THEY LANDED IN the Dover covert amid the clamor and bustle of preparation: the harness-masters bellowing orders to the ground crews, the clatter of buckles and the deeper metallic ringing of the bombs being handed up in sacks to the bellmen; riflemen loading their weapons, the sharp high-pitched shriek of whetstones grinding away on sword-edges. A dozen interested dragons had followed their progress, many calling out greetings to Temeraire as he made his descent. He called back, full of excitement, his spirits rising all the while Laurence felt his own sinking.
Temeraire brought them to earth in Obversaria's clearing; it was one of the largest in the covert, as befitted her standing as flag-dragon, though as an Anglewing she was only slightly more than middling in size, and there was easily room for Temeraire to join her. She was rigged out already, her crew boarding; Admiral Lenton himself was standing beside her in full riding gear, only waiting for his officers to be aboard: minutes away from going aloft.
"Well, and what have you done?" Lenton asked, before Laurence had even managed to unfold himself out of Temeraire's claw. "Roland spoke to me, but she said she had told you to stay quiet; there is going to be the devil to pay for this."
"Sir, I am very sorry to put you in so untenable a position," Laurence said awkwardly, trying to think how he could explain Temeraire's refusal to return to London without seeming to make excuses for himself.
"No, it is my fault," Temeraire added, ducking his head and trying to look ashamed, without much success; there was too distinct a gleam of satisfaction in his eye. "I took Laurence away; that man was going to arrest him."
He sounded plainly smug, and Obversaria abruptly leaned over and batted him on the side of the head, hard enough to make him wobble even though he was half again her size. He flinched and stared at her with a surprised and wounded expression; she only snorted at him and said, "You are too old to be flying with your eyes closed. Lenton, we are ready, I think."
"Yes," Lenton said, squinting up against the sun to examine her harness. "I have no time to deal with you now, Laurence; this will have to wait."
"Of course, sir; I beg your pardon," Laurence said quietly. "Pray do not let us delay you; with your permission, we will stay in Temeraire's clearing until you return." Even cowed by Obversaria's reproof, Temeraire made a small noise of protest at this.
"No, no; don't speak like a groundling," Lenton said impatiently. "A young male like that will not stay behind when he sees his formation go, not uninjured. The same bloody mistake this fellow Barham and all the others at the Admiralty make, every time a new one is shuffled in by Government. If we ever manage to get it into their heads that dragons are not brute beasts, they start to imagine that they are just like men, and can be put under regular military discipline."
Laurence opened his mouth to deny that Temeraire would disobey, then shut it again after glancing round; Temeraire was plowing the ground restlessly with his great talons, his wings partly fanned out, and he would not meet Laurence's gaze.
"Yes, just so," Lenton said dryly, when he saw Laurence silenced. He sighed, unbending a little, and brushed his sparse grey hair back off his forehead. "If those Chinamen want him back, it can only make matters worse if he gets himself injured fighting without armor or crew," he said. "Go on and get him ready; we will speak after."
Laurence could scarcely find words to express his gratitude, but they were unnecessary in any case; Lenton was already turning back to Obversaria. There was indeed no time to waste; Laurence waved Temeraire on and ran for their usual clearing on foot, careless of his dignity. A scattered, intensely excited rush of thoughts, all fragmentary: great relief; of course Temeraire would never have stayed behind; how wretched they would have looked, jumping into a battle against orders; in a moment they would be aloft, yet nothing had truly changed in their circumstances: this might be the last time.
Many of his crewmen were sitting outside in the open, polishing equipment and oiling harness unnecessarily, pretending not to be watching the sky; they were silent and downcast; and at first they only stared when Laurence came running into the clearing. "Where is Granby?" he demanded. "Full muster, gentlemen; heavy-combat rig, at once."
By then Temeraire was overhead and descending, and the rest of the crew came spilling out of the barracks, cheering him; a general stampede towards small-arms and gear ensued, that rush which had once looked like chaos to Laurence, used as he was to naval order, but which accomplished the tremendous affair of getting a dragon equipped in a frantic hurry.
Granby came out of the barracks amid the cavalcade: a tall young officer dark-haired and lanky, his fair skin, ordinarily burnt and peeling from daily flying, but for once unmarred thanks to the weeks of being grounded. He was an aviator born and bred, as Laurence was not, and their acquaintance had not been without early friction: like many other aviators, he had resented so prime a dragon as Temeraire being claimed by a naval officer. But that resentment had not survived a shared action, and Laurence had never yet regretted taking him on as first lieutenant, despite the wide divergence in their characters. Granby had made an initial attempt out of respect to imitate the formalities which were to Laurence, raised a gentleman, as natural as breathing; but they had not taken root. Like most aviators, raised from the age of seven far from polite society, he was by nature given to a sort of easy liberty which looked a great deal like license to a censorious eye.
"Laurence, it is damned good to see you," he said now, coming to seize Laurence's hand: quite unconscious of any impropriety in addressing his commanding officer so, and making no salute; indeed he was at the same time trying to hook his sword onto his belt one-handed. "Have they changed their minds, then? I hadn't looked for anything like such good sense, but I will be the first to beg their Lordships' pardon if they have given up this notion of sending him to China."
For his part, Laurence had long since accepted that no disrespect was intended; at present he scarcely even noticed the informality; he was too bitterly sorry to disappoint Granby, especially now knowing that he had refused a prime position out of loyalty. "I am afraid not, John, but there is no time now to explain: we must get Temeraire aloft at once. Half the usual armaments, and leave the bombs; the Navy will not thank us for sinking the ships, and if it becomes really necessary Temeraire can do more damage roaring away at them."
"Right you are," Granby said, and dashed away at once to the other side of the clearing, calling out orders all around. The great leather harness was already being carried out in double-quick time, and Temeraire was doing his best to help matters along, crouching low to the ground to make it easier for the men to adjust the broad weight-bearing straps across his back.
The panels of chainmail for his breast and belly were heaved out almost as quickly. "No ceremony," Laurence said, and so the aerial crew scrambled aboard pell-mell as soon as their positions were clear, disregarding the usual order.
"We are ten short, I am sorry to say," Granby said, coming back to his side. "I sent six men to Maximus's crew at the Admiral's request; the others - " He hesitated.
"Yes," Laurence said, sparing him; the men had naturally been unhappy at having no part of the action, and the missing four had undoubtedly slipped away to seek better or at least more thorough consolation in a bottle or a woman than could be found in busy-work. He was pleased it was so few, and he did not mean to come the tyrant over them afterwards: he felt at present he had no moral ground on which to stand. "We will manage; but if there are any fellows on the ground crew who are handy with pistol or sword, and not prone to height-sickness, let us get them hooked on if they choose to volunteer."
He himself had already shifted his coat for the long heavy one of leather used in combat, and was now strapping his carabiner belt over. A low many-voiced roar began, not very far away; Laurence looked up: the smaller dragons were going aloft, and he recognized Dulcia and the grey-blue Nitidus, the end-wing members of their formation, flying in circles as they waited for the others to rise.
"Laurence, are you not ready? Do hurry, please, the others are going up," Temeraire said, anxiously, craning his head about to look; above them the middle-weight dragons were coming into view also.
