Dark Hunger


Chapter 8


BLYTHE AT LAST emerged from the sick-berth, much reduced, mostly to sit and doze in a chair on the deck: Martin was especially solicitous for his comfort, and apt to speak sharply to anyone who so much as jostled the makeshift awning they had rigged over him. Blythe could scarcely cough but a glass of grog was put in his hand; he could not speak slightingly of the weather but he would be offered, as appropriate, a rug, an oilskin, a cool cloth.

"I'm sorry he's taken it so to heart, sir," Blythe told Laurence helplessly. "I don't suppose any high-spirited fellow could have stood it kindly, the way them tars were going on, and no fault of his, I'm sure. I wish he wouldn't take on so."

The sailors were not pleased to see the offender so cosseted, and by way of answer made much of their fellow Reynolds, already inclined to put on a martyr's airs. In ordinary course he was only an indifferent seaman, and the new degree of respect he was receiving from his company went to his head. He strutted about the deck like cock-robin, giving unnecessary orders for the pleasure of seeing them followed with such excess of bows, and nods, and forelock-pulling; even Purbeck and Riley did not much check him.

Laurence had hoped that at least the shared disaster of Austerlitz might mute the hostility between the sailors and the aviators; but this display kept tempers on both sides at an elevated pitch. The Allegiance was now drawing close to the equatorial line, and Laurence thought it necessary to make special arrangements for managing the usual crossing ceremony. Less than half of the aviators had ever crossed the line before, and if the sailors were given license to dunk and shave the lot of them under the present mood, Laurence did not think order could possibly be maintained. He consulted with Riley, and the agreement was reached that he would offer a general tithe on behalf of his men, namely three casks of rum which he had taken the precaution of acquiring in Cape Coast; the aviators would therefore be universally excused.

All the sailors were disgruntled by the alteration in their tradition, several going so far as to speak of bad luck to the ship as a consequence; undoubtedly many of them had privately been looking forward to the opportunity to humiliate their shipboard rivals. As a result, when at last they crossed the equator and the usual pageant came aboard, it was rather quiet and unenthusiastic. Temeraire at least was entertained, though Laurence had to shush him hastily when he said, very audibly, "But Laurence, that is not Neptune at all; that is Griggs, and Amphitrite is Boyne," recognizing the seamen through their shabby costumes, which they had not taken much trouble to make effective.

This produced a good deal of imperfectly suppressed hilarity among the crew, and Badger-Bag - the carpenter's mate Leddowes, less recognizable under a scruffy mop-head for a judicial wig - had a fit of inspiration and declared that this time, all those who allowed laughter to escape should be Neptune's victims. Laurence gave Riley a quick nod, and Leddowes was given a free hand among both sailors and aviators. Fair numbers of each were seized, all the rest applauding, and to cap the occasion Riley sang out, "An extra ration of grog for all, thanks to the toll paid by Captain Laurence's crew," producing an enthusiastic cheer.

Some of the hands got up a set of music, and another of dancing; the rum worked its effect and soon even the aviators were clapping along, and humming the music to the shanties, though they did not know the words. It was perhaps not as wholeheartedly cheerful as some crossings, but much better than Laurence had feared.

The Chinese had come on deck for the event, though naturally not subjected to the ritual, and watched with much discussion amongst themselves. It was of course a rather vulgar kind of entertainment, and Laurence felt some embarrassment at having Yongxing witness it, but Liu Bao thumped his thigh in applause along with the entire crew, and let out a tremendous, booming laugh for each of Badger-Bag's victims. He at length turned to Temeraire, across the boundary, and asked him a question: "Laurence, he would like to know what the purpose of the ceremony is, and which spirits are being honored," Temeraire said. "But I do not know myself; what are we celebrating, and why?"

"Oh," Laurence said, wondering how to explain the rather ridiculous ceremony. "We have just crossed the equator, and it is an old tradition that those who have never crossed the line before must pay respects to Neptune - that is the Roman god of the sea; though of course he is not actually worshiped anymore."

"Aah!" Liu Bao said, approvingly, when this had been translated for him. "I like that. It is good to show respect to old gods, even if they are not yours. It must be very good luck for the ship. And it is only nineteen days until the New Year: we will have to have a feast on board, and that will be good luck, too. The spirits of our ancestors will guide the ship back to China."

Laurence was dubious, but the sailors listening in to the translation with much interest found much to approve in this speech: both the feast, and the promised good luck, which appealed to their superstitious habit of thought. Although the mention of spirits was cause for a great deal of serious belowdecks debate, being a little too close to ghosts for comfort, in the end it was generally agreed that as ancestor spirits, these would have to be benevolently inclined towards the descendants being carried by the ship, and therefore not to be feared.

"They have asked me for a cow and four sheep, and all eight of the remaining chickens, also; we will have to put in at St. Helena after all. We will make the turn westward tomorrow; at least it will be easier sailing than all this beating into the trades we have been doing," Riley said, watching dubiously a few days later: several of the Chinese servants were busy fishing for sharks. "I only hope the liquor is not too strong. I must give it to the hands in addition to their grog ration, not in its place, or it would be no celebration at all."

"I am sorry to give you any cause for alarm, but Liu Bao alone can drink two of me under the table; I have seen him put away three bottles of wine in a sitting," Laurence said ruefully, speaking from much painful experience: the envoy had dined with him convivially several more times since Christmas, and if he were suffering any lingering ill-effects whatsoever from the sea-sickness, it could not be told from his appetite. "For that matter, though Sun Kai does not drink a great deal, brandy and wine are all the same to him, as far as I can tell."

