Dark Hunger

Chapter 4

THE WIND WAS freshening from the northeast, very cold; Laurence stirred out of his half-sleep and looked up at the stars: only a few hours had passed. He huddled deeper into his blankets by Temeraire's side and tried to ignore the steady ache in his leg. The deck was strangely quiet; under Riley's grim and watchful eye there was scarcely any conversation at all among the remaining crew, though occasionally Laurence could hear indistinct murmurs from the rigging above, men whispering to each other. There was no moon, only a handful of lanterns on deck.

"You are cold," Temeraire said unexpectedly, and Laurence turned to see the great deep blue eyes studying him. "Go inside, Laurence; you must get well, and I will not let anyone hurt Riley. Or the Chinese, I suppose, if you would not like it," he added, though without much enthusiasm.

Laurence nodded, tiredly, and heaved himself up again; the threat of danger was over, he thought, at least for the moment, and there was no real sense in his staying above. "You are comfortable enough?"

"Yes, with the heat from below I am perfectly warm," Temeraire said; indeed Laurence could feel the warmth of the dragondeck even through the soles of his boots.

It was a great deal more pleasant in out of the wind; his leg stabbed unpleasantly twice as he climbed down to the upper berth deck, but his arms were up to his weight and held him until the spasm passed; he managed to reach his cabin without falling.

Laurence had several pleasant small round windows, not drafty, and near the ship's galley as he was, the cabin was still warm despite the wind; one of the runners had lit the hanging lantern, and Gibbon's book was lying still open on the lockers. He slept almost at once, despite the pain; the easy sway of his hanging cot was more familiar than any bed, and the low susurration of the water along the sides of the ship a wordless and constant reassurance.

He came awake all at once, breath jolted out of his body before his eyes even quite opened: noise more felt than heard. The deck abruptly slanted, and he flung out a hand to keep from striking the ceiling; a rat went sliding across the floor and fetched up against the fore lockers before scuttling into the dark again, indignant.

The ship righted almost at once: there was no unusual wind, no heavy swell; at once he understood that Temeraire had taken flight. Laurence flung on his boat-cloak and rushed out in nightshirt and bare feet; the drummer was beating to quarters, the crisp flying staccato echoing off the wooden walls, and even as Laurence staggered out of his room the carpenter and his mates were rushing past him to clear away the bulkheads. Another crash came: bombs, he now recognized, and then Granby was suddenly at his side, a little less disordered since he had been sleeping in breeches. Laurence accepted his arm without hesitation and with his help managed to push through the crowd and get back up to the dragondeck through the confusion. Sailors were running with frantic haste to the pumps, flinging buckets out over the sides for water to slop onto the decks and wet down the sails. A bloom of orange-yellow was trying to grow on the edge of the furled mizzen topsail; one of the midshipmen, a spotty boy of thirteen Laurence had seen skylarking that morning, flung himself gallantly out onto the yard with his shirt in his hand, dripping, and smothered it out.

There was no other light, nothing to show what might be going on aloft, and too much shouting and noise to hear anything of the battle above at all: Temeraire might have been roaring at full voice for all they would have known of it. "We must get a flare up, at once," Laurence said, taking his boots from Roland; she had come running with them, and Morgan with his breeches.

"Calloway, go and fetch a box of flares, and the flash-powder," Granby called. "It must be a Fleur-de-Nuit; no other breed could see without at least moonlight. If only they would stop that noise," he added, squinting uselessly up.

The loud crack warned them; Laurence fell as Granby tried to pull him down to safety, but only a handful of splinters came flying; screams rose from below: the bomb had gone through a weak place in the wood and down into the galley. Hot steam came up through the vent, and the smell of salt pork, steeping already for the next day's dinner: tomorrow was Thursday, Laurence remembered, ship's routine so deeply ingrained that the one thought followed instantly on the other in his mind.

"We must get you below," Granby said, taking his arm again, calling, "Martin!"

Laurence gave him an astonished, appalled look; Granby did not even notice, and Martin, taking his left arm, seemed to think nothing more natural. "I am not leaving the deck," Laurence said sharply.

