Dark Hunger

Chapter 5

...and the Conduct of your son was in all ways both heroic and gentlemanly. His Loss must grieve all those who shared in the Privilege of his Acquaintance, and none more so than those honoured to serve alongside him, and to see in him already formed the noble Character of a wise and courageous Officer and a loyal Servant of his Country and King. I pray that you may find some Comfort in the sure Knowledge that he died as he would have lived, valiant, fearing nothing but Almighty God, and certain to find a Place of Honour among those who have sacrificed All for their Nation.

Yours, etc.,

William Laurence

HE LAID THE pen down and folded over the letter; it was miserably awkward, inadequate, and yet he could do no better. He had lost friends near his own age enough as a mid and a young lieutenant, and one thirteen-year-old boy under his own first command; even so he had never before had to write a letter for a ten-year-old, who by rights ought still to have been in his schoolroom playing with tin soldiers.

It was the last of the obligatory letters, and the thinnest: there had not been very much to say of earlier acts of valor. Laurence set it aside and wrote a few lines of a more personal nature, these to his mother: news of the engagement would certainly be published in the Gazette, and he knew she would be anxious. It was difficult to write easily, after the earlier task; he confined himself to assuring her of his health and Temeraire's, dismissing their collective injuries as inconsequential. He had written a long and grinding description of the battle in his report for the Admiralty; he did not have the heart to paint a lighter picture of it for her eyes.

Having done at last, he shut up his small writing-desk and collected the letters, each one sealed and wrapped in oilcloth against rain or sea-water. He did not get up right away, but sat looking out the windows at the empty ocean, in silence.

Making his way back up to the dragondeck was a slow affair of easy stages. Having gained the forecastle, he limped for a moment to the larboard rail to rest, pretending it was to look over at their prize, the Chanteuse. Her sails were all hung out loose and billowing; men were clambering over her masts, getting her rigging back into order, looking much like busy ants at this distance.

The scene upon the dragondeck was very different now, with nearly all the formation crammed aboard. Temeraire had been allotted the entire starboard section, the better to ease his wound, but the rest of the dragons lay in a complicated many-colored heap of entangled limbs, stirring rarely. Maximus alone took up virtually all the space remaining, and lay on the bottom; even Lily, who ordinarily considered it beneath her dignity to curl up with other dragons, was forced to let her tail and wing drape over him, while Messoria and Immortalis, older dragons and smaller, made not even such pretensions, and simply sprawled upon his great back, a limb dangling loose here and there.

They were all drowsing and looked perfectly happy with their circumstances; Nitidus only was too fidgety to like lying still very long, and he was presently aloft, circling the frigate curiously: a little too low for the comfort of the sailors, judging by the nervous way heads on the Chanteuse often turned skyward. Dulcia was nowhere in sight, perhaps already gone to carry news of the engagement back to England.

Crossing the deck had become something of an adventure, particularly with his uncooperative and dragging leg; Laurence only narrowly managed to avoid falling over Messoria's hanging tail when she twitched in her sleep. Temeraire was soundly asleep as well; when Laurence came to look at him, one eye slid halfway open, gleamed at him deep blue, and slid at once closed again. Laurence did not try to rouse him, very glad to see him comfortable; Temeraire had eaten well that morning, two cows and a large tunny, and Keynes had pronounced himself satisfied with the present progress of the wound.

"A nasty sort of weapon," he had said, taking a ghoulish pleasure in showing Laurence the extracted ball; staring unhappily at its many squat spikes, Laurence could only be grateful it had been cleaned before he had been obliged to look at it. "I have not seen its like before, though I hear the Russians use something of the sort; I should not have enjoyed working it out if it had gone any deeper, I can tell you."

But by good fortune, the ball had come up against the breastbone, and lodged scarcely half a foot beneath the skin; even so, the ball itself and the extraction had torn the muscles of the breast cruelly, and Keynes said Temeraire ought not fly at all for as long as two weeks, perhaps even a month. Laurence rested a hand upon the broad, warm shoulder; he was glad to have only so much of a price to pay.

The other captains were sitting at a small folding-table wedged up against the galley chimney, very nearly the only open space available on the deck, playing cards; Laurence joined them and gave Harcourt the bundle of letters. "Thank you for taking them," he said, sitting down heavily to catch his breath.

