely managed to scramble off before she crumpled to the ground. Captain Harcourt's face was streaked with unashamed tears, and she ran to Lily's head and stood there caressing her and murmuring loving encouragement while the surgeons began their work.
Laurence directed Temeraire to land on the very edge of the covert's landing ground, so the injured dragons might have more room. Maximus, Immortalis, and Messoria had all taken painful if not dangerous wounds in the battle, though nothing like what Lily had suffered, and their low cries of pain were very difficult to hear. Laurence repressed a shudder and stroked Temeraire's sleek neck; he was deeply grateful for Temeraire's quickness and grace, which had preserved him from the others' fate. "Mr. Granby, let us unload at once, and then if you please, let us see what we can spare for the comfort of Lily's crew; they have no baggage left, it looks to me."
"Very good, sir," Granby said, turning to give the orders at once.
It took several hours to settle the dragons down and get them unpacked and fed; fortunately the covert was a very large one, covering perhaps one hundred acres when including the cattle pastures, and there was no difficulty about finding a comfortably large clearing for Temeraire. Temeraire was wavering between excitement at having seen his first battle and deep anxiety for Lily's sake; for once he ate only indifferently, and Laurence finally told the crew to take away the remainder of the carcasses. "We can hunt in the morning, there is no need to force yourself to eat," he said.
"Thank you; I truly do not feel very hungry at the moment," Temeraire said, settling down his head. He was quiet while they cleaned him, until the crewmen had gone and left him alone with Laurence. His eyes were closed to slits, and for a moment Laurence wondered if he had fallen asleep; then he opened them a little more and asked softly, "Laurence, is it always so, after a battle?"
Laurence did not need to ask what he meant; Temeraire's weariness and sorrow were apparent. It was hard to know how to answer; he wanted so very much to reassure. Yet he himself was still tense and angry, and while the sensation was familiar, its lingering was not. He had been in many actions, no less deadly or dangerous, but this one had differed in the crucial respect: when the enemy took aim at his charge, they were threatening not his ship, but his dragon, already the dearest creature to him in the world. Nor could he contemplate injury to Lily or Maximus or any of the members of the formation with any sort of detachment; they might not be his own Temeraire, but they were full comrades-in-arms as well. It was not at all the same, and the surprise attack had caught him unprepared in his mind.
"It is often difficult afterwards, I am afraid, particularly when a friend has been injured, or perhaps killed," he said finally. "I will say that I find this action especially hard to bear; there was nothing to be gained, for our part, and we did not seek it out."
"Yes, that is true," Temeraire said, his ruff drooping low upon his neck. "It would be better if I could think we had all fought so hard, and Lily had been hurt, for some purpose. But they only came to hurt us, so we did not even protect anyone."
"That is not true at all; you protected Lily," Laurence said. "And consider: the French made a very clever and skillful attack, taking us wholly by surprise, with a force equal to our own in numbers and superior in experience, and we defeated it and drove them off. That is something to be proud of, is it not?"
"I suppose that is true," Temeraire said; his shoulders settled as he relaxed. "If only Lily will be all right," he added.
"Let us hope so; be sure that all that can be done for her, will be," Laurence said, stroking his nose. "Come now, you must be tired. Will you not sleep? Shall I read to you a little?"
"I do not think I can sleep," Temeraire said. "But I would like you to read to me, and I will lie quietly and rest." He yawned as soon as he had finished saying this, and was asleep before Laurence had even taken the book out. The weather had finally turned, and the warm, even breaths rising from his nostrils made small puffs of fog in the crisp air.
Leaving him to sleep, Laurence walked quickly back to the covert headquarters; the path through the dragon-fields was lit with hanging lanterns, and in any case he could see the windows up ahead. An easterly wind was carrying the salt air in from the harbor, mingled with the coppery smell of the warm dragons, already familiar and hardly noticed. He had a warm room on the second floor, with a window that looked out onto the back gardens, and his baggage had already been unpacked. He looked at the wrinkled clothes ruefully; evidently the servants at the covert had no more notion of packing than the aviators themselves did.