Granby swung himself aboard, along with a couple of tall young harness-men, Willoughby and Porter; Laurence waited until he saw them latched onto the rings of the harness and secure, then said, "All is ready; try away."
This was one ritual that could not in safety be set aside: Temeraire rose up onto his hind legs and shook himself, making certain that the harness was secure and all the men properly hooked on. "Harder," Laurence called sharply: Temeraire was not being particularly vigorous, in his anxiety to be away.
Temeraire snorted but obeyed, and still nothing pulled loose or fell off. "All lies well; please come aboard now," he said, thumping to the ground and holding out his foreleg at once; Laurence stepped into the claw and was rather quickly tossed up to his usual place at the base of Temeraire's neck. He did not mind at all: he was pleased, exhilarated by everything: the deeply satisfying sound as his carabiner rings locked into place, the buttery feel of the oiled, double-stitched leather straps of the harness; and beneath him Temeraire's muscles were already gathering for the leap aloft.
Maximus suddenly erupted out of the trees to the north of them, his great red-and-gold body even larger than before, as Roland had reported. He was still the only Regal Copper stationed at the Channel, and he dwarfed every other creature in sight, blotting out an enormous swath of the sun. Temeraire roared joyfully at the sight and leapt up after him, black wings beating a little too quickly with over-excitement.
"Gently," Laurence called; Temeraire bobbed his head in acknowledgment, but they still overshot the slower dragon.
"Maximus, Maximus; look, I am back," Temeraire called out, circling back down to take his position alongside the big dragon, and they began beating up together to the formation's flying height. "I took Laurence away from London," he added triumphantly, in what he likely thought a confidential whisper. "They were trying to arrest him."
"Did he kill someone?" Maximus asked with interest in his deep echoing voice, not at all disapproving. "I am glad you are back; they have been making me fly in the middle while you were gone, and all the maneuvers are different," he added.
"No," said Temeraire, "he only came and talked to me when some fat old man said he should not, which does not seem like any reason to me."
"You had better shut up that Jacobin of a dragon of yours," Berkley shouted across from Maximus's back, while Laurence shook his head in despair, trying to ignore the inquisitive looks from his young ensigns.
"Pray remember we are on business, Temeraire," Laurence called, trying to be severe; but after all there was no sense in trying to keep it a secret; the news would surely be all over in a week. They would be forced to confront the gravity of their situation soon enough; little enough harm in letting Temeraire indulge in high spirits so long as he might.
"Laurence," Granby said at his shoulder, "in the hurry, the ammunition was all laid in its usual place on the left, though we are not carrying the bombs to balance it out; we ought to restow."
"Can you have it done before we engage? Oh, good Lord," Laurence said, realizing. "I do not even know the position of the convoy; do you?" Granby shook his head, embarrassed, and Laurence swallowed his pride and shouted, "Berkley, where are we going?"
A general explosion of mirth ran among the men on Maximus's back. Berkley called back, "Straight to Hell, ha ha!" More laughter, nearly drowning out the coordinates that he bellowed over.
"Fifteen minutes' flight, then." Laurence was mentally running the calculation through in his head. "And we ought to save at least five of those minutes for grace."
Granby nodded. "We can manage it," he said, and clambered down at once to organize the operation, unhooking and rehooking the carabiners with practiced skill from the evenly spaced rings leading down Temeraire's side to the storage nets slung beneath his belly.
The rest of the formation was already in place as Temeraire and Maximus rose to take their defensive positions at the rear. Laurence noticed the formation-leader flag streaming out from Lily's back; that meant that during their absence, Captain Harcourt had at last been given the command. He was glad to see the change: it was hard on the signal-ensign to have to watch a wing dragon as well as keep an eye forward, and the dragons would always instinctively follow the lead regardless of formal precedence.
Still, he could not help feeling how strange that he should find himself taking orders from a twenty-year-old girl: Harcourt was still a very young officer, promoted over-quick due to Lily's unexpectedly early hatching. But command in the Corps had to follow the capabilities of the dragons, and a rare acid-spitter like one of the Longwings was too valuable to place anywhere but the center of a formation, even if they would only accept female handlers.
"Signal from the Admiral: proceed to meeting," called the signal-ensign, Turner; a moment later the signal formation keep together broke out on Lily's signal-yard, and the dragons were pressing on, shortly reaching their cruising speed of a steady seventeen knots: an easy pace for Temeraire, but all that the Yellow Reapers and the enormous Maximus could manage comfortably for any length of time.
There was time to loosen his sword in the sheath, and load his pistols fresh; below, Granby was shouting orders over the wind: he did not sound frantic, and Laurence had every confidence in his power to get the work completed in time. The dragons of the covert made an impressive spread, even though this was not so large a force in numbers as had been assembled for the Battle of Dover in October, which had fended off Napoleon's invasion attempt.
But in that battle, they had been forced to send up every available dragon, even the little couriers: most of the fighting-dragons had been away south at Trafalgar. Today Excidium and Captain Roland's formation were back in the lead, ten dragons strong, the smallest of them a middle-weight Yellow Reaper, and all of them flying in perfect formation, not a wingbeat out of place: the skill born of many long years in formation together.
Lily's formation was nothing so imposing, as yet: only six dragons flying behind her, with her flank and end-wing positions held by smaller and more maneuverable beasts with older officers, who could more easily compensate for any errors made from inexperience by Lily herself, or by Maximus and Temeraire in the back line. Even as they drew closer, Laurence saw Sutton, the captain of their mid-wing Messoria, stand up on her back and turn to look over at them, making sure all was well with the younger dragons. Laurence raised a hand in acknowledgment, and saw Berkley doing the same.
The sails of the French convoy and the Channel Fleet were visible long before the dragons came into range. There was a stately quality to the scene below: chessboard pieces moving into place, with the British ships advancing in eager haste towards the great crowd of smaller French merchantmen; a glorious spread of white sail to be seen on every ship, and the British colors streaming among them. Granby came clambering back up along the shoulder-strap to Laurence's side. "We'll do nicely now, I think."
"Very good," Laurence said absently, his attention all on what he could see of the British fleet, peering down over Temeraire's shoulder through his glass. Mostly fast-sailing frigates, with a motley collection of smaller sloops, and a handful of sixty-four- and seventy-four-gun ships. The Navy would not risk the largest first- and second-rate ships against the fire-breather; too easy for one lucky attack to send a three-decker packed full of powder up like a light, taking half-a-dozen smaller ships along with her.
"All hands to their stations, Mr. Harley," Laurence said, straightening up, and the young ensign hurried to set the signal-strap embedded in the harness to red. The riflemen stationed along Temeraire's back let themselves partly down his sides, readying their guns, while the rest of the topmen all crouched low, pistols in their hands.
Excidium and the rest of the larger formation dropped low over the British warships, taking up the more important defensive position and leaving the field to them. As Lily increased their speed, Temeraire gave a low growling rumble, the tremor palpable through his hide. Laurence spared a moment to lean over and put his bare hand on the side of Temeraire's neck: no words necessary, and he felt a slight easing of the nervous tension before he straightened and pulled his leather riding glove back on.
"Enemy in sight," came faint but audible in the shrill high voice of Lily's forward lookout, carrying back to them on the wind, echoed a moment later by young Allen, stationed near the joint of Temeraire's wing. A general murmur went around the men, and Laurence snapped out his glass again for a look.