They all paused in the game to look at the large packet. "I am so very sorry, Laurence." Harcourt put the whole into her satchel. "You have been wretchedly mauled about."

"Damned cowardly business." Berkley shook his head. "More like spying than proper combat, this skulking about at night."

Laurence was silent; he was grateful for their sympathy, but at present he was too much oppressed to manage conversation. The funerals had been ordeal enough, keeping his feet for an hour against his leg's complaints, while one after another the bodies were slipped over the side, sewn into their hammocks with round-shot at their feet for the sailors, iron shells for the aviators, as Riley read slowly through the service.

He had spent the remainder of the morning closeted with Lieutenant Ferris, now his acting second, telling over the butcher's bill; a sadly long list. Granby had taken a musket-ball in his chest; thankfully it had cracked against a rib and gone straight out again in back, but he had lost a great deal of blood, and was already feverish. Evans, his second lieutenant, had a badly broken leg and was to be sent back to England; Martin at least would recover, but his jaw was presently so swollen he could not speak except in mumbles, and he could not yet see out of his left eye.

Two more of the topmen wounded, less severely; one of the riflemen, Dunne, wounded, and another, Donnell, killed; Miggsy of the bellmen killed; and worst-hit, the harness-men: four of them had been killed by a single cannon-ball, which had caught them belowdecks while they had been carrying away the extra harness. Morgan had been with them, carrying the box of spare buckles: a wretched waste.

Perhaps seeing something of the tally in his face, Berkley said, "At least I can leave you Portis and Macdonaugh," referring to two of Laurence's topmen, who had been transferred to Maximus during the confusion after the envoys' arrival.

"Are you not short-handed yourself?" Laurence asked. "I cannot rob Maximus; you will be on active duty."

"The transport coming from Halifax, the William of Orange, has a dozen likely fellows for Maximus," Berkley said. "No reason you cannot have your own back again."

"I ought not argue with you; Heaven knows I am desperately short," Laurence said. "But the transport may not arrive for a month, if her crossing has been slow."

"Oh; you were below earlier, so you did not hear us tell Captain Riley," Warren said. "William was sighted only a few days ago, not far from here. So we have sent Chenery and Dulcia off to fetch her, and she will take us and the wounded home. Also, I believe Riley was saying that this boat needs something; it could not have been stars, Berkley?"

"Spars," Laurence said, looking up at the rigging; in the daylight he could see that the yards which supported the sails did indeed look very ugly, much splintered and pockmarked with bullets. "It will certainly be a relief if she can spare us some supplies. But you must know, Warren, this is a ship, not a boat."

"Is there a difference?" Warren was unconcerned, scandalizing Laurence. "I thought they were simply two words for the same thing; or is it a matter of size? This is certainly a behemoth, although Maximus is like to fall off her deck at any moment."

"I am not," Maximus said, but he opened his eyes and peered over at his hindquarters, only settling back to sleep when he had satisfied himself that he was not in present danger of tipping into the water.

Laurence opened his mouth and closed it again without venturing on an explanation; he felt the battle was already lost. "You will be with us for a few days, then?"

"Until tomorrow only," Harcourt said. "If it looks to be longer than that, I think we must take the flight; I do not like to strain the dragons without need, but I like leaving Lenton short at Dover still less, and he will be wondering where on earth we have got to: we were only meant to be doing night maneuvers with the fleet off Brest, before we saw you all firing off like Guy Fawkes Day."

Riley had asked them all to dinner, of course; and the captured French officers as well. Harcourt was obliged to plead sea-sickness as an excuse for avoiding the close quarters where her gender might too easily be revealed, and Berkley was a taciturn fellow, disinclined to speak in sentences of more than five words at a time. But Warren was both free and easy in his speech, the more so after a glass or two of strong wine, and Sutton had a fine store of anecdotes, having been in service nearly thirty years; together they carried the conversation along in an energetic if somewhat ramshackle way.

But the Frenchmen were silent and shocked, and the British sailors only a little less so; their oppression only grew more apparent over the course of the meal. Lord Purbeck was stiff and formal, Macready grim; even Riley was quiet, inclined to uncharacteristic and long periods of silence, and plainly uncomfortable.

On the dragondeck afterwards, over coffee, Warren said, "Laurence, I do not mean to insult your old service or your shipmates, but Lord! They make it heavy going. Tonight I should have thought we had offended them mortally, not saved them a good long fight and whoever knows how many bucketsful of blood."