There was a great noise of raised voices as he came into the senior officers' dining room, despite the late hour; the other captains of the formation were assembled at the long table where their own meal was going largely untouched.
"Is there any word about Lily?" he asked, taking the empty chair between Berkley and Dulcia's captain, Chenery; Captain Harcourt and Captain Little of Immortalis were the only ones not present.
"He cut her to the bone, the great coward, but that is all we know," Chenery said. "They are still sewing her up, and she hasn't taken anything to eat."
Laurence knew that was a bad sign; injured dragons usually became ravenous, unless they were in very great pain. "Maximus and Messoria?" he asked, looking at Berkley and Sutton.
"Ate well, and fast asleep," Berkley said; his usually placid face was drawn and haggard, and he had a streak of dark blood running across his forehead into his bristly hair. "That was damned quick of you today, Laurence; we'd have lost her."
"Not quick enough," Laurence said quietly, forestalling the murmur of agreement; he had not the least desire to be praised for this day's work, though he was proud of what Temeraire had done.
"Quicker than the rest of us," Sutton said, draining his glass; from the looks of his cheeks and nose, it was not his first. "They caught us properly flat-footed, damned Frogs. What the devil they were doing to have a patrol there, I would like to know."
"The route from Laggan to Dover isn't much of a secret, Sutton," Little said, coming to the table; they dragged chairs about to make room for him at their end of the table. "Immortalis is settled and eating, by the by; speaking of which, please give me that chicken here." He wrenched off a leg with his hands and tore into it hungrily.
Looking at him, Laurence felt the first stirrings of appetite; the other captains seemed to feel the same way, and for the next ten minutes there was silence while they passed the plates around and concentrated on their food; they had none of them eaten since a hasty breakfast before dawn at the covert near Middlesbrough. The wine was not very good, but Laurence drank several glasses anyway.
"I expect they've been lurking about between Felixstowe and Dover, just waiting to get a drop on us," Little said after a while, wiping his mouth and continuing his earlier thought. "By God, if you ever catch me taking Immortalis that way again; overland it is for us from now on, unless we're looking for a fight."
"Right you are," Chenery said, with heartfelt agreement. "Hello, Choiseul; pull up a chair." He shuffled over a little more, and the royalist captain joined them.
"Gentlemen, I am very happy to say that Lily has begun to eat; I have just come from Captain Harcourt," he said, and raised a glass. "To their health, may I propose?"
"Hear, hear," Sutton said, refilling his own glass; they all joined in the toast, and there was a general sigh of relief.
"Here you all are, then; eating, I hope? Good, very good." Admiral Lenton had come up to join them; he was the commander-in-chief of the Channel Division, and thus all those dragons at the Dover covert. "No, don't be fools, don't get up," he said impatiently, as Laurence and Choiseul began to rise, and the others belatedly followed. "After the day you've had, for Heaven's sake. Here, pass that bottle over, Sutton. So, you all know that Lily is eating? Yes, the surgeons hope she will be flying short distances in a couple of weeks, and in the meantime you have at least nicely mauled a couple of their heavy-combat beasts. A toast to your formation, gentlemen."
Laurence was at last beginning to feel his tension and distress ease; knowing Lily and the others were out of danger was a great relief, and the wine had loosened the tight knot in his throat. The others seemed to feel much the same way, and conversation grew slow and fragmented; they were all much inclined to nod over their cups.
"I am quite certain that the Grand Chevalier was Triumphalis," Choiseul was telling Admiral Lenton quietly. "I have seen him before; he is one of France's most dangerous fighters. He was certainly at the Dijon covert, near the Rhine, when Praecursoris and I left Austria, and I must represent to you, sir, that it bears out all my worst fears: Bonaparte would not have brought him here if he was not wholly confident of victory against Austria, and I am sure more of the French dragons are on their way to assist Villeneuve."
"I was inclined to agree with you before, Captain; now I am sure of it," Lenton said. "But for the moment, all we can do is hope Mortiferus reaches Nelson before the French dragons reach Villeneuve, and that he can do the job; we cannot spare Excidium if we do not have Lily. I would not be surprised if that was what they intended by this strike; it is the clever sort of way that damned Corsican thinks."
