THE DAY WAS unseasonably warm for November, but in some misguided deference to the Chinese embassy, the fire in the Admiralty boardroom had been heaped excessively high, and Laurence was standing directly before it. He had dressed with especial care, in his best uniform, and all throughout the long and unbearable interview the lining of his thick bottle-green broadcloth coat had been growing steadily more sodden with sweat.
Over the doorway, behind Lord Barham, the official indicator with its compass arrow showed the direction of the wind over the Channel: in the north-northeast today, fair for France; very likely even now some ships of the Channel Fleet were standing in to have a look at Napoleon's harbors. His shoulders held at attention, Laurence fixed his eyes upon the broad metal disk and tried to keep himself distracted with such speculation; he did not trust himself to meet the cold, unfriendly gaze fixed upon him.
Barham stopped speaking and coughed again into his fist; the elaborate phrases he had prepared sat not at all in his sailor's mouth, and at the end of every awkward, halting line, he stopped and darted a look over at the Chinese with a nervous agitation that approached obsequity. It was not a very creditable performance, but under ordinary circumstances, Laurence would have felt a degree of sympathy for Barham's position: some sort of formal message had been anticipated, even perhaps an envoy, but no one had ever imagined that the Emperor of China would send his own brother halfway around the world.
Prince Yongxing could, with a word, set their two nations at war; and there was besides something inherently awful in his presence: the impervious silence with which he met Barham's every remark; the overwhelming splendor of his dark yellow robes, embroidered thickly with dragons; the slow and relentless tapping of his long, jewel-encrusted fingernail against the arm of his chair. He did not even look at Barham: he only stared directly across the table at Laurence, grim and thin-lipped.
His retinue was so large they filled the boardroom to the corners, a dozen guards all sweltering and dazed in their quilted armor and as many servants besides, most with nothing to do, only attendants of one sort or another, all of them standing along the far wall of the room and trying to stir the air with broad-paneled fans. One man, evidently a translator, stood behind the prince, murmuring when Yongxing lifted a hand, generally after one of Barham's more involved periods.
Two other official envoys sat to Yongxing's either side. These men had been presented to Laurence only perfunctorily, and they had neither of them said a word, though the younger, called Sun Kai, had been watching all the proceedings, impassively, and following the translator's words with quiet attention. The elder, a big, round-bellied man with a tufted grey beard, had gradually been overcome by the heat: his head had sunk forward onto his chest, mouth half open for air, and his hand was barely even moving his fan towards his face. They were robed in dark blue silk, almost as elaborately as the prince himself, and together they made an imposing façade: certainly no such embassy had ever been seen in the West.
A far more practiced diplomat than Barham might have been pardoned for succumbing to some degree of servility, but Laurence was scarcely in any mood to be forgiving; though he was nearly more furious with himself, at having hoped for anything better. He had come expecting to plead his case, and privately in his heart he had even imagined a reprieve; instead he had been scolded in terms he would have scrupled to use to a raw lieutenant, and all in front of a foreign prince and his retinue, assembled like a tribunal to hear his crimes. Still he held his tongue as long as he could manage, but when Barham at last came about to saying, with an air of great condescension, "Naturally, Captain, we have it in mind that you shall be put to another hatchling, afterwards," Laurence had reached his limit.
"No, sir," he said, breaking in. "I am sorry, but no: I will not do it, and as for another post, I must beg to be excused."
Sitting beside Barham, Admiral Powys of the Aerial Corps had remained quite silent through the course of the meeting; now he only shook his head, without any appearance of surprise, and folded his hands together over his ample belly. Barham gave him a furious look and said to Laurence, "Perhaps I am not clear, Captain; this is not a request. You have been given your orders, you will carry them out."
"I will be hanged first," Laurence said flatly, past caring that he was speaking in such terms to the First Lord of the Admiralty: the death of his career if he had still been a naval officer, and it could scarcely do him any good even as an aviator. Yet if they meant to send Temeraire away, back to China, his career as an aviator was finished: he would never accept a position with any other dragon. None other would ever compare, to Laurence's mind, and he would not subject a hatchling to being second-best when there were men in the Corps lined up six-deep for the chance.
Yongxing did not say anything, but his lips tightened; his attendants shifted and murmured amongst themselves in their own language. Laurence did not think he was imagining the hint of disdain in their tone, directed less at himself than at Barham; and the First Lord evidently shared the impression, his face growing mottled and choleric with the effort of preserving the appearance of calm. "By God, Laurence; if you imagine you can stand here in the middle of Whitehall and mutiny, you are wrong; I think perhaps you are forgetting that your first duty is to your country and your King, not to this dragon of yours."
"No, sir; it is you who are forgetting. It was for duty I put Temeraire into harness, sacrificing my naval rank, with no knowledge then that he was any breed truly out of the ordinary, much less a Celestial," Laurence said. "And for duty I took him through a difficult training and into a hard and dangerous service; for duty I have taken him into battle, and asked him to hazard his life and happiness. I will not answer such loyal service with lies and deceit."