"Oh, to the devil with them," Riley said, sighing. "Well, perhaps a few dozen able seamen will get themselves into enough trouble that I can take away their grog for the night. What do you suppose they are going to do with those sharks? They have thrown back two porpoises already, and those are much better eating."

Laurence was ill-prepared to venture upon a guess, but he did not have to: at that moment the lookout called, "Wing three points off the larboard bow," and they hurried at once to the side, to pull out their telescopes and peer into the sky, while sailors stampeded to their posts in case it should be an attack.

Temeraire had lifted his head from his nap at the noise. "Laurence, it is Volly," he called down from the dragondeck. "He has seen us, he is coming this way." Following this announcement, he roared out a greeting that made nearly every man jump and rattled the masts; several of the sailors looked darkly towards him, though none ventured a complaint.

Temeraire shifted himself about to make room, and some fifteen minutes later the little Greyling courier dropped down onto the deck, furling his broad grey-and-white-streaked wings. "Temrer!" he said, and butted Temeraire happily with his head. "Cow?"

"No, Volly, but we can fetch you a sheep," Temeraire said indulgently. "Has he been hurt?" he asked James; the little dragon sounded queerly nasal.

Volly's captain, Langford James, slid down. "Hello, Laurence, there you are. We have been looking for you up and down the coast," he said, reaching out to take Laurence's hand. "No need to fret, Temeraire; he has only caught this blasted cold going about Dover. Half the dragons are moaning and sniffling about: they are the greatest children imaginable. But he will be right as rain in a week or two."

More rather than less alarmed by these reassurances, Temeraire edged a little distance away from Volly; he did not look particularly eager to experience his first illness. Laurence nodded; the letter he had had from Jane Roland had mentioned the sickness in passing. "I hope you have not strained him on our account, coming so far. Shall I send for my surgeon?" he offered.

"No, thank you; he has been doctored enough. It'll be another week before he forgets the medicine he swallowed and forgives me for slipping it into his dinner," James said, waving away the request. "Any road, we have not come so very far; we have been down here flying the southern route the last two weeks, and it is a damned sight warmer here than in jolly old England, you know. Volly's hardly shy about letting me know if he don't care to fly, either, so as long as he doesn't speak up, I'll keep him in the air." He petted the little dragon, who bumped his nose against James's hand, and then lowered his head directly to sleep.

"What news is there?" Laurence asked, shuffling through the post that James had handed over: his responsibility rather than Riley's, as it had been brought by dragon-courier. "Has there been any change on the Continent? We heard news of Austerlitz at Cape Coast. Are we recalled? Ferris, see these to Lord Purbeck, and the rest among our crew," he added, handing the other letters off: for himself he had a dispatch, and a couple of letters, though he politely tucked them into his jacket rather than looking at them at once.

"No to both, more's the pity, but at least we can make the trip a little easier for you; we have taken the Dutch colony at Capetown," James said. "Seized it last month, so you can break your journey there."

The news leapt from one end of the deck to the other with speed fueled by the enthusiasm of men who had been long brooding over the grim news of Napoleon's latest success, and the Allegiance was instantly afire with patriotic cheers; no further conversation was possible until some measure of calm had been restored. The post did some work to this effect, Purbeck and Ferris handing it out among the respective crews, and gradually the noise collected into smaller pockets, many of the other men deep into their letters.

Laurence sent for a table and chairs to be brought up to the dragondeck, inviting Riley and Hammond to join them and hear the news. James was happy to give them a more detailed account of the capture than was contained in the brief dispatch: he had been a courier from the age of fourteen, and had a turn for the dramatic; though in this case he had little material to work from. "I'm sorry it doesn't make a better story; it was not really a fight, you know," he said apologetically. "We had the Highlanders there, and the Dutch only some mercenaries; they ran away before we even reached the town. The governor had to surrender; the people are still a little uneasy, but General Baird is leaving local affairs to them, and they have not kicked up much of a fuss."

"Well, it will certainly make resupply easier," Riley said. "We need not stop in St. Helena, either; and that will be a savings of as much as two weeks. It is very welcome news indeed."

"Will you stay for dinner?" Laurence asked James. "Or must you be going straightaway?"

Volly abruptly sneezed behind him, a loud and startling noise. "Ick," the little dragon said, waking himself up out of his sleep, and rubbed his nose against his foreleg in distaste, trying to scrape the mucus from his snout.

"Oh, stop that, filthy wretch," James said, getting up; he took a large white linen square from his harness bags and wiped Volly clean with the weary air of long practice. "I suppose we will stay the night," he said after, contemplating Volly. "No need to press him, now that I have found you in time, and you can write any letters you like me to take on: we are homeward bound after we leave you."

...so my poor Lily, like Excidium and Mortiferus, has been banished from her comfortable clearing to the Sand Pits, for when she sneezes, she cannot help but spit some of the acid, the muscles involved in this reflex (so the surgeons tell me) being the very same. They all three are very disgusted with their situation, as the sand cannot be got rid of from day to day, and they scratch themselves like Dogs trying to cast off fleas no matter how they bathe.

Maximus is in deep disgrace, for he began sneezing first, and all the other dragons like to have someone to blame for their Misery; however he bears it well, or as Berkley tells me to write, "Does not give a Tinker's Dam for the lot of them and whines all the day, except when busy stuffing his gullet; has not hurt his appetite in the least."