Laurence could not help thinking of the Reliant, perhaps even now under the threat of a full-scale French aerial attack, and the other ships of the great fleet currently blockading Cadiz. So many of his friends and acquaintances; even if the French dragons did not arrive first, there would be a great naval battle to be fought, and how many would be lost without his ever hearing another word from them? He had not devoted much time to correspondence in the last busy months; now he regretted the neglect deeply.
"Have we had any dispatches from the blockade at Cadiz?" he asked. "Have they seen any action?"
"Not that I have heard of," Lenton said. "Oh, that's right, you're our fellow from the Navy, aren't you? Well, I will be starting those of you with uninjured beasts on patrolling over the Channel Fleet anyway while the others recover; you can touch down for a bit by the flagship and hear the news. They'll be damned glad to see you; we haven't been able to spare anyone long enough to bring them the post in a month."
"Will you want us tomorrow, then?" Chenery asked, stifling a yawn, not entirely successfully.
"No, I can spare you a day. See to your dragons, and enjoy the rest while it lasts," Lenton said, with a sharp, braying laugh. "I'll be having you rousted out of bed at dawn the day after."
Temeraire slept very heavily and late the next morning, leaving Laurence to occupy himself for some hours after breakfast. He met Berkley at the table, and walked back with him to see Maximus. The Regal Copper was still eating, a procession of fresh-slaughtered sheep going down his gullet one after another, and he only rumbled a wordless, mouth-full greeting as they came to the clearing.
Berkley brought out a bottle of rather terrible wine, and drank most of it himself while Laurence sipped at his glass to be polite, as they told over the battle again with diagrams scratched in the dirt and pebbles representing the dragons. "We would do very well to add a light-flyer, a Greyling if one can be spared, to fly lookout above the formation," Berkley said, sitting back heavily upon a rock. "It is all our big dragons being young; when the big ones panic in that way, the little ones will have a start even if they know better."
Laurence nodded. "Although I hope this misadventure will at least have given them some experience in dealing with the fright," he said. "In any event, the French cannot count on having such ideal circumstances often; without the cloud cover they should never have managed it."
"Gentlemen; are you looking over the plan of yesterday?" Choiseul had been walking past towards the headquarters; he joined them and crouched down beside the diagram. "I am very sorry to have been away at the beginning." His coat was dusty and his neckcloth was stained badly with sweat: he looked as though he had not shifted his clothes since yesterday, and a thin tracery of red veins stood out in the whites of his eyes; he rubbed his face as he looked down.
"Have you been up all night?" Laurence asked.
Choiseul shook his head. "No, but I took it in turns with Catherine – with Harcourt – to sleep a little, by Lily; she would not rest otherwise." He shut his eyes in an enormous yawn, and nearly fell over. "Merci," he said, grateful for Laurence's steadying hand, and pushed himself slowly to his feet. "I will leave you; I must get Catherine some food."
"Pray go and get some rest," Laurence said. "I will bring her something; Temeraire is asleep, and I am at liberty."
Harcourt herself was wide awake, pale with anxiety but steady now, giving orders to the crew and feeding Lily with chunks of still-steaming beef from her own hand, a constant stream of encouragement coming from her lips. Laurence had brought her some bread with bacon; she would have taken the sandwich in her bloody hands, unwilling to interrupt, but he managed to coax her away long enough to wash a little and eat while a crewman took her place. Lily kept eating, with one golden eye resting on Harcourt for reassurance.
Choiseul came back before Harcourt had quite finished, his neckcloth and coat gone and a servant following with a pot of coffee, strong and hot. "Your lieutenant is looking for you, Laurence; Temeraire begins to stir," he said, sitting down again heavily beside her. "I cannot manage to sleep; the coffee has done me well."
"Thank you, Jean-Paul, if you are not too tired, I would be very grateful for your company," she said, already drinking her second cup. "Pray have no hesitation, Laurence, I am sure Temeraire must be anxious. I am obliged to you for coming."