"La Crabe Grande, I think," he said, handing the telescope over to Granby, hoping privately that he had not mangled the pronunciation too badly. He was quite sure that he had identified the formation style correctly, despite his lack of experience in aerial actions; there were few composed of fourteen dragons, and the shape was highly distinct, with the two pincer-like rows of smaller dragons stretched out to either side of the cluster of big ones in the center.
The Flamme-de-Gloire was not easy to spot, with several decoy dragons of similar coloring shifting about: a pair of Papillon Noirs with yellow markings painted over their natural blue and green stripes to make them confusingly alike from a distance. "Hah, I have made her: it is Accendare. There she is, the wicked thing," Granby said, handing back the glass and pointing. "She has a talon missing from her left rear leg, and she is blind in the right eye: we gave her a good dose of pepper back in the battle of the Glorious First."
"I see her. Mr. Harley, pass the word to all the lookouts. Temeraire," he called, bringing up the speaking-trumpet, "do you see the Flamme-de-Gloire? She is the one low and to the right, with the missing talon; she is weak in the right eye."
"I see her," Temeraire said eagerly, turning his head just slightly. "Are we to attack her?"
"Our first duty is to keep her fire away from the Navy's ships; have an eye on her as best you can," Laurence said, and Temeraire bobbed his head once in quick answer, straightening out again.
He tucked away the glass in the small pouch hooked onto the harness: no more need for it, very soon. "You had better get below, John," Laurence said. "I expect they will try a boarding with a few of those light fellows on their edges."
All this while they had been rapidly closing the distance: suddenly there was no more time, and the French were wheeling about in perfect unison, not one dragon falling out of formation, graceful as a flock of birds. A low whistle came behind him; admittedly it was an impressive sight, but Laurence frowned though his own heart was speeding involuntarily. "Belay that noise."
One of the Papillons was directly ahead of them, jaws spreading wide as if to breathe flames it could not produce; Laurence felt an odd, detached amusement to see a dragon play-acting. Temeraire could not roar from his position in the rear, not with Messoria and Lily both in the way, but he did not duck away at all; instead he raised his claws, and as the two formations swept together and intermingled, he and the Papillon pulled up and collided with a force that jarred all of their crews loose.
Laurence grappled for the harness and got his feet back underneath him. "Clap on there, Allen," he said, reaching; the boy was dangling by his carabiner straps with his arms and legs waving about wildly like an overturned tortoise. Allen managed to get himself braced and clung, his face pale and shading to green; like the other lookouts, he was only a new ensign, barely twelve years old, and he had not quite learned to manage himself aboard during the stops and starts of battle.
Temeraire was clawing and biting, his wings beating madly as he tried to keep hold of the Papillon: the French dragon was lighter in weight, and plainly all he now wanted was to get free and back to his formation. "Hold position," Laurence shouted: more important to keep the formation together for the moment. Temeraire reluctantly let the Papillon go and leveled out.
Below, distantly, came the first sound of cannon-fire: bow-chasers on the British ships, hoping to knock away some of the French merchantmen's spars with a lucky shot or two. Not likely, but it would put the men in the right frame of mind. A steady rattle and clang behind him as the riflemen reloaded; all the harness he could see looked still in good order; no sign of dripping blood, and Temeraire was flying well. No time to ask how he was; they were coming about, Lily taking them straight for the enemy formation again.
But this time the French offered no resistance: instead the dragons scattered; wildly, Laurence thought at first, then he perceived how well they had distributed themselves around. Four of the smaller dragons darted upwards; the rest dropped perhaps a hundred feet in height, and Accendare was once again hard to tell from the decoys.
No clear target anymore, and with the dragons above the formation itself was dangerously vulnerable: engage the enemy more closely went up the yard on Lily's back, signaling that they might disperse and fight separately. Temeraire could read the flags as well as any signal-officer: he instantly dived for the decoy with bleeding scratches, a little too eager to complete his own handiwork. "No, Temeraire," Laurence called, meaning to direct him after Accendare herself, but too late: two of the smaller dragons, both of the common P锟斤拷cheur-Raye breed, were coming at them from either side.
"Prepare to repel boarders," Lieutenant Ferris, captain of the topmen, shouted from behind him. Two of the sturdiest midwingmen took up stations just behind Laurence's position; he glanced over his shoulder at them, his mouth tightening: it still rankled him to be so shielded, too much like cowardly hiding behind others, but no dragon would fight with a sword laid at its captain's throat, and so he had to bear it.
Temeraire contented himself with one more slash across the fleeing decoy's shoulders and writhed away, almost doubling back on himself. The pursuers overshot and had to turn back: a clear gain of a minute, worth more than gold at present. Laurence cast an eye over the field: the quick light-combat dragons were dashing about to fend off the British dragons, but the larger ones were forming back into a cluster and keeping pace with their convoy.
A powder-flash below caught his eye; an instant later came the thin whistling of a pepper-ball, flying up from the French ships. Another of their formation members, Immortalis, had dived just a hair too low in pursuit of one of the other dragons. Fortunately their aim was off: the ball struck his shoulder instead of his face, and the best part of the pepper scattered down harmlessly into the sea; even the remainder was enough to set the poor fellow sneezing, blowing himself ten lengths back at a time.
"Digby, cast and mark that height," Laurence said; it was the starboard forward lookout's duty to warn when they entered the range of the guns below.
Digby took the small round-shot, bored through and tied to the height-line, and tossed it over Temeraire's shoulder, the thin silk cord paying out with the knotted marks for every fifty yards flying through his fingers. "Six at the mark, seventeen at the water," he said, counting from Immortalis's height, and cut the cord. "Range five hundred fifty yards on the pepper-guns, sir." He was already whipping the cord through another ball, to be ready when the next measure should be called for.
A shorter range than usual; were they holding back, trying to tempt the more dangerous dragons lower, or was the wind checking their shot? "Keep to six hundred yards' elevation, Temeraire," Laurence called; best to be cautious for the moment.
"Sir, lead signal to us, fall in on left flank Maximus," Turner said.
No immediate way to get over to him: the two P锟斤拷cheurs were back, trying to flank Temeraire and get men aboard, although they were flying somewhat strangely, not in a straight line. "What are they about?" Martin said, and the question answered itself readily in Laurence's mind.
"They fear giving him a target for his roar," Laurence said, making it loud for Temeraire's benefit. Temeraire snorted in disdain, abruptly halted in mid-air, and whipped himself about, hovering to face the pair with his ruff standing high: the smaller dragons, clearly alarmed by the presentation, backwinged out of instinct, giving them room.
"Hah!" Temeraire stopped and hovered, pleased with himself at seeing the others so afraid of his prowess; Laurence had to tug on the harness to draw his attention around to the signal, which he had not yet seen. "Oh, I see!" he said, and dashed forward to take up position to Maximus's left; Lily was already on his right.
Harcourt's intention was clear. "All hands low," Laurence said, and crouched against Temeraire's neck even as he gave the order. Instantly they were in place, Berkley sent Maximus ahead at the big dragon's top speed, right at the clustered French dragons.