"I expect they feel we came rather late to save them very much." Sutton leaned against his dragon Messoria companionably and lit a cigar. "So instead we have robbed them of the full glory, not to mention that we have a share in the prize, you know, having arrived before the French ship struck. Would you care for a draft, my dear?" he asked, holding the cigar where Messoria could breathe the smoke.

"No, you have mistaken them entirely, I assure you," Laurence said. "We should never have taken the frigate if you had not come; she was not so badly mauled she could not have shown us her heels whenever she chose; every man aboard was wholly glad to see you come." He did not very much wish to explain, but he did not like to leave them with so ill an impression, so he added briefly, "It is the other frigate, the Valerie, which we sank before you came; the loss of men was very great."

They perceived his own disquiet and pressed him no further; when Warren made as if to ask, Sutton nudged him into silence and called his runner for a deck of cards. They settled to a casual game of speculation, Harcourt having joined them now that they had parted from the naval officers. Laurence finished his cup and slipped quietly away.

Temeraire was himself sitting and looking out across the empty sea; he had slept all the day, and roused just lately for another large meal. He shifted himself to make a place for Laurence upon his foreleg, and curled about him with a small sigh.

"Do not take it to heart." Laurence was aware he was giving advice he could not himself follow; but he feared that Temeraire might brood on the sinking too long, and drive himself into a melancholy. "With the second frigate on our larboard, we should likely have been brought by the lee, and had they doused all the lights and stopped our fireworks, Lily and the others could hardly have found us in the night. You saved many lives, and the Allegiance herself."

"I do not feel guilty," Temeraire said. "I did not intend to sink her, but I am not sorry for that; they meant to kill a great many of my crew, and of course I would not let them. It is the sailors: they look at me so queerly now, and they do not like to come near at all."

Laurence could neither deny the truth of this observation, nor offer any false comfort. Sailors preferred to see a dragon as a fighting machine, very much like a ship which happened to breathe and fly: a mere instrument of man's will. They could accept without great difficulty his strength and brute force, natural as a reflection of his size; if they feared him for it, so might a large, dangerous man be feared. The divine wind however bore an unearthly tinge, and the wreck of the Valerie was too implacable to be human: it woke every wild old legend of fire and destruction from the sky.

Already the battle seemed very like a nightmare in his own memory: the endless gaudy stream of the fireworks and the red light of the cannon firing, the ash-white eyes of the Fleur-de-Nuit in the dark, bitter smoke on his tongue, and above all the slow descent of the wave, like a curtain lowering upon a play. He stroked Temeraire's arm in silence, and together they watched the wake of the ship slipping gently by.

The cry of "Sail!" came at the first dim light: the William of Orange clear on the horizon, two points off the starboard bow. Riley squinted through his glass. "We will pipe the hands to breakfast early; she will be in hailing distance well before nine."

The Chanteuse lay between the two larger ships and was already hailing the oncoming transport: she herself would be going back to England to be condemned as a prize, carrying the prisoners. The day was clear and very cold, the sky that peculiarly rich shade of blue reserved for winter, and the Chanteuse looked cheerful with her white topgallants and royals set. It being rare for a transport to take a prize, the mood ought to have been celebratory; a handsome forty-four-gun ship and a trim sailer, she would certainly be bought into the service, and there would be head-money for the prisoners besides. But the unsettled mood had not quite cleared overnight, and the men were mostly quiet as they worked. Laurence himself had not slept very well, and now he stood on the forecastle watching the William of Orange draw near, wistfully; soon they would once again be quite alone.

"Good morning, Captain," Hammond said, joining him at the rail. The intrusion was unwelcome, and Laurence did not make much attempt to hide it, but this made no immediate impression: Hammond was too busy gazing upon the Chanteuse, an indecent satisfaction showing on his face. "We could not have asked for a better start to the journey."

Several of the crew were at work nearby repairing the shattered deck, the carpenter and his mates; one of them, a cheerful, slant-shouldered fellow named Leddowes, brought aboard at Spithead and already established as the ship's jester, sat up on his heels at this remark and stared at Hammond in open disapproval, until the carpenter Eklof, a big silent Swede, thumped him on the shoulder with his big fist, drawing him back down to the work.