"Enough noise, there," Barham said. "Anyone would think you were being asked to hand over your firstborn. I am sorry if you have made such a pet of the creature you cannot bear to lose him - "
"Temeraire is neither my pet nor my property, sir," Laurence snapped. "He has served England and the King as much as I have, or you yourself, and now, because he does not choose to go back to China, you stand there and ask me to lie to him. I cannot imagine what claim to honor I should have if I agreed to it. Indeed," he added, unable to restrain himself, "I wonder that you should even have made the proposal; I wonder at it greatly."
"Oh, your soul to the devil, Laurence," Barham said, losing his last veneer of formality; he had been a serving sea-officer for years before joining the Government, and he was still very little a politician when his temper was up. "He is a Chinese dragon, it stands to reason he will like China better; in any case, he belongs to them, and there is an end to it. The name of thief is a very unpleasant one, and His Majesty's Government does not propose to invite it."
"I know how I am to take that, I suppose." If Laurence had not already been half-broiled, he would have flushed. "And I utterly reject the accusation, sir. These gentlemen do not deny they had given the egg to France; we seized it from a French man-of-war; the ship and the egg were condemned as lawful prize out of hand in the Admiralty courts, as you very well know. By no possible understanding does Temeraire belong to them; if they were so anxious about letting a Celestial out of their hands, they ought not have given him away in the shell."
Yongxing snorted and broke into their shouting-match. "That is correct," he said; his English was thickly accented, formal and slow, but the measured cadences only lent all the more effect to his words. "From the first it was folly to let the second-born egg of Lung Tien Qian pass over sea. That, no one can now dispute."
It silenced them both, and for a moment no one spoke, save the translator quietly rendering Yongxing's words for the rest of the Chinese. Then Sun Kai unexpectedly said something in their tongue which made Yongxing look around at him sharply. Sun kept his head inclined deferentially, and did not look up, but still it was the first suggestion Laurence had seen that their embassy might perhaps not speak with a single voice. But Yongxing snapped a reply, in a tone which did not allow of any further comment, and Sun did not venture to make one. Satisfied that he had quelled his subordinate, Yongxing turned back to them and added, "Yet regardless of the evil chance that brought him into your hands, Lung Tien Xiang was meant to go to the French Emperor, not to be made beast of burden for a common soldier."
Laurence stiffened; common soldier rankled, and for the first time he turned to look directly at the prince, meeting that cold, contemptuous gaze with an equally steady one. "We are at war with France, sir; if you choose to ally yourself with our enemies and send them material assistance, you can hardly complain when we take it in fair fight."
"Nonsense!" Barham broke in, at once and loudly. "China is by no means an ally of France, by no means at all; we certainly do not view China as a French ally. You are not here to speak to His Imperial Highness, Laurence; control yourself," he added, in a savage undertone.
But Yongxing ignored the attempt at interruption. "And now you make piracy your defense?" he said, contemptuous. "We do not concern ourselves with the customs of barbaric nations. How merchants and thieves agree to pillage one another is not of interest to the Celestial Throne, except when they choose to insult the Emperor as you have."
"No, Your Highness, no such thing, not in the least," Barham said hurriedly, even while he looked pure venom at Laurence. "His Majesty and his Government have nothing but the deepest affection for the Emperor; no insult would ever willingly be offered, I assure you. If we had only known of the extraordinary nature of the egg, of your objections, this situation would never have arisen - "
"Now, however, you are well aware," Yongxing said, "and the insult remains: Lung Tien Xiang is still in harness, treated little better than a horse, expected to carry burdens and exposed to all the brutalities of war, and all this, with a mere captain as his companion. Better had his egg sunk to the bottom of the ocean!"
Appalled, Laurence was glad to see this callousness left Barham and Powys as staring and speechless as himself. Even among Yongxing's own retinue, the translator flinched, shifting uneasily, and for once did not translate the prince's words back into Chinese.
"Sir, I assure you, since we learned of your objections, he has not been under harness at all, not a stitch of it," Barham said, recovering. "We have been at the greatest of pains to see to Temeraire's - that is, to Lung Tien Xiang's - comfort, and to make redress for any inadequacy in his treatment. He is no longer assigned to Captain Laurence, that I can assure you: they have not spoken these last two weeks."
The reminder was a bitter one, and Laurence felt what little remained of his temper fraying away. "If either of you had any real concern for his comfort, you would consult his feelings, not your own desires," he said, his voice rising, a voice which had been trained to bellow orders through a gale. "You complain of having him under harness, and in the same breath ask me to trick him into chains, so you might drag him away against his will. I will not do it; I will never do it, and be damned to you all."
Judging by his expression, Barham would have been glad to have Laurence himself dragged away in chains: eyes almost bulging, hands flat on the table, on the verge of rising; for the first time, Admiral Powys spoke, breaking in, and forestalled him. "Enough, Laurence, hold your tongue. Barham, nothing further can be served by keeping him. Out, Laurence; out at once: you are dismissed."