Temeraire was swelling with breath, his ruff coming up; they were going so quickly the wind was beating tears from Laurence's eyes, but he could see Lily's head drawing back in similar preparation. Maximus put his head down and drove straight into the French dragons, simply bulling through their ranks with his enormous advantage in weight: the dragons fell off to his either side, only to meet Temeraire roaring and Lily spraying her corrosive acid.
Shrieks of pain in their wake, and the first dead crewmen were being cut loose from harness and sent falling into the ocean, rag-doll limp. The French dragons' forward motion had nearly halted, many of them panicking and scattering, this time with no thought to the pattern. Then Maximus and they were through: the cluster had broken apart and now Accendare was shielded from them only by a Petit Chevalier, slightly larger than Temeraire, and another of Accendare's decoys.
They slowed; Maximus was heaving for breath, fighting to keep elevation. Harcourt waved wildly at Laurence from Lily's back, shouting hoarsely through her speaking-trumpet, "Go after her," even while the formal signal was going up on Lily's back. Laurence touched Temeraire's side and sent him forward; Lily sprayed another burst of acid, and the two defending dragons recoiled, enough for Temeraire to dodge past them and get through.
Granby's voice came from below, yelling: " 'Ware boarders!" So some Frenchmen had made the leap to Temeraire's back. Laurence had no time to look: directly before his face Accendare was twisting around, scarcely ten yards distant. Her right eye was milky, the left wicked and glaring, a pale yellow pupil in black sclera; she had long thin horns curving down from her forehead and to the very edge of her jaws, her opening jaws: a heat-shimmer distorted the air as flames came bursting out upon them. Very like looking into the mouth of Hell, he thought for that one narrow instant, staring into the red maw; then Temeraire snapped his wings shut and fell out of the way like a stone.
Laurence's stomach leapt; behind him he heard clatter and cries of surprise, the boarders and defenders alike losing their footing. It seemed only a moment before Temeraire opened his wings again and began to beat up hard, but they had plummeted some distance, and Accendare was flying rapidly away from them, back to the ships below.
The rearmost merchant ships of the French convoy had come within the accurate range of long guns of the British men-of-war: the steady roar of cannon-fire rose, mingled with sulfur and smoke. The quickest frigates had already moved on ahead, passing by the merchantmen under fire and continuing for the richer prizes at the front. In doing so, however, they had left the shelter of Excidium's formation, and Accendare now stooped towards them, her crew throwing the fist-sized iron incendiaries over her sides, which she bathed with flame as they fell towards the vulnerable British ships.
More than half the shells fell into the sea, much more; mindful of Temeraire's pursuit, Accendare had not gone very low, and aim could not be accurate from so high up. But Laurence could see a handful blooming into flame below: the thin metal shells broke as they struck the decks of the ships, and the naphtha within ignited against the hot metal, spreading a pool of fire across the deck.
Temeraire gave a low growl of anger as he saw fire catch the sails of one of the frigates, instantly putting on another burst of speed to go after Accendare; he had been hatched on deck, spent the first three weeks of his life at sea: the affection remained. Laurence urged him on with word and touch, full of the same anger. Intent on the pursuit and watching for other dragons who might be close enough to offer her support, Laurence was startled out of his single-minded focus unpleasantly: Croyn, one of the topmen, fell onto him before rolling away and off Temeraire's back, mouth round and open, hands reaching; his carabiner straps had been severed.
He missed the harness, his hands slipping over Temeraire's smooth hide; Laurence snatched at him, uselessly: the boy was falling, arms flailing at the empty air, down a quarter of a mile and gone into the water: only a small splash; he did not resurface. Another man went down just after him, one of the boarders, but already dead even as he tumbled slack-limbed through the air. Laurence loosened his own straps and stood, turning around as he drew his pistols. Seven boarders were still aboard, fighting very hard. One with lieutenant's bars on his shoulders was only a few paces away, engaged closely with Quarle, the second of the midwingmen who had been set to guard Laurence.
Even as Laurence got to his feet, the lieutenant knocked aside Quarle's arm with his sword and drove a vicious-looking long knife into his side left-handed. Quarle dropped his own sword and put his hands around the hilt, sinking, coughing blood. Laurence had a wide-open shot, but just behind the lieutenant, one of the boarders had driven Martin to his knees: the midwingman's neck was bare to the man's cutlass.
Laurence leveled his pistol and fired: the boarder fell backwards with a hole in his chest spurting, and Martin heaved himself back to his feet. Before Laurence could take fresh aim and set off the other, the lieutenant took the risk of slashing his own straps and leapt over Quarle's body, catching Laurence's arm both for support and to push the pistol aside. It was an extraordinary maneuver, whether for bravery or recklessness; "Bravo," Laurence said, involuntarily. The Frenchman looked at him startled, and then smiled, incongruously boyish in his blood-streaked face, before he brought his sword up.
Laurence had an unfair advantage, of course; he was useless dead, for a dragon whose captain had been killed would turn with utmost savagery on the enemy: uncontrolled but very dangerous nonetheless. The Frenchman needed him prisoner, not killed, and that made him overly cautious, while Laurence could freely aim for a killing blow and strike as best as ever he could.
But that was not very well, currently. It was an odd battle; they were upon the narrow base of Temeraire's neck, so closely engaged that Laurence was not at a disadvantage from the tall lieutenant's greater reach, but that same condition let the Frenchman keep his grip on Laurence, without which he would certainly have slipped off. They were more pushing at one another than truly sword-fighting; their blades hardly ever parted more than an inch or two before coming together again, and Laurence began to think the contest would only be ended if one or the other of them fell.
Laurence risked a step; it let him turn them both slightly, so he could see the rest of the struggle over the lieutenant's shoulder. Martin and Ferris were both still standing, and several of the riflemen, but they were outnumbered, and if even a couple more of the boarders managed to get past, it would be very awkward for Laurence indeed. Several of the bellmen were trying to come up from below, but the boarders had detached a couple of men to fend them off: as Laurence watched, Johnson was stabbed through and fell.
"Vive l'Empereur," the lieutenant shouted to his men encouragingly, looking also; he took heart from the favorable position and struck again, aiming for Laurence's leg. Laurence deflected the blow: his sword rang oddly with the impact, though, and he realized with an unpleasant shock that he was fighting with his dress-sword, worn to the Admiralty the day before: he had never had a chance to exchange it.
He began to fight more narrowly, trying not to meet the Frenchman's sword anywhere below the midpoint of his sword: he did not want to lose his entire blade if it were going to snap. Another sharp blow, at his right arm: he blocked it as well, but this time five inches of steel did indeed snap off, scoring a thin line across his jaw before it tumbled away, red-gold in the reflected firelight.
The Frenchman had seen the weakness of the blade now, and was trying to batter it into pieces. Another crack and more of the blade went: Laurence was fighting with only six inches of steel now, with the paste brilliants on the silver-plated hilt sparkling at him mockingly, ridiculous. He clenched his jaw; he was not going to surrender and see Temeraire ordered to France: he would be damned first. If he jumped over the side, calling, there was some hope Temeraire might catch him; if not, then at least he would not be responsible for delivering Temeraire into Napoleon's hands after all.