Laurence bowed to them both, though he had a sense of awkwardness for the first occasion since he had grown used to Harcourt. She was leaning with no appearance of consciousness against Choiseul's shoulder, and he was looking down at her with undisguised warmth; she was quite young, after all, and Laurence could not help feeling the absence of any suitable chaperone.
He consoled himself that nothing could happen with Lily and the crew present, even if they had not both been so obviously done in; in any case, he could hardly stay under the circumstances, and he hurried away to Temeraire's clearing.
The rest of the day he spent gratefully in idleness, seated comfortably in his usual place in the crook of Temeraire's foreleg and writing letters; he had formed an extensive correspondence while at sea, with all the long hours to fill, and now many of his acquaintance were owed responses. His mother, too, had managed to write him several hasty and short letters, evidently kept from his father's knowledge; at least they were not franked, so Laurence was obliged to pay to receive them.
Having gorged himself to compensate for his lack of appetite the night before, Temeraire then listened to the letters Laurence was writing and dictated his own contributions, sending greetings to Lady Allendale, and to Riley. "And do ask Captain Riley to give my best wishes to the crew of the Reliant," he said. "It seems so very long ago, Laurence, does it not? I have not had fish in months now."
Laurence smiled at this measure of time. "A great deal has happened, certainly; it is strange to think it has not even been a year," he said, sealing the envelope and writing the direction. "I only hope they are all well." It was the last, and he laid it upon the substantial pile with satisfaction; he was a great deal easier in his conscience now. "Roland," he called, and she came running up from where the cadets were playing a game of jacks. "Go take this to the dispatch post," he said, handing her the stack.
"Sir," she said, a little nervously, accepting the letters, "when I am done, might I have liberty for the evening?"
He was startled by the request; several of the ensigns and midwingmen had put in for liberty, and had it granted, that they might visit the city, but the idea of a ten-year-old cadet wandering about Dover alone was absurd, even if she were not a girl. "Would this be for yourself alone, or will you be going with one of the others?" he asked, thinking she might have been invited to join one of the older officers in a respectable excursion.
"No, sir, only for me," she said; she looked so very hopeful that Laurence thought for a moment of granting it and taking her himself, but he could not like to leave Temeraire alone to brood over the previous day.
"Perhaps another time, Roland," he said gently. "We will be here in Dover for a long time now, and I promise you will have another opportunity."
"Oh," she said, downcast. "Yes, sir." She went away drooping so that Laurence felt guilty.
Temeraire watched her go and inquired, "Laurence, is there something particularly interesting in Dover, and might we go and see it? So many of our crew seem to be making a visit."
"Oh dear," Laurence said; he felt rather awkward explaining that the main attraction was the abundance of harbor prostitutes and cheap liquor. "Well, a city has a great many people in it, and thus various entertainments provided in close proximity," he tried.
"Do you mean such as more books?" Temeraire said. "But I have never seen Dunne or Collins reading, and they were so very excited to be going: they talked of nothing else all yesterday evening."
Laurence silently cursed the two unfortunate young midwingmen for complicating his task, already planning their next week's duties in a vengeful spirit. "There is also the theater, and concerts," he said lamely. But this was carrying concealment too far: the sting of dishonesty was unpleasant, and he could not bear to feel he had been deceitful to Temeraire, who after all was grown now. "But I am afraid that some of them go there to drink, and keep low company," he said more frankly.
"Oh, you mean whores," Temeraire said, startling Laurence so greatly he nearly fell from his seat. "I did not know they had those in cities, too, but now I understand."
"Where on earth had you heard of them?" Laurence asked, steadying himself; now relieved of the burden of explanation, he felt irrationally offended that someone else had chosen to enlighten Temeraire.
"Oh, Victoriatus at Loch Laggan told me, for I wondered why the officers were going down to the village when they did not have family there," Temeraire said. "But you have never gone; are you sure you would not like to?" he added, almost hopefully.
"My dear, you must not say such things," Laurence said, blushing and shaking with laughter at the same time. "It is not a respectable subject for conversation, at all, and if men cannot be prevented from indulging the habit, they at least ought not to be encouraged. I shall certainly speak with Dunne and Collins; they ought not to be bragging about it, and especially not where the ensigns might hear."