We all do very well otherwise, and all send their love; the dragons also, and bid you convey their greetings and affection to Temeraire. They indeed miss him badly, though I am sorry to have to tell you that we have lately discovered one ignoble cause for their pining, which is plain Greed. Evidently he had taught them how to pry open the Feeding Pen, and close it again after, so they were able to help themselves whenever they liked without anyone the wiser - their Guilty Secret discovered only after note was taken that the Herds were oddly diminished, and the dragons of our formation overfed, whereupon being questioned they confessed the Whole.

I must stop, for we have Patrol, and Volatilus goes south in the morning. All our prayers for your safe Journey and quick return.

Etc.,

Catherine Harcourt

"What is this I hear from Harcourt of your teaching the dragons to steal from the pen?" Laurence demanded, looking up from his letter; he was taking the hour before dinner to read his mail, and compose replies.

Temeraire started up with so very revealing an expression that his guilt could be in no doubt. "That is not true, I did not teach anyone to steal," he said. "The herdsmen at Dover are very lazy, and do not always come in the morning, so we have to wait and wait at the pen, and the herds are meant for us, anyway; it cannot be called stealing."

"I suppose I ought to have suspected something when you stopped complaining of them being always late," Laurence said. "But how on earth did you manage it?"

"The gate is perfectly simple," Temeraire said. "There is only a bar across the fence, which one can lift very easily, and then it swings open; Nitidus could do it best, for his forehands are the smallest. Though it is difficult to keep the animals inside the pen, and the first time I learned how to open it, they all ran away," he added. "Maximus and I had to chase after them for hours and hours - it was not funny, at all," he said, ruffled, sitting back on his haunches and contemplating Laurence with great indignation.

"I beg your pardon," Laurence said, after he had regained his breath. "I truly beg your pardon, it was only the notion of you, and Maximus, and the sheep - oh dear," Laurence said, and dissolved again, try as he might to contain himself: astonished stares from his crew, and Temeraire haughtily offended.

"Is there any other news in the letter?" Temeraire asked, coolly, when Laurence had finally done.

"Not news, but all the dragons have sent you greetings and their love," Laurence said, now conciliatory. "You may console yourself that they are all sick, and if you were there you certainly would be also," he added, seeing Temeraire inclined to droop when reminded of his friends.

"I would not care if I were sick, if I were home. Anyway, I am sure to catch it from Volly," Temeraire said gloomily, glancing over: the little Greyling was snuffling thickly in his sleep, bubbles of mucus swelling and shrinking over his nostrils as he breathed, and a small puddle of saliva had collected beneath his half-open mouth.

Laurence could not in honesty hold out much hope to the contrary, so he shifted the subject. "Have you any messages? I will go below now and write my replies, so James can carry them back: the last chance of sending a word by courier we will have for a long time, I am afraid, for ours do not go to the Far East except for some truly urgent matter."

"Only to send my love," Temeraire said, "and to tell Captain Harcourt and also Admiral Lenton it was not stealing in the least. Oh, and also, tell Maximus and Lily about the poem written by the dragon, for that was very interesting, and perhaps they will like to hear of it. And also about my learning to climb aboard the ship, and that we have crossed the equator, and about Neptune and Badger-Bag."

"Enough, enough; you will have me writing a novel," Laurence said, rising easily: thankfully his leg had at last put itself right, and he was no longer forced to limp about the deck like an old man. He stroked Temeraire's side. "Shall we come and sit with you while we have our port?"

Temeraire snorted and nudged him affectionately with his nose. "Thank you, Laurence; that would be pleasant, and I would like to hear any news James has of the others, besides what is in your letters."

The replies finished at the stroke of three, Laurence and his guests dined in unusual comfort: ordinarily, Laurence kept to his habit of formal decorum, and Granby and his own officers followed his lead, while Riley and his subordinates did so of their own accord and naval custom; they one and all sweltered through every meal under thick broadcloth and their snugly tied neckcloths. But James had a born aviator's disregard for propriety coupled with the assurance of a man who had been a captain, even if only of a single-man courier, since the age of fourteen. With hardly a pause, he discarded his outer garments on coming below, saying, "Good God, it is close in here; you must stifle, Laurence."

Laurence was not sorry to follow his example, which he would have done regardless out of a desire not to make him feel out of place. Granby immediately followed suit, and after a brief surprise, Riley and Hammond matched them, though Lord Purbeck kept his coat and his expression fixed, clearly disapproving. The dinner went cheerfully enough, though at Laurence's request, James reserved his own news until they were comfortably ensconced on the dragondeck with their cigars and port, where Temeraire could hear, and with his body provide a bulwark against the rest of the crew's eavesdropping. Laurence dismissed the aviators down to the forecastle, this leaving only Sun Kai, as usual taking the air in the reserved corner of the dragondeck, close enough to overhear what should be quite meaningless to him.

James had much to tell them of formation movements: nearly all the dragons of the Mediterranean division had been reassigned to the Channel, Laetificat and Excursius and their respective formations to provide a thoroughly impenetrable opposition should Bonaparte once again attempt invasion through the air, emboldened by his success on the Continent.

"Not much left to stop them from trying for Gibraltar, though, with all this shifting about," Riley said. "And we must keep watch over Toulon: we may have taken twenty prizes at Trafalgar, but now Bonaparte has every forest in Europe at his disposal, he can build more ships. I hope the Ministry have a care for it."

"Oh, Hell," James said, sitting up with a thump; his chair had been tilted rather precariously backwards as he reclined with his feet on the rail. "I am being a dunce; I suppose you haven't heard about Mr. Pitt."

"He is not still ill?" Hammond said anxiously.

"Not ill in the least," James said. "Dead, this last fortnight and more. The news killed him, they say; he took his bed after we heard of the armistice, and never got out of it again."