The gunner Calloway came panting with the box; in a moment, the whistle of the first rising flare cut through the low voices, and the yellow-white flash lit the sky. A dragon bellowed: not Temeraire's voice, too low, and in the too-short moment while the light lingered, Laurence caught sight of Temeraire hovering protectively over the ship. The Fleur-de-Nuit had evaded him in the dark and was a little way off, twisting its head away from the light.

Temeraire roared at once and darted for the French dragon, but the flare died out and fell, leaving all again black as pitch. "Another, another; damn you," Laurence shouted to Calloway, who was still staring aloft just as they all were. "He must have light; keep them going aloft."

More of the crewmen rushed to help him, too many: three more flares went up at once, and Granby sprang to keep them from any further waste. Shortly they had the time marked: one flare followed after another in steady progression, a fresh burst of light just as the previous one failed. Smoke curled around Temeraire, trailed from his wings in the thin yellow light as he closed with the Fleur-de-Nuit, roaring; the French dragon dived to avoid him, and bombs scattered into the water harmlessly, the sound of the splashes traveling over the water.

"How many flares have we left?" Laurence asked Granby, low.

"Four dozen or so, no more," Granby said, grimly: they were going very fast. "And that is already with what the Allegiance was carrying besides our own; their gunner brought us all they had."

Calloway slowed the rate of firing to stretch the dwindling supply longer, so that the dark returned full-force between bursts of light. Their eyes were all stinging with smoke and the strain of trying to see in the thin, always-fading light of the flares; Laurence could only imagine how Temeraire was managing, alone, half-blind, against an opponent fully manned and prepared for battle.

"Sir, Captain," Roland cried, waving at him from the starboard rail; Martin helped Laurence over, but before they had reached her, one of the last handful of flares went off, and for a moment the ocean behind the Allegiance was illuminated clearly: two French heavy frigates coming on behind them, with the wind in their favor, and a dozen boats in the water crammed with men sweeping towards their either side.

The lookout above had seen also; "Sail ho; boarders," he bellowed out, and all was suddenly confusion once more: sailors running across the deck to stretch the boarding-netting, and Riley at the great double-wheel with his coxswain and two of the strongest seamen; they were putting the Allegiance about with desperate haste, trying to bring her broadside to bear. There was no sense in trying to outrun the French ships; in this wind the frigates could make a good ten knots at least, and the Allegiance would never escape them.

Ringing along the galley chimney, words and the pounding of many feet echoed up hollowly from the gundecks: Riley's midshipmen and lieutenants were already hurrying men into place at the guns, their voices high and anxious as they repeated instructions, over and over, trying to drum what ought to have occupied the practice of months into the heads of men half-asleep and confused.

"Calloway, save the flares," Laurence said, hating to give the order: the darkness would leave Temeraire vulnerable to the Fleur-de-Nuit. But with so few left, they had to be conserved, until there was some better hope of being able to do real damage to the French dragon.

"Stand by to repel boarders," the bosun bellowed; the Allegiance was finally coming up through the wind, and there was a moment of silence: out in the darkness, the oars kept splashing, a steady count in French drifting faintly towards them over the water, and then Riley called, "Fire as she bears."

The guns below roared, red fire and smoke spitting: impossible to tell what damage had been done, except by the mingled sounds of screaming and splintering wood to let them know at least some of the shot had gone home. On went the guns, a rolling broadside as the Allegiance made her ponderous turn; but after they had spoken once, the inexperience of the crew began to tell.

At last the first gun spoke again, four minutes at least between shots; the second gun did not fire at all, nor the third; the fourth and fifth went together, with some more audible damage, but the sixth ball could be heard splashing into clear water; also the seventh, and then Purbeck called, " 'Vast firing." The Allegiance had carried too far; now she could not fire again until she made her turn once more; and all the while the boarding party would be approaching, the rowers only encouraged to greater speed.