The long habit of obedience held: Laurence flung himself out of the room. The intervention likely saved him from an arrest for insubordination, but he went with no sense of gratitude; a thousand things were pent up in his throat, and even as the door swung heavily shut behind him, he turned back. But the Marines stationed to either side were gazing at him with thoughtlessly rude interest, as if he were a curiosity exhibited for their entertainment. Under their open, inquisitive looks he mastered his temper a little and turned away before he could betray himself more thoroughly.
Barham's words were swallowed by the heavy wood, but the inarticulate rumble of his still-raised voice followed Laurence down the corridor. He felt almost drunk with anger, his breath coming in short abrupt spurts and his vision obscured, not by tears, not at all by tears, except of rage. The antechamber of the Admiralty was full of sea-officers, clerks, political officials, even a green-coated aviator rushing through with dispatches. Laurence shouldered his way roughly to the doors, his shaking hands thrust deep into his coat pockets to conceal them from view.
He struck out into the crashing din of late-afternoon London, Whitehall full of workingmen going home for their suppers, and the bawling of the hackney drivers and chair-men over all, crying, "Make a lane, there," through the crowds. His feelings were as disordered as his surroundings, and he was navigating the street by instinct; he had to be called three times before he recognized his own name.
He turned only reluctantly: he had no desire to be forced to return a civil word or gesture from a former colleague. But with a measure of relief he saw it was Captain Roland, not an ignorant acquaintance. He was surprised to see her; very surprised, for her dragon, Excidium, was a formation-leader at the Dover covert. She could not easily have been spared from her duties, and in any case she could not come to the Admiralty openly, being a female officer, one of those whose existence was made necessary by the insistence of Longwings on female captains. The secret was but barely known outside the ranks of the aviators, and jealously kept against certain public disapproval; Laurence himself had found it difficult to accept the notion, at first, but he had grown so used to the idea that now Roland looked very odd to him out of uniform: she had put on skirts and a heavy cloak by way of concealment, neither of which suited her.
"I have been puffing after you for the last five minutes," she said, taking his arm as she reached him. "I was wandering about that great cavern of a building, waiting for you to come out, and then you went straight past me in such a ferocious hurry I could scarcely catch you. These clothes are a damned nuisance; I hope you appreciate the trouble I am taking for you, Laurence. But never mind," she added, her voice gentling. "I can see from your face that it did not go well: let us go and have some dinner, and you shall tell me everything."
"Thank you, Jane; I am glad to see you," he said, and let her turn him in the direction of her inn, though he did not think he could swallow. "How do you come to be here, though? Surely there is nothing wrong with Excidium?"
"Nothing in the least, unless he has given himself indigestion," she said. "No; but Lily and Captain Harcourt are coming along splendidly, and so Lenton was able to assign them a double patrol and give me a few days of liberty. Excidium took it as excuse to eat three fat cows at once, the wretched greedy thing; he barely cracked an eyelid when I proposed my leaving him with Sanders - that is my new first lieutenant - and coming to bear you company. So I put together a street-going rig and came up with the courier. Oh, Hell: wait a minute, will you?" She stopped and kicked vigorously, shaking her skirts loose: they were too long, and had caught on her heels.
He held her by the elbow so she did not topple over, and afterwards they continued on through the London streets at a slower pace. Roland's mannish stride and scarred face drew enough rude stares that Laurence began to glare at the passersby who looked too long, though she herself paid them no mind; she noticed his behavior, however, and said, "You are ferocious out of temper; do not frighten those poor girls. What did those fellows say to you at the Admiralty?"
"You have heard, I suppose, that an embassy has come from China; they mean to take Temeraire back with them, and Government does not care to object. But evidently he will have none of it: tells them all to go and hang themselves, though they have been at him for weeks now to go," Laurence said. As he spoke, a sharp sensation of pain, like a constriction just under his breastbone, made itself felt. He could picture quite clearly Temeraire kept nearly all alone in the old, worn-down London covert, scarcely used in the last hundred years, with neither Laurence nor his crew to keep him company, no one to read to him, and of his own kind only a few small courier-beasts flying through on dispatch service.
"Of course he will not go," Roland said. "I cannot believe they imagined they could persuade him to leave you. Surely they ought to know better; I have always heard the Chinese cried up as the very pinnacle of dragon-handlers."
"Their prince has made no secret he thinks very little of me; likely they expected Temeraire to share much the same opinion, and to be pleased to go back," Laurence said. "In any case, they grow tired of trying to persuade him; so that villain Barham ordered I should lie to him and say we were assigned to Gibraltar, all to get him aboard a transport and out to sea, too far for him to fly back to land, before he knew what they were about."
"Oh, infamous." Her hand tightened almost painfully on his arm. "Did Powys have nothing to say to it? I cannot believe he let them suggest such a thing to you; one cannot expect a naval officer to understand these things, but Powys should have explained matters to him."
"I dare say he can do nothing; he is only a serving officer, and Barham is appointed by the Ministry," Laurence said. "Powys at least saved me from putting my neck in a noose: I was too angry to control myself, and he sent me away."