"God rest his soul," Riley said.

"Amen," Laurence said, deeply shocked. Pitt had not been an old man; younger than his father, certainly.

"Who is Mr. Pitt?" Temeraire inquired, and Laurence paused to explain to him the post of Prime Minister.

"James, have you any word on who will form the new government?" he asked, already wondering what this might mean for himself and Temeraire, if the new Minister felt China ought to be dealt with differently, in either more conciliatory or more belligerent manner.

"No, I was off before more than the bare word had reached us," James said. "I promise if anything has changed when I get back, I will do my best and bring you the news at Capetown. But," he added, "they send us down here less than once in a sixmonth, ordinarily, so I shouldn't hope for it. The landing sites are too uncertain, and we have lost couriers without a trace here before, trying to go overland or even just spend a night on shore."

James set off again the next morning, waving at them from Volly's back until the little grey-white dragon disappeared entirely into the thready, low-hanging clouds. Laurence had managed to pen a brief reply to Harcourt as well as appending to his already-begun letters for his mother and Jane, and the courier had carried them all away: the last word they would receive from him for months, almost certainly.

There was little time for melancholy: he was at once called below, to consult with Liu Bao on the appropriate substitute for some sort of monkey organ which was ordinarily used in a dish. Having suggested lamb kidneys, Laurence was instantly solicited for assistance with another task, and the rest of the week passed in increasingly frantic preparations, the galley going day and night at full steam, until the dragondeck grew so warm that even Temeraire began to feel it a little excessive. The Chinese servants also set to clearing the ship of vermin; a hopeless task, but one in which they persevered. They came up to the deck sometimes five or six times in a day to fling the bodies of rats overboard into the sea, while the midshipmen looked on in outrage, these ordinarily serving, late in a voyage, as part of their own meals.

Laurence had not the least idea what to expect from the occasion, but was careful to dress with especial formality, borrowing Riley's steward Jethson to valet him: his best shirt, starched and ironed; silk stockings and knee-breeches instead of trousers with his polished Hessian boots; his dress coat, bottle-green, with gold bars on the shoulders, and his decorations: the gold medal of the Nile, where he had been a naval lieutenant, on its broad blue ribbon, and the silver pin voted recently to the captains of the Dover battle.

He was very glad to have taken so many pains when he entered the Chinese quarters: passing through the door, he had to duck beneath a sweep of heavy red cloth and found the room so richly draped with hangings it might have been taken for a grand pavilion on land, except for the steady motion of the ship beneath their feet. The table was laid with delicate porcelain, each piece of different color, many edged with gold and silver; and the lacquered eating sticks which Laurence had been dreading all week were at every place.

Yongxing was already seated at the head of the table, in imposing state and wearing his most formal robes, in the deep golden silk embroidered with dragons in blue and black thread. Laurence was seated close enough to see that there were small chips of gemstones for the dragons' eyes and talons, and in the very center of the front, covering the chest, was a single dragon-figure larger than the rest, embroidered in pure white silk, with chips of rubies for its eyes and five outstretched talons on each foot.

Somehow they were all crammed in, down to little Roland and Dyer, the younger officers fairly squashed together at their separate table and their faces already shining and pink in the heat. The servants began pouring the wine directly everyone was seated, others coming in from the galley to lay down great platters along the length of the tables: cold sliced meats, interspersed with an assortment of dark yellow nuts, preserved cherries, and prawns with their heads and dangling forelegs intact.

Yongxing took up his cup for the first toast and all hurried to drink with him; the rice wine was served warm, and went down with dangerous ease. This was evidently the signal for a general beginning; the Chinese started in on the platters, and the younger men at least had little hesitation in following suit. Laurence was embarrassed to see, when he glanced over, that Roland and Dyer were having not the least difficulty with their chopsticks and were already round-cheeked from stuffing food into their mouths.

He himself had only just managed to get a piece of the beef to his mouth by dint of puncturing it with one of his sticks; the meat had a smoky, not unpleasant quality. No sooner had he swallowed than Yongxing raised the cup for another toast, and he had to drink again; this succession repeated itself several times more, until he was uncomfortably warm, his head nearly swimming.

Growing slowly braver with the sticks, he risked a prawn, though the other officers about him were avoiding them; the sauce made them slippery and awkward to manage. It wobbled precariously, the beady black eyes bobbing at him; he followed the Chinese example and bit it off just behind the attached head. At once he groped for the cup again, breathing deeply through his nose: the sauce was shockingly hot, and broke a fresh sweat out upon his forehead, the drops trickling down the side of his jaw into his collar. Liu Bao laughed uproariously at his expression and poured him more wine, leaning across the table and thumping him approvingly on the shoulder.

The platters were shortly taken off the tables and replaced with an array of wooden dishes, full of dumplings, some with thin cr锟斤拷pe-paper skins and others of thick, yeasty white dough. These were at least easier to get hold of with the sticks, and could be chewed and swallowed whole. The cooks had evidently exercised some ingenuity, lacking essential ingredients; Laurence found a piece of seaweed in one, and the lamb kidneys made their appearance also. Three further courses of small dishes ensued, then a strange dish of uncooked fish, pale pink and fleshy, with cold noodles and pickled greens gone dull brown with long storage. A strange crunchy substance in the mixture was identified after inquiry by Hammond as dried jellyfish, which intelligence caused several men to surreptitiously pick the bits out and drop them onto the floor.