The guns died away; the clouds of thick grey smoke drifted over the water. The ship was again in darkness, but for the small, swaying pools of light cast off by the lanterns on deck. "We must get you aboard Temeraire," Granby said. "We are not too far from shore yet for him to make the flight, and in any case there may be ships closer by: the transport from Halifax may be in these waters by now."

"I am not going to run away and hand a hundred-gun transport over to the French," Laurence said, very savagely.

"I am sure we can hold out, and in any case there is every likelihood of recapturing her before they can bring her into port, if you can warn the fleet," Granby argued; no naval officer would have persisted so against his commander, but aviator discipline was far more loose, and he would not be denied; it was indeed his duty as first lieutenant to see to the captain's safety.

"They could easily take her to the West Indies or a port in Spain, far from the blockades, and man her from there; we cannot lose her," Laurence said.

"It would still be best to have you aboard, where they cannot lay hands on you unless we are forced to surrender," Granby said. "We must find some way to get Temeraire clear."

"Sir, begging your pardon," Calloway said, looking up from the box of flares, "if you was to get me one of those pepper-guns, we might pack up a ball with flash-powder, and maybe give himself a bit of breathing room." He jerked his chin up towards the sky.

"I'll speak to Macready," Ferris said at once, and dashed away to find the ship's Marine lieutenant.

The pepper-gun was brought from below, two of the Marines carrying the halves of the long rifled barrel up while Calloway cautiously pried open one of the pepper-balls. The gunner shook out perhaps half the pepper and opened the locked box of flash-powder, taking out a single paper twist and sealing the box again. He held the twist far out over the side, two of his mates holding his waist to keep him steady while he unwound the twist and carefully spilled the yellow powder into the case, watching with only one eye, the other squinted up and his face half-turned away; his cheek was spotted with black scars, reminders of previous work with the powder: it needed no fuse and would go off on any careless impact, burning far hotter than gunpowder, if spent more quickly.

He sealed up the ball and plunged the rest of the twist into a bucket of water. His mates threw it overboard while he smeared the seal of the ball with a little tar and covered it all over with grease before loading the gun; then the second half of the barrel was screwed on. "There; I don't say it will go off, but I allow as it may," Calloway said, wiping his hands clean with no little relief.

"Very good," Laurence said. "Stand ready and save the last three flares to give us light for the shot; Macready, have you a man for the gun? Your best, mind you; he must strike the head to do any good."

"Harris, you take her," Macready said, pointing one of his men to the gun, a gangly, rawboned fellow of perhaps eighteen, and added to Laurence, "Young eyes for a long shot, sir; never fear she'll go astray."

A low angry rumble of voices drew their attention below, to the quarterdeck: the envoy Sun Kai had come on deck with two of the servants trailing behind, carrying one of the enormous trunks out of their luggage. The sailors and most of Temeraire's crew were clustered along the rails to fend off the boarders, cutlasses and pistols in every hand; but even with the French ships gaining, one fellow with a pike went so far as to take a step towards the envoy, before the bosun started him with the knotted end of his rope, bawling, "Keep the line, lads; keep the line."

Laurence had all but forgotten the disastrous dinner in the confusion: it seemed already weeks ago, but Sun Kai was still wearing the same embroidered gown, his hands folded calmly into the sleeves, and the angry, alarmed men were primed for just such a provocation. "Oh, his soul to the devil. We must get him away. Below, sir; below at once," he shouted, pointing at the gangway, but Sun Kai only beckoned his men on, and came climbing up to the dragondeck while they heaved the great trunk up more slowly behind him.

"Where is that damned translator?" Laurence said. "Dyer, go and see - " But by then the servants had hauled up the trunk; they unlocked it and flung back the lid, and there was no need for translation: the rockets that lay in the padding of straw were wildly elaborate, red and blue and green like something out of a child's nursery, painted with swirls of color, gold and silver, and unmistakable.

Calloway snatched one at once, blue with white and yellow stripes, one of the servants anxiously miming for him how the match should be set to the fuse. "Yes, yes," he said, impatiently, bringing over the slow-match; the rocket caught at once and hissed upwards, vanishing from sight far above where the flares had gone.