They had reached the Strand; the increase in traffic made conversation difficult, and they had to pay attention to avoid being splashed by the questionable grey slush heaped in the gutters, thrown up onto the pavement by the lumbering carts and hackney wheels. His anger ebbing away, Laurence was increasingly low in his spirits.
From the moment of separation, he had consoled himself with the daily expectation that it would soon end: the Chinese would soon see Temeraire did not wish to go, or the Admiralty would give up the attempt to placate them. It had seemed a cruel sentence even so; they had not been parted a full day's time in the months since Temeraire's hatching, and Laurence had scarcely known what to do with himself, or how to fill the hours. But even the two long weeks were nothing to this, the dreadful certainty that he had ruined all his chances. The Chinese would not yield, and the Ministry would find some way of getting Temeraire sent off to China in the end: they plainly had no objection to telling him a pack of lies for the purpose. Likely enough Barham would never consent to his seeing Temeraire now even for a last farewell.
Laurence had not even allowed himself to consider what his own life might be with Temeraire gone. Another dragon was of course an impossibility, and the Navy would not have him back now. He supposed he could take on a ship in the merchant fleet, or a privateer; but he did not think he would have the heart for it, and he had done well enough out of prize-money to live on. He could even marry and set up as a country gentleman; but that prospect, once so idyllic in his imagination, now seemed drab and colorless.
Worse yet, he could hardly look for sympathy: all his former acquaintance would call it a lucky escape, his family would rejoice, and the world would think nothing of his loss. By any measure, there was something ridiculous in his being so adrift: he had become an aviator quite unwillingly, only from the strongest sense of duty, and less than a year had passed since his change in station; yet already he could hardly consider the possibility. Only another aviator, perhaps indeed only another captain, would truly be able to understand his sentiments, and with Temeraire gone, he would be as severed from their company as aviators themselves were from the rest of the world.
The front room at the Crown and Anchor was not quiet, though it was still early for dinner by town standards. The place was not a fashionable establishment, nor even genteel, its custom mostly consisting of countrymen used to a more reasonable hour for their food and drink. It was not the sort of place a respectable woman would have come, nor indeed the kind of place Laurence himself would have ever voluntarily frequented in earlier days. Roland drew some insolent stares, others only curious, but no one attempted any greater liberty: Laurence made an imposing figure beside her with his broad shoulders and his dress-sword slung at his hip.
Roland led Laurence up to her rooms, sat him in an ugly armchair, and gave him a glass of wine. He drank deeply, hiding behind the bowl of the glass from her sympathetic look: he was afraid he might easily be unmanned. "You must be faint with hunger, Laurence," she said. "That is half the trouble." She rang for the maid; shortly a couple of manservants climbed up with a very good sort of plain single-course dinner: a roast fowl, with greens and beef; gravy sauce; some small cheesecakes made with jam; calf's feet pie; a dish of red cabbage stewed; and a small biscuit pudding for relish. She had them place all the food on the table at once, rather than going through removes, and sent them away.
Laurence did not think he would eat, but once the food was before him he found he was hungry after all. He had been eating very indifferently, thanks to irregular hours and the low table of his cheap boarding-house, chosen for its proximity to the covert where Temeraire was kept; now he ate steadily, Roland carrying the conversation nearly alone and distracting him with service gossip and trivialities.
"I was sorry to lose Lloyd, of course - they mean to put him to the Anglewing egg that is hardening at Kinloch Laggan," she said, speaking of her first lieutenant.
"I think I saw it there," Laurence said, rousing a little and lifting his head from his plate. "Obversaria's egg?"
"Yes, and we have great hopes of the issue," she said. "Lloyd was over the moon, of course, and I am very happy for him; still, it is no easy thing to break in a new premier after five years, with all the crew and Excidium himself murmuring about how Lloyd used to do things. But Sanders is a good-hearted, dependable fellow; they sent him up from Gibraltar, after Granby refused the post."
"What? Refused it?" Laurence cried, in great dismay: Granby was his own first lieutenant. "Not for my sake, I hope."
"Oh, Lord, you did not know?" Roland said, in equal dismay. "Granby spoke to me very pretty; said he was obliged, but he did not choose to shift his position. I was quite sure he had consulted you about the matter; I thought perhaps you had been given some reason to hope."
"No," Laurence said, very low. "He is more likely to end up with no position at all; I am very sorry to hear he should have passed up so good a place." The refusal could have done Granby no good with the Corps; a man who had turned down one offer could not soon expect another, and Laurence would shortly have no power at all to help him along.
"Well, I am damned sorry to have given you any more cause for concern," Roland said, after a moment. "Admiral Lenton has not broken up your crew, you know, for the most part: only gave a few fellows to Berkley out of desperation, he being so short-handed now. We were all so sure that Maximus had reached his final growth; shortly after you were called here, he began to prove us wrong, and so far he has put on fifteen feet in length." She added this last in an attempt to recover the lighter tone of the conversation, but it was impossible: Laurence found that his stomach had closed, and he set down his knife and fork with the plate still half-full.
Roland drew the curtains; it was already growing dark outside. "Do you care for a concert?"