"I am surprised you think so," Laurence said. "Would you not have preferred a first-rate?"

"No, no," Hammond said, oblivious to sarcasm. "It is just as one could wish; do you know one of the balls passed quite through the prince's cabin? One of his guards was killed, and another, badly wounded, passed away during the night; I understand he is in a towering rage. The French navy has done us more good in one night than months of diplomacy. Do you suppose the captain of the captured ship might be presented to him? Of course I have told them our attackers were French, but it would be as well to give them incontrovertible proof."

"We are not going to march a defeated officer about like a prize in some Roman triumph," Laurence said levelly; he had been made prisoner once himself, and though he had been scarcely a boy at the time, a young midshipman, he still remembered the perfect courtesy of the French captain, asking him quite seriously for his parole.

"Of course, I do see - It would not look very well, I suppose," Hammond said, but only as a regretful concession, and he added, "Although it would be a pity if - "

"Is that all?" Laurence interrupted him, unwilling to hear any more.

"Oh - I beg your pardon; forgive my having intruded," Hammond said uncertainly, finally looking at Laurence. "I meant only to inform you: the prince has expressed a desire of seeing you."

"Thank you, sir," Laurence said, with finality. Hammond looked as though he would have liked to say something more, perhaps to urge Laurence to go at once, or give him some advice for the meeting; but in the end he did not dare, and with a short bow went abruptly away.

Laurence had no desire to speak with Yongxing, still less to be trifled with, and his mood was not much improved by the physical unpleasantness of making his halting way to the prince's quarters, all the way to the stern of the ship. When the attendants tried to make him wait in the antechamber, he said shortly, "He may send word when he is ready," and turned at once to go. There was a hasty and huddled conference, one man going so far as to stand in the doorway to bar the way out, and after a moment Laurence was ushered directly into the great cabin.

The two gaping holes in the walls, opposite one another, had been stuffed with wads of blue silk to keep out the wind; but still the long banners of inscribed parchment hanging upon the walls blew and rattled now and again in the draught. Yongxing sat straight-backed upon an armchair draped in red cloth, at a small writing-table of lacquered wood; despite the motion of the ship, his brush moved steadily from ink-pot to paper, never dripping, the shining-wet characters formed up in neat lines and rows.

"You wished to see me, sir," Laurence said.

Yongxing completed a final line and set aside his brush without immediately answering; he took a stone seal, resting in a small pool of red ink, and pressed it at the bottom of the page; then folded up the page and laid it to one side, atop another similar sheet, and folded these both into a piece of waxed cloth. "Feng Li," he called.

Laurence started; he had not even noticed the attendant standing in the corner, nondescript in plain robes of dark blue cotton, who now came forward. Feng was a tall fellow but so permanently stooped that all Laurence could see of him was the perfect line running across his head, ahead of which his dark hair was shaven to the skin. He gave Laurence one quick darting glance, mutely curious, then lifted the whole table up and carried it away to the side of the room, not spilling a drop of the ink.

He hurried back quickly with a footrest for Yongxing, then drew back into the corner of the room: plainly Yongxing did not mean to send him away for the interview. The prince sat up erect with his arms resting upon the chair, and did not offer Laurence a seat, though two more chairs stood against the far wall. This set the tone straightaway; Laurence felt his shoulders stiffening even before Yongxing had begun.

"Though you have only been brought along for necessity's sake," Yongxing said coldly, "you imagine that you remain companion to Lung Tien Xiang and may continue to treat him as your property. And now the worst has been realized: through your vicious and reckless behavior, he has come to grave injury."

Laurence pressed his lips together; he did not trust himself to make anything resembling a civilized remark in response. He had questioned his own judgment, both before taking Temeraire into the battle and all through the long following night, remembering the sound of the dreadful impact, and Temeraire's labored and painful breath; but to have Yongxing question it was another matter.

"Is that all?" he said.

Yongxing had perhaps expected him to grovel, or beg forgiveness; certainly this short answer made the prince more voluble with anger. "Are you so lacking in all right principles?" he said. "You have no remorse; you would have taken Lung Tien Xiang to his death as easily as ridden a horse to foundering. You are not to go aloft with him again, and you will keep these low servants of yours away. I will set my own guards around him - "

"Sir," Laurence said, bluntly, "you may go to the devil." Yongxing broke off, looking more taken aback than offended at finding himself interrupted, and Laurence added, "And as for your guards, if any one of them sets foot upon my dragondeck, I will have Temeraire pitch him overboard. Good day."