The white flash came first, then a great thunderclap of sound, echoing back from the water, and a more faintly glimmering circle of yellow stars spread out and hung lingering in the air. The Fleur-de-Nuit squawked audibly, undignified, as the fireworks went off: it was revealed plainly, not a hundred yards above, and Temeraire immediately flung himself upwards, teeth bared, hissing furiously.

Startled, the Fleur-de-Nuit dived, slipping under Temeraire's outstretched claws but coming into their range. "Harris, a shot, a shot!" Macready yelled, and the young Marine squinted through the sight. The pepper-ball flew straight and true, if a little high; but the Fleur-de-Nuit had narrow curving horns flaring out from its forehead, just above the eyes; the ball broke open against them and the flash-powder burst white-hot and flaring. The dragon squalled again, this time in real pain, and flew wildly and fast away from the ships, deep into the dark; it swept past the ship so low that the sails shuddered noisily in the wind of its wings.

Harris stood up from the gun and turned, grinning wide and gap-toothed, then fell with a look of surprise, his arm and shoulder gone. Macready was knocked down by his falling body; Laurence jerked a knife-long splinter out of his own arm and wiped spattered blood from his face. The pepper-gun was a blasted wreck: the crew of the Fleur-de-Nuit had flung down another bomb even as their dragon fled, and hit the gun dead-on.

A couple of the sailors dragged Harris's body to the side and flung him overboard; no one else had been killed. The world was queerly muffled; Calloway had sent up another pair of fireworks, a great starburst of orange streaks spreading almost over half the sky, but Laurence could hear the explosion only in his left ear.

With the Fleur-de-Nuit thus distracted, Temeraire dropped back down onto the deck, rocking the ship only a little. "Hurry, hurry," he said, ducking his head down beneath the straps as the harness-men scrambled to get him rigged out. "She is very quick, and I do not think the light hurts her as much as it did the other one, the one we fought last fall; there is something different about her eyes." He was heaving for breath, and his wings trembled a little: he had been hovering a great deal, and it was not a maneuver he was accustomed to perform for any length of time.

Sun Kai, who had remained upon deck, observing, did not protest the harnessing; perhaps, Laurence thought bitterly, they did not mind it when it was their own necks at risk. Then he noticed that drops of deep, red-black blood were dripping onto the deck. "Where are you hurt?"

"It is not bad; she only caught me twice," Temeraire said, twisting his head around and licking at his right flank; there was a shallow cut there, and another gouged claw-mark further up on his back.

Twice was a good deal more than Laurence cared for; he snapped at Keynes, who had been sent along with them, as the man was boosted up and began to pack the wound with bandages. "Ought you not sew them up?"

"Nonsense," Keynes said. "He'll do as he is; barely worth calling them flesh wounds. Stop fretting." Macready had regained his feet, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand; he gave the surgeon a dubious look at this reply and glanced at Laurence sidelong, the more so as Keynes continued his work muttering audibly about overanxious captains and mother hens.

Laurence himself was too grateful to object, full of relief. "Are you ready, gentlemen?" he asked, checking his pistols and his sword: this time it was his good heavy cutlass, proper Spanish steel and a plain hilt; he was glad to feel its solid weight under his hand.

"Ready for you, sir," Fellowes said, pulling the final strap tight; Temeraire reached out and lifted Laurence up to his shoulder. "Give her a pull up there; does she hold?" he called, once Laurence was settled and locked on again.

"Well enough," Laurence called back down, having thrown his weight against the stripped-down harness. "Thank you, Fellowes; well done. Granby, send the riflemen to the tops with the Marines, and the rest to repel boarders."

"Very good; and Laurence - " Granby said, clearly meaning to once again encourage him to take Temeraire away from the battle. Laurence cut him short by the expedient of giving Temeraire a quick nudge with his knee. The Allegiance heaved again beneath the weight of his leap, and they were airborne together at last.