"I am happy to accompany you," he said, mechanically, and she shook her head.
"No, never mind; I see it will not do. Come to bed then, my dear fellow; there is no sense in sitting about and moping."
They put out the candles and lay down together. "I have not the least notion what to do," he said quietly: the cover of dark made the confession a little easier. "I called Barham a villain, and I cannot forgive him asking me to lie; very ungentleman-like. But he is not a scrub; he would not be at such shifts if he had any other choice."
"It makes me quite ill to hear about him bowing and scraping to this foreign prince." Roland propped herself upon her elbow on the pillows. "I was in Canton harbor once, as a mid, on a transport coming back the long way from India; those junks of theirs do not look like they could stand a mild shower, much less a gale. They cannot fly their dragons across the ocean without a pause, even if they cared to go to war with us."
"I thought as much myself, when I first heard," Laurence said. "But they do not need to fly across the ocean to end the China trade, and wreck our shipping to India also, if they liked; besides they share a border with Russia. It would mean the end of the coalition against Bonaparte, if the Tsar was attacked on his eastern borders."
"I do not see the Russians have done us very much good so far, in the war, and money is a low pitiful excuse for behaving like a bounder, in a man or a nation," Roland said. "The State has been short of funds before, and somehow we have scraped by and still blacked Bonaparte's eye for him. In any case, I cannot forgive them for keeping you from Temeraire. Barham still has not let you see him at all, I suppose?"
"No, not for two weeks now. There is a decent fellow at the covert who has taken him messages for me, and lets me know that he is eating, but I cannot ask him to let me in: it would be a court-martial for us both. Though for my own part, I hardly know if I would let it stop me now."
He could scarcely have imagined even saying such a thing a year ago; he did not like to think it now, but honesty put the words into his mouth. Roland did not cry out against it, but then she was an aviator herself. She reached out to stroke his cheek, and drew him down to such comfort as might be found in her arms.
Laurence started up in the dark room, sleep broken: Roland was already out of bed. A yawning housemaid was standing in the doorway, holding up a candle, the yellow light spilling into the room. She handed Roland a sealed dispatch and stayed there, staring with open prurient interest at Laurence; he felt a guilty flush rise in his cheeks, and glanced down to be sure he was quite covered beneath the bedclothes.
Roland had already cracked the seal; now she reached out and took the candlestick straight out of the girl's hand. "There's for you; go along now," she said, giving the maid a shilling; she shut the door in the girl's face without further ceremony. "Laurence, I must go at once," she said, coming to the bed to light the other candles, speaking very low. "This is word from Dover: a French convoy is making a run for Le Havre under dragon guard. The Channel Fleet is going after them, but there is a Flamme-de-Gloire present, and the fleet cannot engage without aerial support."
"How many ships in the French convoy, does it say?" He was already out of the bed and pulling on his breeches: a fire-breather was nearly the worst danger a ship could face, desperately risky even with a good deal of support from the air.
"Thirty or more, packed no doubt to the gills with war materiel," she said, whipping her hair into a tight braid. "Do you see my coat over there?"
Outside the window, the sky was thinning to a paler blue; soon the candles would be unnecessary. Laurence found the coat and helped her into it, some part of his thoughts already occupied in calculating the likely strength of the merchant ships, what proportion of the fleet would be detached to go after them, how many might yet slip through to safe harbor: the guns at Le Havre were nasty. If the wind had not shifted since yesterday, they had favorable conditions for their run. Thirty ships' worth of iron, copper, quicksilver, gunpowder; Bonaparte might no longer be a danger at sea after Trafalgar, but on land he was still master of Europe, and such a haul might easily meet his supply needs for months.
"And just give me that cloak, will you?" Roland asked, breaking into his train of thought. The voluminous folds concealed her male dress, and she pulled the hood up over her head. "There, that will do."
"Hold a moment; I am coming with you," Laurence said, struggling into his own coat. "I hope I can be some use. If Berkley is short-handed on Maximus, I can at least pull on a strap or help shove off boarders. Leave the luggage and ring for the maid: we will have them send the rest of your things over to my boarding-house."
They hurried through the streets, still mostly empty: night-soil men rattling past with their fetid carts, day laborers beginning on their rounds to look for work, maids in their clinking pattens going to market, and the herds of animals with their lowing breath white in the air. A clammy, bitter fog had descended in the night, like a prickling of ice on the skin. At least the absence of crowds meant Roland did not have to pay much mind to her cloak, and they could go at something approaching a run.
The London covert was situated not far from the Admiralty offices, along the western side of the Thames; despite the location, so eminently convenient, the buildings immediately around it were shabby, in disrepair: where those lived who could afford nothing farther away from dragons; some of the houses even abandoned, except for a few skinny children who peered out suspiciously at the sound of strangers passing. A sludge of liquid refuse ran along the gutters of the streets; as Laurence and Roland ran, their boots broke the thin skim of ice on top, letting the stench up to follow them.