He made a short bow and did not stay to hear a response, if Yongxing even made one, but turned and went directly from the room. The attendants stared as he went past them and did not this time attempt to block his way; he was forcing his leg to obey his wishes, moving swiftly. He paid for the bravado: by the time he reached his own cabin, at the very other end of the ship's interminable length, his leg had begun to twitch and shudder with every step as if palsied; he was glad to reach the safety of his chair, and to soothe his ruffled temper with a private glass of wine. Perhaps he had spoken intemperately, but he did not regret it in the least; Yongxing should at least know that not all British officers and gentlemen were prepared to bow and scrape to his every tyrannous whim.

As satisfying a resolution as this was, however, Laurence could not help but acknowledge to himself that his defiance was a good deal strengthened by the conviction that Yongxing would never willingly bend on the central, the essential, point of his separation from Temeraire. The Ministry, in Hammond's person, might have something to gain in exchange for all their crawling; for his own part Laurence had nothing of great importance left to lose. This was a lowering thought, and he put down his glass and sat in silent gloom awhile instead, rubbing his aching leg, propped upon a locker. Six bells rang on deck, and faintly he heard the pipe shrilling away, the scrape and clatter of the hands going to their breakfast on the berth deck below, and the smell of strong tea came drifting over from the galley.

Having finished his glass and eased his leg a little, Laurence at last got himself back onto his feet, and he crossed to Riley's cabin and tapped on the door. He meant to ask Riley to station several of the Marines to keep the threatened guards off the deck, and he was startled and not at all pleased to find Hammond already there, sitting before Riley's writing-desk, with a shadow of conscious guilt and anxiety upon his face.

"Laurence," Riley said, after offering him a chair, "I have been speaking with Mr. Hammond, about the passengers," and Laurence noticed that Riley himself was looking tired and anxious. "He has brought to my attention that they have all been keeping belowdecks, since this news about the Indiamen came out. It cannot go on like this for seven months: we must let them come on deck and take the air somehow. I am sure you will not object - I think we must let them walk about the dragondeck, we do not dare put them near the hands."

No suggestion could have possibly been more unwelcome, nor come at a worse moment; Laurence eyed Hammond in mingled irritation and something very near despair; the man already seemed to be possessed of an evil genius for disaster, at least from Laurence's view, and the prospect of a long journey spent suffering one after another of his diplomatic machinations was increasingly grim.

"I am sorry for the inconvenience," Riley said, when Laurence did not immediately reply. "Only I do not see what else is to be done. There surely is no shortage of room?"

This, too, was indisputable; with so few aviators aboard, and the ship's complement so nearly full, it was unfair to ask the sailors to give up any portion of their space, and could only aggravate the tensions, already high. As a practical matter, Riley was perfectly correct, and it was his right as the ship's captain to decide where the passengers might be at liberty; but Yongxing's threat had made the matter a question of principle. Laurence would have liked to unburden himself plainly to Riley, and if Hammond had not been there, he would have done so; as it was -

"Perhaps," Hammond put in, hurriedly, "Captain Laurence is concerned that they might irritate the dragon. May I suggest that we set aside one portion for them, and that plainly demarcated? A cord, perhaps, might be strung; or else paint would do."

"That would do nicely, if you would be so kind as to explain the boundaries to them, Mr. Hammond," Riley said.

Laurence could make no open protest without explanation, and he did not choose to be laying out his actions in front of Hammond, inviting him to comment upon them; not when there was likely nothing to gain. Riley would sympathize - or at least Laurence hoped he would, though abruptly he was less certain; but sympathy or no, the difficulty would remain, and Laurence did not know what else could be done.

He was not resigned; he was not resigned in the least, but he did not mean to complain and make Riley's situation more difficult. "You will also make plain, Mr. Hammond," Laurence said, "that they are none of them to bring small-arms onto the deck, neither muskets nor swords, and in any action they are to go belowdecks at once: I will brook no interference with my crew, or with Temeraire."

"But sir, there are soldiers among them," Hammond protested. "I am sure they would wish to drill, from time to time - "

"They may wait until they reach China," Laurence said.