Then a shout: Granby came swarming up the rear tail-strap without benefit of carabiners, locked himself back on and lunged for the man guarding the left side of the belly-strap. The man fell dead, and six bellmen almost at once burst into the tops: the remaining boarders drew into a tight knot, but in a moment they would have to surrender or be killed. Martin had turned and was already clambering over Quarle's body, freed by the relief from below, and his sword was ready.
"Ah, voici un joli gachis," the lieutenant said in tones of despair, looking also, and he made a last gallant attempt, binding Laurence's hilt with his own blade, and using the length as a lever: he managed to pry it out of Laurence's hand with a great heave, but just as he did he staggered, surprised, and blood came out of his nose. He fell forward into Laurence's arms, senseless: young Digby was standing rather wobblingly behind him, holding the round-shot on the measuring cord; he had crept along from his lookout's post on Temeraire's shoulder, and struck the Frenchman on the head.
"Well done," Laurence said, after he had worked out what had happened; the boy flushed up proudly. "Mr. Martin, heave this fellow below to the infirmary, will you?" Laurence handed the Frenchman's limp form over. "He fought quite like a lion."
"Very good, sir." Martin's mouth kept moving, he was saying something more, but a roar from above was drowning out his voice: it was the last thing Laurence heard.
The low and dangerous rumble of Temeraire's growl, just above him, penetrated the smothering unconsciousness. Laurence tried to move, to look around him, but the light stabbed painfully at his eyes, and his leg did not want to answer at all; groping blindly down along his thigh, he found it entangled with the leather straps of his harness, and felt a wet trickle of blood where one of the buckles had torn through his breeches and into his skin.
He thought for a moment perhaps they had been captured; but the voices he heard were English, and then he recognized Barham, shouting, and Granby saying fiercely, "No, sir, no farther, not one damned step. Temeraire, if those men make ready, you may knock them down."
Laurence struggled to sit up, and then suddenly there were anxious hands supporting him. "Steady, sir, are you all right?" It was young Digby, pressing a dripping water-bag into his hands. Laurence wetted his lips, but he did not dare to swallow; his stomach was roiling. "Help me stand," he said, hoarsely, trying to squint his eyes open a little.
"No, sir, you mustn't," Digby whispered urgently. "You have had a nasty knock on the head, and those fellows, they have come to arrest you. Granby said we had to keep you out of sight and wait for the Admiral."
He was lying behind the protective curl of Temeraire's foreleg, with the hard-packed dirt of the clearing underneath him; Digby and Allen, the forward lookouts, were crouched down on either side of him. Small rivulets of dark blood were running down Temeraire's leg to stain the ground black, not far away. "He is wounded," Laurence said sharply, trying to get up again.
"Mr. Keynes is gone for bandages, sir; a P锟斤拷cheur hit us across the shoulders, but it is only a few scratches," Digby said, holding him back; which attempt was successful, because Laurence could not make his wrenched leg even bend, much less carry any weight. "You are not to get up, sir, Baylesworth is getting a stretcher."
"Enough of this, help me rise," Laurence said, sharply; Lenton could not possibly come quickly, so soon after a battle, and he did not mean to lie about letting matters get worse. He made Digby and Allen help him rise and limp out from the concealment, the two ensigns struggling under his weight.
Barham was there with a dozen Marines, these not the inexperienced boys of his escort in London but hard-bitten soldiers, older men, and they had brought with them a pepper-gun: only a small, short-barreled one, but at this range they hardly needed better. Barham was almost purple in the face, quarreling with Granby at the side of the clearing; when he caught sight of Laurence his eyes went narrow. "There you are; did you think you could hide here, like a coward? Stand down that animal, at once; Sergeant, go there and take him."
"You are not to come anywhere near Laurence, at all," Temeraire snarled at the soldiers, before Laurence could make any reply, and raised one deadly clawed foreleg, ready to strike. The blood streaking his shoulders and neck made him look truly savage, and his great ruff was standing up stiffly around his head.
The men flinched a little, but the sergeant said, stolidly, "Run out that gun, Corporal," and gestured to the rest of them to raise up their muskets.
In alarm, Laurence called out to him hoarsely, "Temeraire, stop; for God's sake settle," but it was useless; Temeraire was in a red-eyed rage, and did not take any notice. Even if the musketry did not cause him serious injury, the pepper-gun would surely blind and madden him even further, and he could easily be driven into a truly uncontrolled frenzy, terrible both to himself and to others.
The trees to the west of them shook suddenly, and abruptly Maximus's enormous head and shoulders came rising up out of the growth; he flung his head back yawning tremendously, exposing rows of serrated teeth, and shook himself all over. "Is the battle not over? What is all the noise?"
"You there!" Barham shouted at the big Regal Copper, pointing at Temeraire. "Hold down that dragon!"
Like all Regal Coppers, Maximus was badly farsighted; to see into the clearing, he was forced to rear up onto his haunches to gain enough distance. He was twice Temeraire's size by weight and twenty feet more in length now; his wings, half-outspread for balance, threw a long shadow ahead of him, and with the sun behind him they glowed redly, veins standing out in the translucent skin.
Looming over them all, he drew his head back on his neck and peered into the clearing. "Why do you need to be held down?" he asked Temeraire, interestedly.
"I do not need to be held down!" Temeraire said, almost spitting in his anger, ruff quivering; the blood was running more freely down his shoulders. "Those men want to take Laurence from me, and put him in prison, and execute him, and I will not let them, ever, and I do not care if Laurence tells me not to squash you," he added, fiercely, to Lord Barham.
"Good God," Laurence said, low and appalled; it had not occurred to him the real nature of Temeraire's fear. But the only time Temeraire had ever seen an arrest, the man taken had been a traitor, executed shortly thereafter before the eyes of the man's own dragon. The experience had left Temeraire and all the young dragons of the covert crushed with sympathetic misery for days; it was no wonder if he was panicked now.
Granby took advantage of the unwitting distraction Maximus had provided and made a quick, impulsive gesture to the other officers of Temeraire's crew: Ferris and Evans jumped to follow him, Riggs and his riflemen scrambling after, and in a moment they were all ranged defensively in front of Temeraire, raising pistols and rifles. It was all bravado, their guns spent from the battle, but that did not in any way reduce the significance. Laurence shut his eyes in dismay. Granby and all his men had just flung themselves into the stew-pot with him, by such direct disobedience; indeed there was increasingly every justification to call this a mutiny.
The muskets facing them did not waver, though; the Marines were still hurrying to finish loading the gun, tamping down one of the big round pepper-balls with a small wad. "Make ready!" the corporal said. Laurence could not think what to do; if he ordered Temeraire to knock down the gun, they would be attacking fellow-soldiers, men only doing their duty: unforgivable, even to his own mind, and only a little less unthinkable than standing by while they injured Temeraire, or his own men.
"What the devil do you all mean here?" Keynes, the dragon-surgeon assigned to Temeraire's care, had just come back into the clearing, two staggering assistants behind him laden down with fresh white bandages and thin silk thread for stitching. He shoved his way through the startled Marines, his well-salted hair and blood-spattered coat giving him a badge of authority they did not choose to defy, and snatched the slow-match out of the hands of the man standing by the pepper-gun.