Here the streets were truly empty; but even so as they hurried a heavy cart sprang almost as if by malicious intent from the fog: Roland hauled Laurence aside and up onto the pavement just quick enough he was not clipped and dragged under the wheels. The drover never even paused in his careening progress, but vanished around the next corner without apology.
Laurence gazed down at his best dress trousers in dismay: spattered black with filth. "Never mind," Roland said consolingly. "No one will mind in the air, and maybe it will brush off." This was more optimism than he could muster, but there was certainly no time to do anything about them now, and so they resumed their hurried progress.
The covert gates stood out shining against the dingy streets and the equally dingy morning: ironwork freshly painted black, with polished brass locks; unexpectedly, a pair of young Marines in their red uniforms were lounging nearby, muskets leaned against the wall. The gatekeeper on duty touched his hat to Roland as he came to let them in, while the Marines squinted at her in some confusion: her cloak was well back off her shoulders for the moment, revealing both her triple gold bars and her by no means shabby endowment.
Laurence stepped into their line of sight to block their view of her, frowning. "Thank you, Patson; the Dover courier?" he said to the gatekeeper, as soon as they had come through.
"Believe he's waiting for you, sir," Patson said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder as he pulled the gates to again. "Just at the first clearing, if you please. Don't you worry about them none," he added, scowling at the Marines, who looked properly abashed: they were barely more than boys, and Patson was a big man, a former armorer, made only more awful by an eye-patch and the seared red skin about it. "I'll learn them properly, never fret."
"Thank you, Patson; carry on," Roland said, and on they went. "Whatever are those lobsters doing here? Not officers, at least, we may be grateful. I still recall twelve years ago, some Army officer found out Captain St. Ger-main when she got wounded at Toulon; he made a wretched to-do over the whole thing, and it nearly got into the papers: idiotic affair."
There was only a narrow border of trees and buildings around the perimeter of the covert to shield it from the air and noise of the city; they almost at once reached the first clearing, a small space barely large enough for a middling-sized dragon to spread its wings. The courier was indeed waiting: a young Winchester, her purple wings not yet quite darkened to adult color, but fully harnessed and fidgeting to be off.
"Why, Hollin," Laurence said, shaking the captain's hand gladly: it was a great pleasure to see his former ground-crew master again, now in an officer's coat. "Is this your dragon?"
"Yes, sir, indeed it is; this is Elsie," Hollin said, beaming at him. "Elsie, this is Captain Laurence: which I have told you about him, he helped me to you."
The Winchester turned her head around and looked at Laurence with bright, interested eyes: not yet three months out of the shell, she was still small, even for her breed, but her hide was almost glossy-clean, and she looked very well-tended indeed. "So you are Temeraire's captain? Thank you; I like my Hollin very much," she said, in a light chirping voice, and gave Hollin a nudge with enough affection in it to nearly knock him over.
"I am happy to have been of service, and to make your acquaintance," Laurence said, mustering some enthusiasm, although not without an internal pang at the reminder. Temeraire was here, not five hundred yards distant, and he could not so much as exchange a greeting with him. He did look, but buildings stood in the line of his sight: no glimpse of black hide was to be seen.
Roland asked Hollin, "Is everything ready? We must be off at once."
"Yes, sir, indeed; we are only waiting for the dispatches," Hollin said. "Five minutes, if you should care to stretch your legs before the flight."
The temptation was very strong; Laurence swallowed hard. But discipline held: openly refusing a dishonorable order was one thing, sneaking about to disobey a merely unpleasant one something else; and to do so now might well reflect badly on Hollin, and Roland herself. "I will just step into the barracks here, and speak to Jervis," he said instead, and went to find the man who was overseeing Temeraire's care.
Jervis was an older man, the better part of both his left limbs lost to a wicked raking stroke across the side of the dragon on whom he had served as harness-master; on recovering against all reasonable expectations, he had been assigned to the slow duty of the London covert, so rarely used. He had an odd, lopsided appearance with his wooden leg and metal hook on one side, and he had grown a little lazy and contrary with his idleness, but Laurence had provided him with a willing ear often enough to now find a warm welcome.
"Would you be so kind as to take a word for me?" Laurence asked, after he had refused a cup of tea. "I am going to Dover to see if I can be of use; I should not like Temeraire to fret at my silence."
"That I will, and read it to him; he will need it, poor fellow," Jervis said, stumping over to fetch his inkwell and pen one-handed; Laurence turned over a scrap of paper to write the note. "That fat fellow from the Admiralty came over again not half-an-hour ago with a full passel of Marines and those fancy Chinamen, and there they are still, prating away at the dear. If they don't go soon, I shan't answer for his taking any food today, so I won't. Ugly sea-going bugger; I don't know what he is about, thinking he knows aught about dragons; that is, begging your pardon, sir," Jervis added hastily.
Laurence found his hand shook over the paper, so he spattered his first few lines and the table. He answered somehow, meaninglessly, and struggled to continue the note; words would not come. He stood there locked in mid-sentence, until suddenly he was nearly thrown off his feet, ink spreading across the floor as the table fell over; outside a terrible shattering noise, like the worst violence of a storm, a full North Sea winter's gale.