Hammond followed him out of the cabin and caught him at the door to his own quarters; inside, two ground crewmen had just brought in more chairs, and Roland and Dyer were busily laying plates out upon the cloth: the other dragons' captains were joining Laurence for breakfast before they took their leave. "Sir," Hammond said, "pray allow me a moment. I must beg your pardon for having sent you to Prince Yongxing in such a way, knowing him to be in an intemperate mood, and I assure you I blame only myself for the consequences, and your quarrel; still, I must beg you to be forbearing - "

Laurence listened to this much, frowning, and now with mounting incredulity said, "Are you saying that you were already aware - ? That you made this proposal to Captain Riley, knowing I had forbidden them the deck?"

His voice was rising as he spoke, and Hammond darted his eyes desperately towards the open door of the cabin: Roland and Dyer were staring wide-eyed and interested at them both, not attending to the great silver platters they were holding. "You must understand, we cannot put them in such a position. Prince Yongxing has issued a command; if we defy it openly, we humiliate him before his own - "

"Then he had best learn not to issue commands to me, sir," Laurence said angrily, "and you would do better to tell him so, instead of carrying them out for him, in this underhanded - "

"For Heaven's sake! Do you imagine I have any desire to see you barred from Temeraire? All we have to bargain with is the dragon's refusal to be separated from you," Hammond said, growing heated himself. "But that alone will not get us very far without good-will, and if Prince Yongxing cannot enforce his commands so long as we are at sea, our positions will be wholly reversed in China. Would you have us sacrifice an alliance to your pride? To say nothing," Hammond added, with a contemptible attempt at wheedling, "of any hope of keeping Temeraire."

"I am no diplomat," Laurence said, "but I will tell you, sir, if you imagine you are likely to get so much as a thimbleful of good-will from this prince, no matter how you truckle to him, then you are a damned fool; and I will thank you not to imagine that I may be bought by castles in the air."

Laurence had meant to send Harcourt and the others off in a creditable manner, but his table was left to bear the social burden alone, without any assistance from his conversation. Thankfully he had laid in good stores, and there was some advantage in being so close to the galley: bacon, ham, eggs, and coffee came to the table steaming hot, even as they sat down, along with a portion of a great tunny, rolled in pounded ship's biscuit and fried, the rest of which had gone to Temeraire; also a large dish of cherry preserves, and an even larger of marmalade. He ate only a little, and seized gladly on the distraction when Warren asked him to sketch the course of the battle for them. He pushed aside his mostly untouched plate to demonstrate the maneuvers of the ships and the Fleur-de-Nuit with bits of crumbled bread, the salt-cellar standing for the Allegiance.

The dragons were just completing their own somewhat less-civilized breakfast as Laurence and the other captains came back above to the dragondeck. Laurence was deeply gratified to find Temeraire wide awake and alert, looking much more easy with his bandages showing clean white, and engaged in persuading Maximus to try a piece of the tunny.

"It is a particularly nice one, and fresh-caught this very morning," he said. Maximus eyed the fish with deep suspicion: Temeraire had already eaten perhaps half, but its head had not been removed, and it lay gap-mouthed and staring glassily on the deck. A good fifteen hundred pounds when first taken, Laurence guessed; even half was still impressive.

Less so, however, when Maximus finally bent his head down and took it: the whole bulk made a single bite for him, and it was amusing to see him chewing with a skeptical expression. Temeraire waited expectantly; Maximus swallowed and licked his chops, and said, "It would not be so very bad, I suppose, if there were nothing else handy, but it is too slippery."

Temeraire's ruff flattened with disappointment. "Perhaps one must develop a taste for it. I dare say they can catch you another."

Maximus snorted. "No; I will leave the fish to you. Is there any more mutton, at all?" he asked, peering over at the herdsmaster with interest.

"How many have you et up already?" Berkley demanded, heaving himself up the stairs towards him. "Four? That is enough; if you grow any more, you will never get yourself off the ground."

Maximus ignored this and cleaned the last haunch of sheep out of the slaughtering-tub; the others had finished also, and the herdmaster's mates began pumping water over the dragondeck to sluice away the blood: shortly there was a veritable frenzy of sharks in the waters before the ship.