The air above the Allegiance was thick with the harsh, sulfurous smoke of the fireworks, like the smell of flintlocks, cloying on his tongue and skin despite the cold wind. "There she is," Temeraire said, beating back aloft; Laurence followed his gaze and saw the Fleur-de-Nuit approaching again from high above: she had indeed recovered very quickly from the blinding light, judging by his previous experience with the breed, and he wondered if perhaps she was some sort of new cross. "Shall we go after her?"

Laurence hesitated; for the sake of keeping Temeraire out of their hands, disabling the Fleur-de-Nuit was of the most urgent necessity, for if the Allegiance was forced to surrender and Temeraire had to attempt a return to shore, she could harry them in the darkness all the way back home. And yet the French frigates could do far more damage to the ship: a raking fire would mean a very slaughter of the men. If the Allegiance were taken, it would be a terrible blow to the Navy and the Corps both: they had no large transports to spare.

"No," he said finally. "Our first duty must be to preserve the Allegiance - we must do something about those frigates." He spoke more to convince himself than Temeraire; he felt the decision was in the right, but a terrible doubt lingered; what was courage in an ordinary man might often be called recklessness in an aviator, with the responsibility for a rare and precious dragon in his hands. It was Granby's duty to be over-cautious, but it did not follow that he was in the wrong. Laurence had not been raised in the Corps, and he knew his nature balked at many of the restraints placed upon a dragon captain; he could not help but wonder if he were consulting his own pride too far.

Temeraire was always enthusiastic for battle; he made no argument, but only looked down at the frigates. "Those ships look much smaller than the Allegiance," Temeraire said doubtfully. "Is she truly in danger?"

"Very great danger; they mean to rake her." Even as Laurence spoke, another of the fireworks went off. The explosion came startlingly near, now that he was aloft on Temeraire's back; he was forced to shield his dazzled eyes with a hand. When the spots at last faded from his eyes, he saw in alarm that the leeward frigate had suddenly club-hauled to come about: a risky maneuver and not one he would himself have undertaken simply for an advantage of position, though in justice he could not deny it had been brilliantly performed. Now the Allegiance had her vulnerable stern wholly exposed to the French ship's larboard guns. "Good God; there!" he said urgently, pointing even though Temeraire could not see the gesture.

"I see her," Temeraire said: already diving. His sides were swelling out with the gathering breath required for the divine wind, the gleaming black hide going drumhide-taut as his deep chest expanded. Laurence could feel a palpable low rumbling echo already building beneath Temeraire's skin, a herald of the destructive power to come.

The Fleur-de-Nuit had made out his intentions: she was coming on behind them. He could hear her wings beating, but Temeraire was the faster, his greater weight not hampering him in the dive. Gunpowder cracked noisily as her riflemen took shots, but their attempts were only guesswork in the dark; Laurence laid himself close to Temeraire's neck and silently willed him to greater speed.

Below them, the frigate's cannon erupted in a great cloud of smoke and fury; flames licked out from the ports and flung an appalling scarlet glow up against Temeraire's breast. A fresh cracking of rifle-fire came from the frigate's decks, and he jerked, sharply, as if struck: Laurence called out his name in anxiety, but Temeraire had not paused in his drive towards the ship: he leveled out to blast her, and the sound of Laurence's voice was lost in the terrible thundering noise of the divine wind.

Temeraire had never before used the divine wind to attack a ship; but in the battle of Dover, Laurence had seen the deadly resonance work against Napoleon's troop-carriers, shattering their light wood. He had expected something similar here: the deck splintering, damage to the yards, perhaps even breaking the masts. But the French frigate was solidly built, with oak planking as much as two feet thick, and her masts and yards were well-secured for battle with iron chains to reinforce the rigging.

Instead the sails caught and held the force of Temeraire's roar: they shivered for a moment, then bulged out full and straining. A score of braces snapped like violin strings, the masts all leaning away; yet still they held, wood and sailcloth groaning, and for a moment Laurence's heart sank: no great damage, it seemed, would be done.