The pen was still ludicrously in his hand; he dropped it and flung open the door, Jervis stumbling out behind him. The echoes still hung in the air, and Elsie was sitting up on her hind legs, wings half-opening and closing in anxiety while Hollin and Roland tried to reassure her; the few other dragons at the covert had their heads up as well, peering over the trees and hissing in alarm.
"Laurence," Roland called, but he ignored her: he was already halfway down the path, running, his hand unconsciously gone to the hilt of his sword. He came to the clearing and found his way barred by the collapsed ruins of a barracks building and several fallen trees.
For a thousand years before the Romans first tamed the Western dragon breeds, the Chinese had already been masters of the art. They prized beauty and intelligence more than martial prowess, and looked with a little superior disdain at the fire-breathers and acid-spitters valued so highly in the West; their aerial legions were so numerous they had no need of what they regarded as so much showy flash. But they did not scorn all such unusual gifts; and in the Celestials they had reached the pinnacle of their achievement: the union of all the other graces with the subtle and deadly power which the Chinese called the divine wind, the roar with a force greater than cannon-fire.
Laurence had seen the devastation the divine wind wrought only once before, at the battle of Dover, where Temeraire had used it against Napoleon's airborne transports to potent effect. But here the poor trees had suffered the impact at point-blank range: they lay like flung matchsticks, trunks burst into flinders. The whole rough structure of the barracks, too, had smashed to the ground, the coarse mortar crumbled away entirely and the bricks scattered and broken. A hurricane might have caused such wreckage, or an earthquake, and the once-poetic name seemed suddenly far more apt.
The escort of Marines were nearly all of them backed up against the undergrowth surrounding the clearing, faces white and blank with terror; Barham alone of them had stood his ground. The Chinese also had not retreated, but they were one and all prostrated upon the ground in formal genuflection, except for Prince Yongxing himself, who remained unflinching at their head.
The wreck of one tremendous oak lay penning them all against the edge of the clearing, dirt still clinging to its roots, and Temeraire stood behind it, one foreleg resting on the trunk and his sinuous length towering over them.
"You will not say such things to me," he said, his head lowering towards Barham: his teeth were bared, and the spiked ruff around his head was raised up and trembling with anger. "I do not believe you for an instant, and I will not hear such lies; Laurence would never take another dragon. If you have sent him away, I will go after him, and if you have hurt him - "
He began to gather his breath for another roar, his chest belling out like a sail in high wind, and this time the hapless men lay directly in his path.
"Temeraire," Laurence called, scrambling ungracefully over the wreckage, sliding down the heap into the clearing in disregard of the splinters that caught at his clothing and skin. "Temeraire, I am well, I am here - "
Temeraire's head had whipped around at the first word, and he at once took the two paces needed to bring him across the clearing. Laurence held still, his heart beating very quickly, not at all with fear: the forelegs with their terrible claws landed to either side of him, and the sleek length of Temeraire's body coiled protectively about him, the great scaled sides rising up around him like shining black walls and the angled head coming to rest by him.
He rested his hands on Temeraire's snout and for a moment laid his cheek against the soft muzzle; Temeraire made a low wordless murmur of unhappiness. "Laurence, Laurence, do not leave me again."
Laurence swallowed. "My dear," he said, and stopped; no answer was possible.
They stood with their heads together in silence, the rest of the world shut out: but only for a moment. "Laurence," Roland called from beyond the encircling coils: she sounded out of breath, and her voice was urgent. "Temeraire, do move aside, there is a good fellow." Temeraire lifted up his head and reluctantly uncurled himself a little so they could speak; but all the while he kept himself between Laurence and Barham's party.
Roland ducked under Temeraire's foreleg and joined Laurence. "You had to go to Temeraire, of course, but it will look very bad to someone who does not understand dragons. For pity's sake do not let Barham push you into anything further: answer him as meek as mother-may-I, do anything he tells you." She shook her head. "By God, Laurence; I hate to leave you in such straits, but the dispatches have come, and minutes may make the difference here."
"Of course you cannot stay," he said. "They are likely waiting for you at Dover even now to launch the attack; we will manage, never fear."
"An attack? There is to be a battle?" Temeraire said, overhearing; he flexed his talons and looked away to the east, as if he might see the formations rising into the air even from here.
"Go at once, and pray take care," Laurence said hastily to Roland. "Give my apologies to Hollin."
She nodded. "Try and stay easy in your mind. I will speak with Lenton even before we launch. The Corps will not sit still for this; bad enough to separate you, but now this outrageous pressure, stirring up all the dragons like this: it cannot be allowed to continue, and no one can possibly hold you to blame."
"Do not worry or wait another instant: the attack is more important," he said, very heartily: counterfeit, as much as her assurances; they both knew that the situation was black. Laurence could not for a moment regret having gone to Temeraire's side, but he had openly disobeyed orders. No court-martial could find him innocent; there was Barham himself to lay the charges, and if questioned Laurence could hardly deny the act. He did not think they would hang him: this was not a battlefield offense, and the circumstances offered some excuse, but he would certainly have been dismissed the service if he had still been in the Navy. There was nothing to be done but face the consequences; he forced a smile, Roland gave his arm a quick squeeze, and she was gone.