The William of Orange was nearly abreast of them, and Riley had gone across to discuss the supplies with her captain; now he reappeared on her deck and was rowed back over, while her men began laying out fresh supplies of wooden spars and sailcloth. "Lord Purbeck," Riley said, climbing back up the side, "we will send the launch to fetch over the supplies, if you please."

"Shall we bring them for you instead?" Harcourt asked, calling down from the dragondeck. "We will have to clear Maximus and Lily off the deck in any case; we can just as easily ferry supplies as fly circles."

"Thank you, sir; you would oblige me greatly," Riley said, looking up and bowing, with no evident suspicion: Harcourt's hair was pulled back tightly, the long braid concealed beneath her flying-hood, while her dress coat hid her figure well enough.

Maximus and Lily went aloft, without their crews, clearing room on the deck for the others to make ready; the crews rolled out the harnesses and armor, and began rigging the smaller dragons out, while the two larger flew over to the William of Orange for the supplies. The moment of departure was drawing close, and Laurence limped over to Temeraire's side; he was conscious suddenly of a sharp, unanticipated regret.

"I do not know that dragon," Temeraire said to Laurence, looking across the water at the other transport; there was a large beast sprawled sullenly upon their dragondeck, a stripey brown-and-green, with red streaks on his wings and neck rather like paint: Laurence had never seen the breed before.

"He is an Indian breed, from one of those tribes in Canada," Sutton said, when Laurence pointed out the strange dragon. "I think Dakota, if I am pronouncing the name correctly; I understand he and his rider - they do not use crews over there, you know, only one man to a dragon, no matter the size - were captured raiding a settlement on the frontier. It is a great coup: a vastly different breed, and I understand they are very fierce fighters. They meant to use him at the breeding grounds in Halifax, but I believe it was agreed that once Praecursoris was sent to them, they should send that fellow here in exchange; and a proper bloody-minded creature he looks."

"It seems hard to send him so very far from home, and to stay," Temeraire said, rather low, looking at the other dragon. "He does not look at all happy."

"He would only be sitting in the breeding grounds at Halifax instead of here, and that does not make much difference," Messoria said, stretching her wings out for the convenience of her harness-crewmen, who were climbing over her to get her rigged out. "They are all much alike, and not very interesting, except for the breeding part," she added, with somewhat alarming frankness; she was a much older dragon than Temeraire, being over thirty years of age.

"That does not sound very interesting, either," Temeraire said, and glumly laid himself back down. "Do you suppose they will put me in a breeding ground in China?"

"I am sure not," Laurence said; privately, he was quite determined he would not leave Temeraire to any such fate, no matter what the Emperor of China or anyone else had to say about it. "They would hardly be making such a fuss, if that were all they wanted."

Messoria snorted indulgently. "You may not think it so terrible, anyway, after you have tried it."

"Stop corrupting the morals of the young." Captain Sutton slapped her side good-humoredly, and gave the harness a final reassuring tug. "There, I think we are ready. Good-bye a second time, Laurence," he said, as they clasped hands. "I expect you have had enough excitement to stand you for the whole voyage; may the rest be less eventful."

The three smaller dragons leapt one after another off the deck, Nitidus scarcely even making the Allegiance dip in the water, and flew over to the William of Orange; then Maximus and Lily came back in turns to be rigged-out themselves, and for Berkley and Harcourt to make Laurence their farewells. At last the whole formation was transferred to the other transport, leaving Temeraire alone on the Allegiance once more.

Riley gave the order to make sail directly; the wind coming from east-southeast and not over-strong, even the studdingsails were set, a fine and blooming display of white. William of Orange fired a gun to leeward as they passed, answered in a moment by Riley's order, and a cheer came to them across the water as the two transports drew finally away from one another, slow and majestic.

Maximus and Lily had gone aloft for a frolic, with the energy of young dragons lately fed; they could be seen for a long while chasing one another through the clouds above the ship, and Temeraire kept his gaze on them until distance reduced them to the size of birds. He sighed a little then, and drew his head back down, curling in upon himself. "It will be a long time before we see them again, I suppose," he said.

Laurence put his hand on the sleek neck, silently. This parting felt somehow more final: no great bustle and noise, no sense of new adventure unfolding, only the crew going about their work still subdued, with nothing to be seen but the long blue miles of empty ocean, an uncertain road to a more uncertain destination. "The time will pass more quickly than you expect," he said. "Come, let us have the book again."

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