He flung it to the ground and stamped it out, and glared all around, sparing neither Barham and the Marines nor Granby and his men, impartially furious. "He is fresh from the field; have you all taken leave of your senses? You cannot be stirring up dragons like this after a battle; in half a minute we will have the rest of the covert looking in, and not just that great busybody there," he added, pointing at Maximus.
Indeed more dragons had already lifted their heads up above the tree cover, trying to crane their heads over to see what was going on, making a great noise of cracking branches; the ground even trembled underfoot when the abashed Maximus dropped lower, back down to his haunches, in an attempt to make his curiosity less obvious. Barham uneasily looked around at the many inquisitive spectators: dragons ordinarily ate directly after a battle, and many of them had gore dripping from their jaws, bones cracking audibly as they chewed.
Keynes did not give him time to recover. "Out, out at once, the lot of you; I cannot be operating in the middle of this circus, and as for you," he snapped at Laurence, "lie down again at once; I gave orders you were to be taken straight to the surgeons. Christ only knows what you are doing to that leg, hopping about on it. Where is Baylesworth with that stretcher?"
Barham, wavering, was caught by this. "Laurence is damned well under arrest, and I have a mind to clap the rest of you mutinous dogs into irons also," he began, only to have Keynes wheel on him in turn.
"You can arrest him in the morning, after that leg has been seen to, and his dragon. Of all the blackguardly, unchristian notions, storming in on wounded men and beasts - " Keynes was literally shaking his fist in Barham's face; an alarming prospect, thanks to the wickedly hooked ten-inch tenaculum clenched in his fingers, and the moral force of his argument was very great: Barham stepped back, involuntarily. The Marines gratefully took it as a signal, beginning to drag the gun back out of the clearing with them, and Barham, baffled and deserted, was forced to give way.
The delay thus won lasted only a short while. The surgeons scratched their heads over Laurence's leg; the bone was not broken, despite the breathtaking pain when they roughly palpated the limb, and there was no visible wound, save the great mottled bruises covering nearly every scrap of skin. His head ached fiercely also, but there was little they could do but offer him laudanum, which he refused, and order him to keep his weight off the leg: advice as practical as it was unnecessary, since he could not stand for any length of time without suffering a collapse.
Meanwhile, Temeraire's own wounds, thankfully minor, were sewed up, and with much coaxing Laurence persuaded him to eat a little, despite his agitation. By morning, it was plain Temeraire was healing well, with no sign of wound-fever, and there was no excuse for further delay; a formal summons had come from Admiral Lenton, ordering Laurence to report to the covert headquarters. He had to be carried in an elbow-chair, leaving behind him an uneasy and restive Temeraire. "If you do not come back by tomorrow morning, I will come and find you," he vowed, and would not be dissuaded.
Laurence could do little in honesty to reassure him: there was every likelihood he was to be arrested, if Lenton had not managed some miracle of persuasion, and after these multiple offenses a court-martial might very well impose a death-sentence. Ordinarily an aviator would not be hanged for anything less than outright treason. But Barham would surely have him up before a board of Navy officers, who would be far more severe, and consideration for preserving the dragon's service would not enter into their deliberations: Temeraire was already lost to England, as a fighting-dragon, by the demands of the Chinese.
It was by no means an easy or a comfortable situation, and still worse was the knowledge that he had imperiled his men; Granby would have to answer for his defiance, and the other lieutenants also, Evans and Ferris and Riggs; any or all of them might be dismissed the service: a terrible fate for an aviator, raised in the ranks from early childhood. Even those midwingmen who never passed for lieutenant were not usually sent away; some work would be found for them, in the breeding grounds or in the coverts, that they might remain in the society of their fellows.
Though his leg had improved some little way overnight, Laurence was still pale and sweating even from the short walk he risked taking up the front stairs of the building. The pain was increasing sharply, dizzying, and he was forced to stop and catch his breath before he went into the small office.
"Good Heaven; I thought you had been let go by the surgeons. Sit down, Laurence, before you fall down; take this," Lenton said, ignoring Barham's scowl of impatience, and put a glass of brandy into Laurence's hand.
"Thank you, sir; you are not mistaken, I have been released," Laurence said, and only sipped once for politeness's sake; his head was already clouded badly enough.
"That is enough; he is not here to be coddled," Barham said. "Never in my life have I seen such outrageous behavior, and from an officer - By God, Laurence, I have never taken pleasure in a hanging, but on this occasion I would call it good riddance. But Lenton swears to me your beast will become unmanageable; though how we should tell the difference I can hardly say."
Lenton's lips tightened at this disdainful tone; Laurence could only imagine the humiliating lengths to which he had been forced in order to impress this understanding on Barham. Though Lenton was an admiral, and fresh from another great victory, even that meant very little in any larger sphere; Barham could offend him with impunity, where any admiral in the Navy would have had political influence and friends enough to require more respectful handling.
"You are to be dismissed the service, that is beyond question," Barham continued. "But off to China the animal must go, and for that, I am sorry to say, we require your cooperation. Find some way to persuade him, and we will leave the matter there; any more of this recalcitrance, and I am damned if I will not hang you after all; yes, and have the animal shot, and be damned to those Chinamen also."
This last very nearly brought Laurence out of his chair, despite his injury; only Lenton's hand on his shoulder, pressing down firmly, held him in place. "Sir, you go too far," Lenton said. "We have never shot dragons in England for anything less than man-eating, and we are not going to start now; I would have a real mutiny on my hands."
Barham scowled, and muttered something not quite intelligible under his breath about lack of discipline; which was a fine thing coming from a man whom Laurence well knew had served during the great naval mutinies of '97, when half the fleet had risen up. "Well, let us hope it does not come to any such thing. There is a transport in ordinary in harbor at Spithead, the Allegiance; she can be made ready for sea in a week. How then are we to get the animal aboard, since he is choosing to be balky?"
Laurence could not bring himself to answer; a week was a horribly short time, and for a moment he even wildly allowed himself to consider the prospect of flight. Temeraire could easily reach the Continent from Dover, and there were places in the forests of the German states where even now feral dragons lived; though only small breeds.
"It will require some consideration," Lenton said. "I will not scruple to say, sir, that the whole affair has been mismanaged from the beginning. The dragon has been badly stirred-up, now, and it is no joke to coax a dragon to do something he does not like to begin with."
"Enough excuses, Lenton; quite enough," Barham began, and then a tapping came on the door; they all looked in surprise as a rather pale-looking midwingman opened the door and said, "Sir, sir - " only to hastily clear out of the way: the Chinese soldiers looked as though they would have trampled straight over him, clearing a path for Prince Yongxing into the room.
They were all of them so startled they forgot at first to rise, and Laurence was still struggling to get up to his feet when Yongxing had already come into the room. The attendants hurried to pull a chair - Lord Barham's chair - over for the prince; but Yongxing waved it aside, forcing the rest of them to keep on their feet. Lenton unobtrusively put a hand under Laurence's arm, giving him a little support, but the room still tilted and spun around him, the blaze of Yongxing's bright-colored robes stabbing at his eyes.
"I see this is the way in which you show your respect for the Son of Heaven," Yongxing said, addressing Barham. "Once again you have thrown Lung Tien Xiang into battle; now you hold secret councils, and plot how you may yet keep the fruits of your thievery."