But if part would not yield, then all must perforce bend: even as Temeraire stopped his roaring and went flashing by, the whole ship turned away, driven broadside to the wind, and slowly toppled over onto her side. The tremendous force left her all but on her beam-ends, men hanging loose from the rigging and the rails, their feet kicking in mid-air, some falling into the ocean.

Laurence twisted about to look back towards her as they swept on, Temeraire skimming past, low to the water. VALeRIE was emblazoned in lovingly bright gold letters upon her stern, illuminated by lanterns hung in the cabin windows: now swinging crazily, half overturned. Her captain knew his work: Laurence could hear shouts carrying across the water, and already the men were crawling up onto the side with every sort of sea-anchor in their hands, hawsers run out, ready to try to right her.

But they had no time. In Temeraire's wake, churned up by the force of the divine wind upon the water, a tremendous wave was climbing out of the swell. Slow and high it mounted, as if with some deliberate intent. For a moment all hung still, the ship suspended in blackness, the great shining wall of water blotting out even the night; then, falling, the wave heeled her over like a child's toy, and the ocean quenched all the fire of her guns.

She did not come up again. A pale froth lingered, and a scattered few smaller waves chased the great one and broke upon the curve of the hull, which remained above the surface. A moment only: then it slipped down beneath the waters, and a hail of golden fireworks lit the sky. The Fleur-de-Nuit circled low over the churning waters, belling out in her deep lonely voice, as though unable to understand the sudden absence of the ship.

There was no sound of cheering from the Allegiance, though they must have seen. Laurence himself was silent, dismayed: three hundred men, perhaps more, the ocean smooth and glassy, unbroken. A ship might founder in a gale, in high winds and forty-foot waves; a ship might occasionally be sunk in an action, burnt or exploded after a long battle, run aground on rocks. But she had been untouched, in open ocean with no more than a ten-foot swell and winds of fourteen knots; and now obliterated whole.

Temeraire coughed, wetly, and made a sound of pain; Laurence hoarsely called, "Back to the ship, at once," but already the Fleur-de-Nuit was beating furiously towards them: against the next brilliant flare he could see the silhouettes of the boarders waiting, ready to leap aboard, knives and swords and pistols glittering white along their edges. Temeraire was flying so very awkwardly, labored; as the Fleur-de-Nuit came close, he put on a desperate effort and lunged away, but he was no longer quicker in the air, and he could not get around the other dragon to reach the safety of the Allegiance.

Laurence might almost have let them come aboard, to treat the wound; he could feel the quivering labor of Temeraire's wings, and his mind was full of that scarlet moment, the terrible muffled impact of the ball: every moment aloft now might worsen the injury. But he could hear the shouting voices of the French dragon's crew, full of a grief and horror that required no translation; and he did not think they would accept a surrender.

"I hear wings," Temeraire gasped, voice gone high and thin with pain; meaning another dragon, and Laurence vainly searched the impenetrable night: British or French? The Fleur-de-Nuit abruptly darted at them again; Temeraire gathered himself for another convulsive burst of speed, and then, hissing and spitting, Nitidus was there, beating about the head of the French dragon in a flurry of silver-grey wings: Captain Warren on his back standing in harness and waving his hat wildly at Laurence, yelling, "Go, go!"

Dulcia had come about them on the other side, nipping at the Fleur-de-Nuit's flanks, forcing the French dragon to double back and snap at her; the two light dragons were the quickest of their formation-mates, and though not up to the weight of the big Fleur-de-Nuit, they might harry her a little while. Temeraire was already turning in a slow arc, his wings working in shuddering sweeps. As they closed with the ship, Laurence could see the crew scrambling to clear the dragondeck for him to land: it was littered with splinters and ends of rope, twisted metal; the Allegiance had suffered badly from the raking, and the second frigate was keeping up a steady fire on her lower decks.

Temeraire did not properly land, but half-fell clumsily onto the deck and set the whole ship to rocking; Laurence was casting off his straps before they were even properly down. He slid down behind the withers without a hand on the harness; his leg gave way beneath him as he came down heavily upon the deck, but he only dragged himself up again and staggered half-falling to Temeraire's head.