Liu Bao with motions and his own example encouraged Laurence to literally fling the ingredients into the air to mix them together, and Hammond informed them by translation that this was intended to ensure good luck: the higher the better. The British were not unwilling to make the attempt; their coordination was less equal to the task, however, and shortly both uniforms and the table were graced by bits of fish and pickled greens. Dignity was thus dealt a fatal blow: after nearly a jug of rice wine to every man, even Yongxing's presence was not enough to dampen the hilarity ensuing from watching their fellow-officers fling bits of fish all over themselves.

"It is a dashed sight better than we had in the Normandy's cutter," Riley said to Laurence, over-loud, meaning the raw fish; to the more general audience, interest having been expressed by Hammond and Liu Bao both, he expanded on the story: "We were wrecked in the Normandy when Captain Yarrow ran her onto a reef, all of us thrown on a desert island seven hundred miles from Rio. We were sent off in the cutter for rescue - though Laurence was only second lieutenant at the time, the captain and premier knew less about the sea than trained apes, which is how they came to run us aground. They wouldn't go themselves for love or money, or give us much in the way of supply, either," he added, still smarting at the memory.

"Twelve men with nothing but hard tack and a bag of cocoanuts; we were glad enough for fish to eat it raw, with our fingers, the moment we caught it," Laurence said. "But I cannot complain; I am tolerably sure Foley tapped me for his first lieutenant in the Goliath because of it, and I would have eaten a good deal more raw fish for the chance. But this is much nicer, by far," he added, hastily, thinking this conversation implied that raw fish was fit only for consumption in desperate circumstances, which opinion he privately held true, but not to be shared at present.

This story launched several more anecdotes from various of the naval officers, tongues loosened and backs unstiffened by so much gluttony. The translator was kept busy rendering these for the benefit of the highly interested Chinese audience; even Yongxing followed the stories; he had still not deigned to break his silence, save for the formal toasts, but there was something of a mellowing about his eyes.

Liu Bao was less circumspect about his curiosity. "You have been to a great many places, I see, and had unusual adventures," he observed to Laurence. "Admiral Zheng sailed all the way to Africa, but he died on his seventh voyage, and his tomb is empty. You have gone around the world more than once. Have you never been worried that you would die at sea, and no one would perform the rites at your grave?"

"I have never thought very much about it," Laurence said, with a little dishonesty: in truth he had never given the matter any consideration whatsoever. "But after all, Drake and Cook, and so many other great men, have been buried at sea; I really could not complain about sharing their tomb, sir, and with your own navigator as well."

"Well, I hope you have many sons at home," Liu Bao said, shaking his head.

The casual air with which he made so personal a remark took Laurence quite aback. "No, sir; none," he said, too startled to think of anything to do but answer. "I have never married," he added, seeing Liu Bao about to assume an expression of great sympathy, which on this answer being translated became a look of open astonishment; Yongxing and even Sun Kai turned their heads to stare. Beleaguered, Laurence tried to explain. "There is no urgency; I am a third son, and my eldest brother has three boys already himself."

"Pardon me, Captain, if I may," Hammond broke in, rescuing him, and said to them, "Gentlemen, among us, the eldest son alone inherits the family estates, and the younger are expected to make their own way; I know it is not the same with you."

"I suppose your father is a soldier, like you?" Yongxing said abruptly. "Does he have a very small estate, that he cannot provide for all his sons?"

"No, sir; my father is Lord Allendale," Laurence said, rather nettled by the suggestion. "Our family seat is in Nottinghamshire; I do not think anyone would call it small."

Yongxing looked startled and somewhat displeased by this answer, but perhaps he was only frowning at the soup which was at that moment being laid out before them: a very clear broth, pale gold and queer to the taste, smoky and thin, with pitchers of bright red vinegar as accompaniment and to add sharp flavor, and masses of short dried noodles in each bowl, strangely crunchy.

All the while the servants were bringing it in, the translator had been murmuring quietly in answer to some question from Sun Kai, and now on his behalf leaned across the table and asked, "Captain, is your father a relation of the King?"

Though surprised by the question, Laurence was grateful enough for any excuse to put down his spoon; he would have found the soup difficult eating even had he not already gone through six courses. "No, sir; I would hardly be so bold as to call His Majesty a relation. My father's family are of Plantagenet descent; we are only very distantly connected to the present house."

Sun Kai listened to this translated, then persisted a little further. "But are you more closely related to the King than the Lord Macartney?"

As the translator pronounced the name a little awkwardly, Laurence had some difficulty in recognizing the name as that of the earlier ambassador, until Hammond, whispering hastily in his ear, made it clear to whom Sun Kai was referring. "Oh, certainly," Laurence said. "He was raised to the peerage for service to the Crown, himself; not that that is held any less honorable with us, I assure you, but my father is eleventh Earl of Allendale, and his creation dates from 1529."

Even as he spoke, he was amused at finding himself so absurdly jealous of his ancestry, halfway around the world, in the company of men to whom it could be of no consequence whatsoever, when he had never trumpeted it among his acquaintance at home. Indeed, he had often rebelled against his father's lectures upon the subject, of which there had been many, particularly after his first abortive attempt to run away to sea. But four weeks of being daily called into his father's office to endure another repetition had evidently had some effect he had not previously suspected, if he could be provoked to so stuffy a response by being compared with a great diplomat of very respectable lineage.

But quite contrary to his expectations, Sun Kai and his countrymen showed a deep fascination with this intelligence, betraying an enthusiasm for genealogy Laurence had heretofore only encountered in a few of his more stiff-necked relations, and he shortly found himself pressed for details of the family history which he could only vaguely dredge out of his memory. "I beg your pardon," he said at last, growing rather desperate. "I cannot keep it straight in my head without writing it down; you must forgive me."