Though Barham had been damning the Chinese five minutes before, now he went pale and stammered, "Sir, Your Highness, not in the least - " but Yongxing was not slowed even a little.
"I have gone through this covert, as you call these animal pens," he said. "It is not surprising, when one considers your barbaric methods, that Lung Tien Xiang should have formed this misguided attachment. Naturally he does not wish to be separated from the companion who is responsible for what little comfort he has been given." He turned to Laurence, and looked him up and down disdainfully. "You have taken advantage of his youth and inexperience; but this will not be tolerated. We will hear no further excuses for these delays. Once he has been restored to his home and his proper place, he will soon learn better than to value company so far beneath him."
"Your Highness, you are mistaken; we have every intention to cooperate with you," Lenton said bluntly, while Barham was still struggling for more polished phrases. "But Temeraire will not leave Laurence, and I am sure you know well that a dragon cannot be sent, but only led."
Yongxing said icily, "Then plainly Captain Laurence must come also; or will you now attempt to convince us that he cannot be sent?"
They all stared, in blank confusion; Laurence hardly dared believe he understood properly, and then Barham blurted, "Good God, if you want Laurence, you may damned well have him, and welcome."
The rest of the meeting passed in a haze for Laurence, the tangle of confusion and immense relief leaving him badly distracted. His head still spun, and he answered to remarks somewhat randomly until Lenton finally intervened once more, sending him up to bed. He kept himself awake only long enough to send a quick note to Temeraire by way of the maid, and fell straightaway into a thick, unrefreshing sleep.
He clawed his way out of it the next morning, having slept fourteen hours. Captain Roland was drowsing by his bedside, head tipped against the chair back, mouth open; as he stirred, she woke and rubbed her face, yawning. "Well, Laurence, are you awake? You have been giving us all a fright and no mistake. Emily came to me because poor Temeraire was fretting himself to pieces: whyever did you send him such a note?"
Laurence tried desperately to remember what he had written: impossible; it was wholly gone, and he could remember very little of the previous day at all, though the central, the essential point was quite fixed in his mind. "Roland, I have not the faintest idea what I said. Does Temeraire know that I am going with him?"
"Well, now he does, since Lenton told me after I came looking for you, but he certainly did not find it in here," she said, and gave him a piece of paper.
It was in his own hand, and with his signature, but wholly unfamiliar, and nonsensical:
Never fear; I am going; the Son of Heaven will not tolerate delays, and Barham gives me leave. Allegiance will carry us! Pray eat something.
Laurence stared at it in some distress, wondering how he had come to write so. "I do not remember a word of it; but wait, no; Allegiance is the name of the transport, and Prince Yongxing referred to the Emperor as the Son of Heaven, though why I should have repeated such a blasphemous thing I have no idea." He handed her the note. "My wits must have been wandering. Pray throw it in the fire; go and tell Temeraire that I am quite well now, and will be with him again soon. Can you ring for someone to valet me? I need to dress."
"You look as though you ought to stay just where you are," Roland said. "No: lie quiet awhile. There is no great hurry at present, as far as I understand, and I know this fellow Barham wants to speak with you; also Lenton. I will go and tell Temeraire you have not died or grown a second head, and have Emily jog back and forth between you if you have messages."
Laurence yielded to her persuasions; indeed he did not truly feel up to rising, and if Barham wanted to speak with him again, he thought he would need to conserve what strength he had. However, in the event, he was spared: Lenton came alone instead.
"Well, Laurence, you are in for a hellishly long trip, I am afraid, and I hope you do not have a bad time of it," he said, drawing up a chair. "My transport ran into a three-days' gale going to India, back in the nineties; rain freezing as it fell, so the dragons could not fly above it for some relief. Poor Obversaria was ill the entire time. Nothing less pleasant than a sea-sick dragon, for them or you."
Laurence had never commanded a dragon transport, but the image was a vivid one. "I am glad to say, sir, that Temeraire has never had the slightest difficulty, and indeed he enjoys sea-travel greatly."
"We will see how he likes it if you meet a hurricane," Lenton said, shaking his head. "Not that I expect either of you have any objections, under the circumstances."
"No, not in the least," Laurence said, heartfelt. He supposed it was merely a jump from frying-pan to fire, but he was grateful enough even for the slower roasting: the journey would last for many months, and there was room for hope: any number of things might happen before they reached China.
Lenton nodded. "Well, you are looking moderately ghastly, so let me be brief. I have managed to persuade Barham that the best thing to do is pack you off bag and baggage, in this case your crew; some of your officers would be in for a good bit of unpleasantness, otherwise, and we had best get you on your way before he thinks better of it."
Yet another relief, scarcely looked for. "Sir," Laurence said, "I must tell you how deeply indebted I am - "
"No, nonsense; do not thank me." Lenton brushed his sparse grey hair back from his forehead, and abruptly said, "I am damned sorry about all this, Laurence. I would have run mad a good deal sooner, in your place; brutally done, all of it."
Laurence hardly knew what to say; he had not expected anything like sympathy, and he did not feel he deserved it. After a moment, Lenton went on, more briskly. "I am sorry not to give you a longer time to recover, but then you will not have much to do aboard ship but rest. Barham has promised them the Allegiance will sail in a week's time; though from what I gather, he will be hard put to find a captain for her by then."
"I thought Cartwright was to have her?" Laurence asked, some vague memory stirring; he still read the Naval Chronicle, and followed the assignments of ships; Cartwright's name stuck in his head: they had served together in the Goliath, many years before.
"Yes, when the Allegiance was meant to go to Halifax; there is apparently some other ship being built for him there. But they cannot wait for him to finish a two-years' journey to China and back," Lenton said. "Be that as it may, someone will be found; you must be ready."
"You may be sure of it, sir," Laurence said. "I will be quite well again by then."
His optimism was perhaps ill-founded; after Lenton had gone, Laurence tried to write a letter and found he could not quite manage it, his head ached too wretchedly. Fortunately, Granby came by an hour later to see him, full of excitement at the prospect of the journey, and contemptuous of the risks he had taken with his own career.
"As though I could give a cracked egg for such a thing, when that scoundrel was trying to have you hauled away, and pointing guns at Temeraire," he said. "Pray don't think of it, and tell me what you would like me to write."
Laurence gave up trying to counsel him to caution; Granby's loyalty was as obstinate as his initial dislike had been, if more gratifying. "Only a few lines, if you please - to Captain Thomas Riley; tell him we are bound for China in a week's time, and if he does not mind a transport, he can likely get the Allegiance, if only he goes straightaway to the Admiralty: Barham has no one for the ship; but be sure and tell him not to mention my name."
"Very good," Granby said, scratching away; he did not write a very elegant hand, the letters sprawling wastefully, but it was serviceable enough to read. "Do you know him well? We will have to put up with whoever they give us for a long while."
"Yes, very well indeed," Laurence said. "He was my third lieutenant in Belize, and my second in Reliant; he was at Temeraire's hatching: a fine officer and seaman. We could not hope for better."
"I will run it down to the courier myself, and tell him to be sure it arrives," Granby promised. "What a relief it would be, not to have one of these wretched stiff-necked fellows - " and there he stopped, embarrassed; it was not so very long ago he had counted Laurence himself a "stiff-necked fellow," after all.