The Chinese had risen and collected themselves, making a better show of it than the ragged Marines, who looked ready to bolt at any moment's notice. They all together were now picking their way over the fallen oak. The younger official, Sun Kai, more deftly scrambled over, and with one of the attendants offered a hand to the prince to help him down. Yongxing was hampered by his heavy embroidered gown, leaving trailers of bright silk like gaily colored cobwebs upon the broken branches, but if he felt any of the same terror writ large on the faces of the British soldiers, he did not show it: he seemed unshaken.
Temeraire kept a savage, brooding eye upon them all. "I am not going to sit here while everyone else goes and fights, no matter what those people want."
Laurence stroked Temeraire's neck comfortingly. "Do not let them upset you. Pray stay quite calm, my dear; losing our tempers will not improve matters." Temeraire only snorted, and his eye remained fixed and glittering, the ruff still standing upright with all the points very stiff: in no mood to be soothed.
Himself quite ashen, Barham made no haste to approach any closer to Temeraire, but Yongxing addressed him sharply, repeating demands both urgent and angry, judging by his gestures towards Temeraire; Sun Kai, however, stood apart, and regarded Laurence and Temeraire more thoughtfully. At last Barham came towards them scowling, evidently taking refuge from fear in anger; Laurence had seen it often enough in men on the eve of battle.
"This is the discipline of the Corps, I gather," Barham began: petty and spiteful, since his life had very likely been saved by the disobedience. He himself seemed to perceive as much; he grew even angrier. "Well, it will not stand with me, Laurence, not for an instant; I will see you broken for this. Sergeant, take him under arrest - "
The end of the sentence was inaudible; Barham was sinking, growing small, his shouting red mouth flashing open and shut like a gasping fish, the words becoming indistinct as the ground fell away beneath Laurence's feet. Temeraire's talons were carefully cupped around him and the great black wings were beating in broad sweeps, up up up through the dingy London air, soot dulling Temeraire's hide and speckling Laurence's hands.
Laurence settled himself in the cupped claws and rode in silence; the damage was done, and Laurence knew better than to ask Temeraire to return to the ground at once: there was a sense of true violence in the force behind his wing-strokes, rage barely checked. They were going very fast. He peered downward in some anxiety as they sped over the city walls: Temeraire was flying without harness or signals, and Laurence feared the guns might be turned on them. But the guns stayed silent: Temeraire was distinctive, with his hide and wings of unbroken black, save for the deep blue and pearlescent grey markings along the edges, and he had been recognized.
Or perhaps their passage was simply too swift for a response: they left the city behind them fifteen minutes after leaving the ground, and were soon beyond the range even of the long-barreled pepper-guns. Roads branched away through the countryside beneath them, dusted with snow, the smell of the air already much cleaner. Temeraire paused and hovered for a moment, shook his head free of dust, and sneezed loudly, jouncing Laurence about a little; but afterwards he flew on at a less frantic pace, and after another minute or two he curled his head down to speak. "Are you well, Laurence? You are not uncomfortable?"
He sounded more anxious than the subject deserved. Laurence patted his foreleg where he could reach it. "No, I am very well."
"I am very sorry to have snatched you away so," Temeraire said, some tension gone at the warmth in Laurence's voice. "Pray do not be angry; I could not let that man take you."
"No, I am not angry," Laurence said; indeed, so far as his heart was concerned there was only a great, swelling joy to be once again aloft, to feel the living current of power running through Temeraire's body, even if his more rational part knew this state could not last. "And I do not blame you for going, not in the least, but I am afraid we must turn back now."
"No; I am not taking you back to that man," Temeraire said obstinately, and Laurence understood with a sinking feeling that he had run up against Temeraire's protective instincts. "He lied to me, and kept you away, and then he wanted to arrest you: he may count himself lucky I did not squash him."
"My dear, we cannot just run wild," Laurence said. "We would be truly beyond the pale if we did such a thing; how do you imagine we would eat, except by theft? And we would be abandoning all our friends."
"I am no more use to them in London, sitting in a covert," Temeraire said, with perfect truth, and left Laurence at a loss for how to answer him. "But I do not mean to run wild; although," a little wistfully, "to be sure, it would be pleasant to do as we liked, and I do not think anyone would miss a few sheep here and there. But not while there is a battle to be fought."
"Oh dear," Laurence said, as he squinted towards the sun and realized their course was southeast, directly for their former covert at Dover. "Temeraire, they cannot let us fight; Lenton will have to order me back, and if I disobey he will arrest me just as quick as Barham, I assure you."
"I do not believe Obversaria's admiral will arrest you," Temeraire said. "She is very nice, and has always spoken to me kindly, even though she is so much older, and the flag-dragon. Besides, if he tries, Maximus and Lily are there, and they will help me; and if that man from London tries to come and take you away again, I will kill him," he added, with an alarming degree of bloodthirsty eagerness.