It was an unfortunate choice of gambit: Liu Bao, who had also been listening with interest, promptly said, "Oh, that is easy enough," and called for brush and ink; the servants were clearing away the soup, and there was room on the table for the moment. At once all those nearby leaned forward to look on, the Chinese in curiosity, the British in self-defense: there was another course waiting in the wings, and no one but the cooks was in a hurry for it to arrive.

Feeling that he was being excessively punished for his moment of vanity, Laurence was forced to write out a chart on a long roll of rice paper under all their eyes. The difficulty of forming the Latin alphabet with a paintbrush was added to that of trying to remember the various begats; he had to leave several given names blank, marking them with interrogatives, before finally reaching Edward III after several contortions and one leap through the Salic line. The result said nothing complimentary about his penmanship, but the Chinese passed it around more than once, discussing it amongst themselves with energy, though the writing could hardly have made any more sense to them than theirs to him. Yongxing himself stared at it a long time, though his face remained devoid of emotion, and Sun Kai, receiving it last, rolled it away with an expression of intense satisfaction, apparently for safe-keeping.

Thankfully, that was an end to it; but now there was no more delaying the next dish, and the sacrificed poultry was brought out, all eight at once, on great platters and steaming with a pungent, liquored sauce. They were laid on the table and hacked expertly into small pieces by the servants using a broad-bladed cleaver, and again Laurence rather despairingly allowed his plate to be filled. The meat was delicious, tender and rich with juices, but almost a punishment to eat; nor was this the conclusion: when the chicken was taken away, nowhere close to finished, whole fish were brought out, fried in the rich slush from the hands' salt pork. No one could do more than pick at this dish, or the course of sweets that followed: seedcake, and sticky-sweet dumplings in syrup, filled with a thick red paste. The servants were especially anxious to press them onto the youngest officers, and poor Roland could be heard saying plaintively, "Can I not eat it tomorrow?"

When finally they were allowed to escape, almost a dozen men had to be bodily lifted up by their seat-mates and helped from the cabin. Those who could still walk unaided escaped to the deck, there to lean on the rail in various attitudes of pretended fascination, which were mostly a cover for waiting their turn in the seats of ease below. Laurence unashamedly took advantage of his private facility, and then heaved himself back up to sit with Temeraire, his head protesting almost as much as his belly.

Laurence was taken aback to find Temeraire himself being feasted in turn by a delegation of the Chinese servants, who had prepared for him delicacies favored by dragons in their own land: the entrails of the cow, stuffed with its own liver and lungs chopped fine and mixed with spices, looking very much like large sausages; also a haunch, very lightly seared and touched with what looked very like the same fiery sauce which had been served to the human guests. The deep maroon flesh of an enormous tunny, sliced into thick steaks and layered with whole delicate sheets of yellow noodles, was his fish course, and after this, with great ceremony, the servants brought out an entire sheep, its meat cooked rather like mince and dressed back up in its skin, which had been dyed a deep crimson, with pieces of driftwood for legs.

Temeraire tasted this dish and said, in surprise, "Why, it is sweet," and asked the servants something in their native Chinese; they bowed many times, replying, and Temeraire nodded; then he daintily ate the contents, leaving the skin and wooden legs aside. "They are only for decoration," he told Laurence, settling down with a sigh of deep contentment; the only guest so comfortable. From the quarterdeck below, the faint sound of retching could be heard, as one of the older midshipmen suffered the consequences of overindulgence. "They tell me that in China, dragons do not eat the skins, any more than people do."

"Well, I only hope you will not find it indigestible, from so much spice," Laurence said, and was sorry at once, recognizing in himself a species of jealousy that did not like to see Temeraire enjoying any Chinese customs. He was unhappily conscious that it had never occurred to him to offer Temeraire prepared dishes, or any greater variety than the difference between fish and mutton, even for a special occasion.

But Temeraire only said, "No, I like it very well," unconcerned and yawning; he stretched himself very long and flexed his claws. "Do let us go for a long flight tomorrow?" he said, curling up again more compactly. "I have not been tired at all, this whole last week, coming back; I am sure I can manage a longer journey."

"By all means," Laurence said, glad to hear that he was feeling stronger. Keynes had at last put a period to Temeraire's convalescence, shortly after their departure from Cape Coast. Yongxing's original prohibition against Laurence's taking Temeraire aloft again had never been withdrawn, but Laurence had no intention of abiding by this restriction, or begging him to lift it. However Hammond, with some ingenuity and quiet discussion, arranged matters diplomatically: Yongxing came on deck after Keynes's final pronouncement, and granted the permission audibly, "for the sake of ensuring Lung Tien Xiang's welfare through healthy exercise," as he put it. So they were free to take to the air again without any threat of quarreling, but Temeraire had been complaining of soreness, and growing weary with unusual speed.

The feast had lasted so long that Temeraire had begun eating only at twilight; now full darkness spread, and Laurence lay back against Temeraire's side and looked over the less-familiar stars of the Southern Hemisphere; it was a perfectly clear night, and the master ought to be able to fix a good longitude, he hoped, through the constellations. The hands had been turned up for the evening to celebrate, and the rice wine had flowed freely at their mess tables also; they were singing a boisterous and highly explicit song, and Laurence made sure with a look that Roland and Dyer were not on deck to be interested in it: no sign of either, so they had probably sought their beds after dinner.