"Thank you, John," Laurence said hastily, sparing him. "Although we ought not get our hopes up yet; the Ministry may prefer a more senior man in the role," he added, though privately he thought the chances were excellent. Barham would not have an easy time of it, finding someone willing to accept the post.
Impressive though they might be, to the landsman's eye, a dragon transport was an awkward sort of vessel to command: often enough they sat in port endlessly, awaiting dragon passengers, while the crew dissipated itself in drinking and whoring. Or they might spend months in the middle of the ocean, trying to maintain a single position to serve as a resting point for dragons crossing long distances; like blockade-duty, only worse for lack of society. Little chance of battle or glory, less of prize-money; they were not desirable to any man who could do better.
But the Reliant, so badly dished in the gale after Trafalgar, would be in dry-dock for a long while. Riley, left on shore with no influence to help him to a new ship, and virtually no seniority, would be as glad of the opportunity as Laurence would be to have him, and there was every chance Barham would seize on the first fellow who offered.
Laurence spent the next day laboring, with slightly more success, over other necessary letters. His affairs were not prepared for a long journey, much of it far past the limits of the courier circuit. Then, too, over the last dreadful weeks he had entirely neglected his personal correspondence, and by now he owed several replies, particularly to his family. After the battle of Dover, his father had grown more tolerant of his new profession; although they still did not write one another directly, at least Laurence was no longer obliged to conceal his correspondence with his mother, and he had for some time now addressed his letters to her openly. His father might very well choose to suspend that privilege again, after this affair, but Laurence hoped he might not hear the particulars of it: fortunately, Barham had nothing to gain from embarrassing Lord Allendale; particularly not now when Wilberforce, their mutual political ally, meant to make another push for abolition in the next session of Parliament.
Laurence dashed off another dozen hasty notes, in a hand not very much like his usual, to other correspondents; most of them were naval men, who would well understand the exigencies of a hasty departure. Despite much abbreviation, the effort took its toll, and by the time Jane Roland came to see him once again, he had nearly prostrated himself once more, and was lying back against the pillows with eyes shut.
"Yes, I will post them for you, but you are behaving absurdly, Laurence," she said, collecting up the letters. "A knock on the head can be very nasty, even if you have not cracked your skull. When I had the yellow fever I did not prance about claiming I was well; I lay in bed and took my gruel and possets, and I was back on my feet quicker than any of the other fellows in the West Indies who took it."
"Thank you, Jane," he said, and did not argue with her; indeed he felt very ill, and he was grateful when she drew the curtains and cast the room into a comfortable dimness.
He briefly came out of sleep some hours later, hearing some commotion outside the door of his room: Roland saying, "You are damned well going to leave now, or I will kick you down the hall. What do you mean, sneaking in here to pester him the instant I have gone out?"
"But I must speak with Captain Laurence; the situation is of the most urgent - " The protesting voice was unfamiliar, and rather bewildered. "I have ridden straight from London - "
"If it is so urgent, you may go and speak to Admiral Lenton," Roland said. "No; I do not care if you are from the Ministry; you look young enough to be one of my mids, and I do not for an instant believe you have anything to say that cannot wait until morning."
With this she pulled the door shut behind her, and the rest of the argument was muffled; Laurence drifted again away. But the next morning there was no one to defend him, and scarcely had the maid brought in his breakfast - the threatened gruel and hot-milk posset, and quite unappetizing - than a fresh attempt at invasion was made, this time with more success.
"I beg your pardon, sir, for forcing myself upon you in this irregular fashion," the stranger said, talking rapidly while he dragged up a chair to Laurence's bedside, uninvited. "Pray allow me to explain; I realize the appearance is quite extraordinary - " He set down the heavy chair and sat down, or rather perched, at the very edge of the seat. "My name is Hammond, Arthur Hammond; I have been deputized by the Ministry to accompany you to the court of China."
Hammond was a surprisingly young man, perhaps twenty years of age, with untidy dark hair and a great intensity of expression that lent his thin, sallow face an illuminated quality. He spoke at first in half-sentences, torn between the forms of apology and his plain eagerness to come to his subject. "The absence of an introduction, I beg you will forgive, we have been taken completely, completely by surprise, and Lord Barham has already committed us to the twenty-third as a sailing date. If you would prefer, we may of course press him for some extension - "
This of all things Laurence was eager to avoid, though he was indeed a little astonished by Hammond's forwardness; hastily he said, "No, sir, I am entirely at your service; we cannot delay sailing to exchange formalities, particularly when Prince Yongxing has already been promised that date."
"Ah! I am of a similar mind," Hammond said, with a great deal of relief; Laurence suspected, looking at his face and measuring his years, that he had received the appointment only due to the lack of time. But Hammond quickly refuted the notion that a willingness to go to China on a moment's notice was his only qualification. Having settled himself, he drew out a thick sheaf of papers, which had been distending the front of his coat, and began to discourse in great detail and speed upon the prospects of their mission.
Laurence was almost from the first unable to follow him. Hammond unconsciously slipped into stretches of the Chinese language from time to time, when looking down at those of his papers written in that script, and while speaking in English dwelt largely on the subject of the Macartney embassy to China, which had taken place fourteen years prior. Laurence, who had been newly made lieutenant at the time and wholly occupied with naval matters and his own career, had hardly remembered the existence of the mission at all, much less any details.
He did not immediately stop Hammond, however: there was no convenient pause in the flow of his conversation, for one, and for another there was a reassuring quality to the monologue. Hammond spoke with authority beyond his years, an obvious command of his subject, and, still more importantly, without the least hint of the incivility which Laurence had come to expect from Barham and the Ministry. Laurence was grateful enough for any prospect of an ally to willingly listen, even if all he knew of the expedition himself was that Macartney's ship, the Lion, had been the first Western vessel to chart the Bay of Zhitao.
"Oh," Hammond said, rather disappointed, when at last he realized how thoroughly he had mistaken his audience. "Well, I suppose it does not much signify; to put it plainly, the embassy was a dismal failure. Lord Macartney refused to perform their ritual of obeisance before the Emperor, the kowtow, and they took offense. They would not even consider granting us a permanent mission, and he ended by being escorted out of the China Sea by a dozen dragons."
"That I do remember," Laurence said; indeed he had a vague recollection of discussing the matter among his friends in the gunroom, with some heat at the insult to Britain's envoy. "But surely the kowtow was quite offensive; did they not wish him to grovel on the floor?"
"We cannot be turning up our noses at foreign customs when we are coming to their country, hat in hand," Hammond said, earnestly, leaning forward. "You can see yourself, sir, the evil consequences: I am sure that the bad blood from this incident continues to poison our present relationship."
Laurence frowned; this argument was indeed persuasive, and made some better explanation why Yongxing had come to England so very ready to be offended. "Do you think this same quarrel their reason for having offered Bonaparte a Celestial? After so long a time?"
"I will be quite honest with you, Captain, we have not the least idea," Hammond said. "Our only comfort, these last fourteen years - a very cornerstone of foreign policy - has been our certainty, our complete certainty, that the Chinese were no more interested in the affairs of Europe than we are in the affairs of the penguins. Now all our foundations have been shaken."