"I do not understand," Temeraire said. "Vindicatus said that it was prodigiously nice for men, and also desirable, for otherwise they might like to get married, and that did not sound very pleasant at all. Although if you very much wished to, I suppose I would not mind." He made this last speech with very little sincerity, looking at Laurence sideways, as if to gauge the effect.
Laurence's mirth and embarrassment both faded at once. "I am afraid you have been given some very incomplete knowledge," he said gently. "Forgive me; I ought to have spoken of these matters to you before. I must beg you to have no anxiety: you are my first charge and will always be, even if I should ever marry, and I do not suppose I will."
He paused a moment to reflect if speaking further would give Temeraire more worry, but in the end he decided to err on the side of full confidence, and added, "There was something of an understanding between myself and a lady, before you came to me, but she has since set me at liberty."
"Do you mean she has refused you?" Temeraire said, very indignantly, by way of demonstrating that dragons might be as contrary as men. "I am very sorry, Laurence; if you like to get married, I am sure you can find someone else, much nicer."
"This is very flattering, but I assure you, I have not the least desire to seek out a replacement," Laurence said.
Temeraire ducked his head a little, and made no further demurrals, quite evidently pleased. "But Laurence – " he said, then halted. "Laurence," he asked, "if it is not a fit subject, does that mean I ought not speak of it anymore?"
"You must be careful to avoid it in any wider company, but you may always speak of anything you like to me," Laurence said.
"I am merely curious, now, if that is all there is in Dover," Temeraire said. "For Roland is too young for whores, is she not?"
"I am beginning to feel the need of a glass of wine to fortify myself against this conversation," Laurence said ruefully.
Thankfully, Temeraire was satisfied with some further explanation of what the theater and concerts might be, and the other attractions of a city; he turned his attention willingly to a discussion of the planned route for their patrol, which a runner had brought over that morning, and even inquired about the possibility of catching some fish for dinner. Laurence was glad to see him so recovered in spirit after the previous day's misfortunes, and had just decided that he would take Roland to the town after all, if Temeraire did not object, when he saw her returning in the company of another captain: a woman.
He had been sitting upon Temeraire's foreleg in what he was abruptly conscious was a state of disarray; he hurriedly climbed down on the far side so that he was briefly hidden by Temeraire's body. There was no time to put back his coat, which was hung over a tree limb some distance away in any case, but he tucked his shirt back into his trousers and tied his neckcloth hastily back round his neck.
He came around to make his bow, and nearly stumbled as he saw her clearly; she was not unhandsome, but her face was marred badly by a scar that could only have been made by a sword; the left eye drooped a little at the corner where the blade had just missed it, and the flesh was drawn along an angry red line all the way down her face, fading to a thinner white scar along her neck. She was his own age, or perhaps a little older; the scar made it difficult to tell, but in any case she wore the triple bars which marked her as a senior captain, and a small gold medal of the Nile in her lapel.
"Laurence, is it?" she said, without waiting for any sort of introduction, while he was still busy striving to conceal his surprise. "I am Jane Roland, Excidium's captain; I would take it as a personal favor if I might have Emily for the evening – if she can possibly be spared." She glanced pointedly at the idle cadets and ensigns; her tone was sarcastic, and she was clearly offended.
"I beg your pardon," Laurence said, realizing his mistake. "I had thought she wanted liberty to visit the town; I did not realize – " And here he barely caught himself; he was quite sure they were mother and daughter, not only because of the shared name but also a certain similarity of feature and expression, but he could not simply make the assumption. "Certainly you may have her," he finished instead.
Hearing his explanation, Captain Roland unbent at once. "Ha! I see, what mischief you must have imagined her getting into," she said; her laugh was curiously hearty and unfeminine. "Well, I promise I shan't let her run wild, and to have her back by eight o'clock. Thank you; Excidium and I have not seen her in almost a year, and we are in danger of forgetting what she looks like."