One by one the men slowly began to drift away from the festivities and seek their hammocks. Riley came climbing up from the quarterdeck, taking the steps one at a time with both feet, very weary and scarlet in the face; Laurence invited him to sit, and out of consideration did not offer a glass of wine. "You cannot call it anything but a rousing success; any political hostess would consider it a triumph to put on such a dinner," Laurence said. "But I confess I would have been happier with half so many dishes, and the servants might have been much less solicitous without leaving me hungry."

"Oh - yes, indeed," Riley said; distracted, and now that Laurence looked at him more closely, plainly unhappy, discomfited.

"What has occurred? Is something amiss?" Laurence looked at once at the rigging, the masts; but all looked well, and in any case every sense and intuition together told him that the ship was running well: or as well as she ever did, being in the end a great lumbering hulk.

"Laurence, I very much dislike being a tale-bearer, but I cannot conceal this," Riley said. "That ensign, or I suppose cadet, of yours; Roland. He - that is, Roland was asleep in the Chinese cabin, and as I was leaving, the servants asked me, with their translator, where he slept, so they might carry him there." Laurence was already dreading the conclusion, and not very surprised when Riley added, "But the fellow said 'she,' instead; I was on the point of correcting him when I looked - well, not to drag it out; Roland is a girl. I have not the least notion how she has concealed it so long."

"Oh bloody Hell," Laurence said, too tired and irritable from the excess of food and drink to mind his language. "You have not said anything about this, have you, Tom? To anyone else?" Riley nodded, warily, and Laurence said, "I must beg you to keep it quiet; the plain fact of the matter is, Longwings will not go into harness under a male captain. And some other breeds also, but those are of less material significance; Longwings are the kind we cannot do without, and so some girls must be trained up for them."

Riley said, uncertainly, half-smiling, "Are you - ? But this is absurd; was not the leader of your formation here on this very ship, with his Longwing?" he protested, seeing that Laurence was not speaking in jest.

"Do you mean Lily?" Temeraire asked, cocking his head. "Her captain is Catherine Harcourt; she is not a man."

"It is quite true; I assure you," Laurence said, while Riley stared at him and Temeraire in turn.

"But Laurence, the very notion," Riley said, grown now appalled as he began to believe them. "Every feeling must cry out against such an abuse. Why, if we are to send women to war, should we not take them to sea, also? We could double our numbers, and what matter if the deck of every ship become a brothel, and children left motherless and crying on shore?"

"Come, the one does not follow on the other in the slightest," Laurence said, impatient with this exaggeration; he did not like the necessity himself, but he was not at all willing to be given such romantical arguments against it. "I do not at all say it could or ought to answer in the general case; but where the willing sacrifice of a few may mean the safety and happiness of the rest, I cannot think it so bad. Those women officers whom I have met are not impressed into service, nor forced to the work even by the ordinary necessities that require men to seek employment, and I assure you no one in the service would dream of offering any insult."

This explanation did not reconcile Riley at all, but he abandoned his general protest for the specific. "And so you truly mean to keep this girl in service?" he said, in tones increasingly plaintive rather than shocked. "And have her going about in male dress in this fashion; can it be allowed?"

"There is formal dispensation from the sumptuary laws for female officers of the Corps while engaged upon their duties, authorized by the Crown," Laurence said. "I am sorry that you should be put to any distress over the matter, Tom; I had hoped to avoid the issue entirely, but I suppose it was too much to ask for, seven months aboard ship. I promise you," he added, "I was as shocked as you might wish when I first learned of the practice; but since I have served with several, and they are indeed not at all like ordinary females. They are raised to the life, you know, and under such circumstances habit may trump even birth."

For his part, Temeraire had been following this exchange with cocked head and increasing confusion; now he said, "I do not understand in the least, why ought it make any difference at all? Lily is female, and she can fight just as well as I can, or almost," he amended, with a touch of superiority.

Riley, still dissatisfied even after Laurence's reassurance, looked after this remark very much as though he had been asked to justify the tide, or the phase of the moon; Laurence was by long experience better prepared for Temeraire's radical notions, and said, "Women are generally smaller and weaker than men, Temeraire, less able to endure the privations of service."

"I have never noticed that Captain Harcourt is much smaller than any of the rest of you," Temeraire said; well he might not, speaking from a height of some thirty feet and a weight topping eighteen tons. "Besides, I am smaller than Maximus, and Messoria is smaller than me; but that does not mean we cannot still fight."

"It is different for dragons than for people," Laurence said. "Among other things, women must bear children, and care for them through childhood, where your kind lay eggs and hatch ready to look to your own needs."

Temeraire blinked at this intelligence. "You do not hatch out of eggs?" he asked, in deep fascination. "How then - "

"I beg your pardon, I think I see Purbeck looking for me," Riley said, very hastily, and escaped at a speed remarkable, Laurence thought somewhat resentfully, in a man who had lately consumed nearly a quarter of his own weight again in food.

"I cannot really undertake to explain the process to you; I have no children of my own," Laurence said. "In any case, it is late; and if you wish to make a long flight tomorrow, you had better rest well tonight."

"That is true, and I am sleepy," Temeraire said, yawning and letting his long forked tongue unroll, tasting the air. "I think it will keep clear; we will have good weather for the flight." He settled himself. "Good night, Laurence; you will come early?"

"Directly after breakfast, I am entirely at your disposal," Laurence promised. He stayed stroking Temeraire gently until the dragon drifted into sleep; his hide was still very warm to the touch, likely from the last lingering heat of the galley, its ovens finally given some rest after the long preparations. At last, Temeraire's eyes closing to the thinnest of slits, Laurence got himself back onto his feet and climbed down to the quarterdeck.