Keynes was already at work, elbow-deep in black blood; to better give him access, Temeraire was leaning slowly over onto his side under the guidance of many hands, the harness-men holding up the light for the surgeon. Laurence went to his knees by Temeraire's head and pressed his cheek to the soft muzzle; blood soaked warm through his trousers, and his eyes were stinging, blurred. He did not quite know what he was saying, nor whether it made any sense, but Temeraire blew out warm air against him in answer, though he did not speak.

"There, I have it; now the tongs. Allen, stop that foolishness or put your head over the side," Keynes said, somewhere behind his back. "Good. Is the iron hot? Now then; Laurence, he must keep steady."

"Hold fast, dear heart," Laurence said, stroking Temeraire's nose. "Hold as still as ever you may; hold still." Temeraire gave a hiss only, and his breath wheezed in loudly through his red, flaring nostrils; one heartbeat, two, then the breath burst out of him, and the spiked ball rang as Keynes dropped it into the waiting tray. Temeraire gave another small hissing cry as the hot iron was clapped to the wound; Laurence nearly heaved at the scorched, roasting smell of meat.

"There; it is over; a clean wound. The ball had fetched up against the breastbone," Keynes said; the wind blew the smoke clear, and suddenly Laurence could hear the crash and echo of the long guns again, and all the noise of the ship; the world once again had meaning and shape.

Laurence dragged himself up to his feet, swaying. "Roland," he said, "you and Morgan run and see what odds and ends of sailcloth and wadding they may have to spare; we must try and put some padding around him."

"Morgan is dead, sir," Roland said, and in the lantern-light he saw abruptly that her face was tracked with tears, not sweat; pale streaks through grime. "Dyer and I will go."

The two of them did not wait for him to nod, but darted away at once, shockingly small in and among the burly forms of the sailors; he followed after them with his eyes for a moment, and turned back, his face hardening.

The quarterdeck was so thickly slimed with blood that portions shone glossy black as though freshly painted. By the slaughter and lack of destruction in the rigging, Laurence thought the French must have been using canister shot, and indeed he could see some parts of the broken casings lying about on the deck. The French had crammed every man who could be spared into the boats, and there were a great many of those: two hundred desperate men were struggling to come aboard, enraged with the loss of their ship. They were four- and five-deep along the grappling-lines in places, or clinging to the rails, and the British sailors trying to hold them back had all the broad and empty deck behind them. Pistol-shot rang clear, and the clash of swords; sailors with long pikes were jabbing into the mass of boarders as they heaved and pushed.

Laurence had never seen a boarding fight from such a strange, in-between distance, at once near and yet removed; he felt very queer and unsettled, and drew his pistols out for comfort. He could not see many of his crew: Granby missing, and Evans, his second lieutenant, too; down on the forecastle below, Martin's yellow hair shone bright in the lanterns for a moment as he leapt to cut a man off; then he disappeared under a blow from a big French sailor carrying a club.

"Laurence." He heard his name, or at least something like it, strangely drawn out into three syllables more like Lao-ren-tse, and turned to look; Sun Kai was pointing northward, along the line of the wind, but the last burst of fireworks was already fading, and Laurence could not see what he meant to point out.

Above, the Fleur-de-Nuit suddenly gave a roar; she banked sharply away from Nitidus and Dulcia, who were still darting at her flanks, and set off due eastward, flying fast, vanishing very quickly into the darkness. Almost on her heels came the deep belly-roar of a Regal Copper, and the higher shrieks of Yellow Reapers: the wind of their passage set all the shrouds snapping back and forth as they swept overhead, firing flares off in every direction.

The remaining French frigate doused her lights all at once, hoping to escape into the night, but Lily led the formation past her, low enough to rattle her masts; two passes, and in a fading crimson starburst Laurence saw the French colors slowly come drooping down, while all across the deck the boarders flung down their weapons and sank to the deck in surrender.

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