Laurence bowed and saw them off; Roland hurrying to keep up with her mother's long, mannish stride, speaking the whole time in obvious excitement and enthusiasm, and waving her hand towards her friends as she went away. Watching them go, Laurence felt a little foolish; he had at last grown used to Captain Harcourt, and should have been able to draw the natural conclusion. Excidium was after all another Longwing; presumably he too insisted on a female captain just as did Lily, and with his many years of service, his captain could scarcely have avoided battle. Yet Laurence had to own he was surprised, and not a little shocked, to see a woman so cut about and so forward; Harcourt, his only other example of a female captain, was by no means missish, but she was still quite young and conscious of her early promotion, which perhaps made her less assured.
With the subject of marriage so fresh in his mind after his discussion with Temeraire, he also could not help wondering about Emily's father; if marriage was an awkward proposition for a male aviator, it seemed nearly inconceivable for a female one. The only thing he could imagine was that Emily was natural-born, and as soon as the idea occurred to him he scolded himself to be entertaining such thoughts about a perfectly respectable woman he had just met.
But his involuntary guess proved entirely correct, in the event. "I am afraid I have not the slightest idea; I have not seen him in ten years," she said, later that evening; she had invited him to join her for a late supper at the officers' club after bringing Emily back, and after a few glasses of wine he had not been able to resist making a tentative inquiry after the health of Emily's father. "It is not as though we were married, you know; I do not believe he even knows Emily's name."
She seemed wholly unconscious of any shame, and after all Laurence had privately felt any more legitimate situation would have been impossible. But he was uncomfortable nevertheless; thankfully, though she noticed, she did not take any offense at it for herself, but rather said kindly, "I dare say our ways are still odd to you. But you can marry, if you like, it is not held against you at all in the Corps. It is only that it is rather hard on the other person, always taking second place to a dragon. For my own part, I have never felt anything wanting; I should never have desired children if it were not for Excidium's sake, although Emily is a dear, and I am very happy to have her. But it was sadly inconvenient, for all that."
"So Emily is to follow you as his captain?" Laurence said. "May I ask you, are the dragons, the long-lived ones, I mean, always inherited this way?"
"When we can manage it; they take it very hard, you see, losing a handler, and they are more likely to accept a new one if it is someone they have some connection to, and whom they feel shares their grief," she said. "So we breed ourselves as much as them; I expect they will be asking you to manage one or two for the Corps yourself."
"Good Lord," he said, startled by the idea; he had discarded the thought of children with his plans of marriage, from the very moment of Edith's refusal, and still further gone now that he was aware of Temeraire's objections; he could not immediately imagine how he might arrange the matter.
"I suppose it must be rather shocking to you, poor fellow. I am sorry," she said. "I would offer, but you ought to wait until he is at least ten years old; and in any case I cannot be spared just now."
Laurence required a moment to understand what she meant, then he snatched up his wineglass with an unsteady hand and endeavored to conceal his face behind it; he could feel color rising in his cheeks despite all the will in the world to prevent it. "Very kind," he said into the cup, strangled half between mortification and laughter; it was not the sort of offer he had ever envisioned receiving, even if it had only half been made.
"Catherine might do for you by then, however," Roland went on, still in that appallingly practical tone. "That might do nicely, indeed; you could have one each for Lily and Temeraire."
"Thank you!" he said, very firmly, in desperation trying to change the subject. "May I bring you a glass of something to drink?"
"Oh, yes; port would be splendid, thank you," she said. By this time he was beyond being shocked; and when he returned with two glasses and she offered him an already-lit cigar, he shared it with her willingly.
He stayed talking with her for several hours more, until they were the only ones left in the club and the servants were beginning to pointedly stop concealing their yawns. They climbed the stairs together. "It is not so very late as all that," she said, looking at the handsome great clock at the end of the upper landing. "Are you very tired? We might have a hand or two of piquet in my rooms."
By this time he had begun to be so easy with her that he thought nothing of the suggestion. When he left her at last, very late, to return to his own rooms, a servant was walking down the hall and glanced at him; only then did he consider the propriety of his behavior and suffer a qualm. But the damage, if any, had already been done; he put it from his mind, and sought his bed at last.READ MORE >>