The men had mostly cleared away or were napping on deck, save those surly few set as lookouts and muttering of their unhappy lot in the rigging, and the night air was pleasantly cool. Laurence walked a ways aft to stretch his legs before going below; the midshipman standing watch, young Tripp, was yawning almost as wide as Temeraire; he closed his mouth with a snap and jerked to embarrassed attention when Laurence passed.

"A pleasant evening, Mr. Tripp," Laurence said, concealing his amusement; the boy was coming along well, from what Riley had said, and bore little resemblance anymore to the idle, spoiled creature who had been foisted upon them by his family. His wrists showed bare for several inches past the ends of his sleeves, and the back of his coat had split so many times that in the end it had been necessary to expand it by the insertion of a panel of blue-dyed sailcloth, not quite the same shade as the rest, so he had an odd stripe running down the middle. Also his hair had grown curly, and bleached to almost yellow by the sun; his own mother would likely not recognize him.

"Oh, yes, sir," Tripp said, enthusiastically. "Such wonderful food, and they gave me a whole dozen of those sweet dumplings at the end, too. It is a pity we cannot always be eating so."

Laurence sighed over this example of youthful resilience; his own stomach was not at all comfortable yet. "Mind you do not fall asleep on watch," he said; after such a dinner it would be astonishing if the boy was not sorely tempted, and Laurence had no desire to see him suffer the ignominious punishment.

"Never, sir," Tripp said, swallowing a fresh yawn and finishing the sentence out in a squeak. "Sir," he asked, nervously, in a low voice, when Laurence would have gone, "May I ask you - you do not suppose that Chinese spirits would show themselves to a fellow who was not a member of their family, do you?"

"I am tolerably certain you will not see any spirits on watch, Mr. Tripp, unless you have concealed some in your coat pocket," Laurence said, dryly. This took a moment to puzzle out, then Tripp laughed, but still nervously, and Laurence frowned. "Has someone been telling you stories?" he asked, well aware of what such rumors could do to the state of a ship's crew.

"No, it is only that - well, I thought I saw someone, forward, when I went to turn the glass. But I spoke, and he quite vanished away; I am sure he was a Chinaman, and oh, his face was so white!"

"That is quite plain: you saw one of the servants who cannot speak our tongue, coming from the head, and startled him into ducking away from what he thought would be a scolding of some sort. I hope you are not inclined to superstition, Mr. Tripp; it is something which must be tolerated in the men, but a sad flaw in an officer." He spoke sternly, hoping by firmness to keep the boy from spreading the tale, at least; and if the fear kept him wakeful for the rest of the night, it would be so much the better.

"Yes, sir," Tripp said, rather dismally. "Good night, sir."

Laurence continued his circuit of the deck, at a leisurely pace that was all he could muster. The exercise was settling his stomach; he was almost inclined to take another turn, but the glass was running low, and he did not wish to disappoint Temeraire by rising late. As he made to step down into the fore hatch, however, a sudden heavy blow landed on his back and he lurched, tripped, and pitched headfirst down the ladder-way.

His hand grasped automatically for the guideline, and after a jangling twist he found the steps with his feet, catching himself against the ladder with a thump. Angry, he looked up and nearly fell again, recoiling from the pallid white face, incomprehensibly deformed, that was peering closely into his own out of the dark.

"Good God in Heaven," he said, with great sincerity; then he recognized Feng Li, Yongxing's servant, and breathed again: the man only looked so strange because he was dangling upside-down through the hatch, barely inches from falling himelf. "What the devil do you mean, lunging about the deck like this?" he demanded, catching the man's flailing hand and setting it onto the guideline, so he could right himself. "You ought to have better sea-legs by now."

Feng Li only stared in mute incomprehension, then hauled himself back onto his feet and scrambled down the ladder past Laurence pell-mell, disappearing belowdecks to where the Chinese servants were quartered with speed enough to call it vanishing. With his dark blue clothing and black hair, as soon as his face was out of sight he was almost invisible in the dark. "I cannot blame Tripp in the least," Laurence said aloud, now more generously inclined towards the boy's silliness; his heart was still pounding disgracefully as he continued on to his quarters.

Laurence roused the next morning to yells of dismay and feet running overhead; he dashed at once for the deck to find the foremainsail yard tumbled to the deck in two pieces, the enormous sail draped half over the forecastle, and Temeraire looking at once miserable and embarrassed. "I did not mean to," he said, sounding gravelly and quite unlike himself, and sneezed again, this time managing to turn his head away from the ship: the force of the eruption cast up a few waves that slopped against the larboard side.

Keynes was already climbing up to the deck with his bag, and laid his ear against Temeraire's chest. "Hm." He said nothing more, listening in many places, until Laurence grew impatient and prompted him.

"Oh, it is certainly a cold; there is nothing to be done but wait it out, and dose him for coughing when that should begin. I am only seeing if I might hear the fluid moving in the channels which relate to the divine wind," Keynes said absently. "We have no notion of the anatomy of the particular trait; a pity we have never had a specimen to dissect."

Temeraire drew back at this, putting his ruff down, and snorted; or rather tried to: instead he blew mucus out all over Keynes's head. Laurence himself sprang back only just in time, and could not feel particularly sorry for the surgeon: the remark had been thoroughly tactless.

Temeraire croaked out, "I am quite well, we can still go flying," and looked at Laurence in appeal.

"Perhaps a shorter flight now, and then again in the afternoon, if you are still not tired," Laurence offered, looking at Keynes, who was ineffectually trying to get the slime from his face.

"No, in warm weather like this he can fly just as usual if he likes to; no need to baby him," Keynes said, rather shortly, managing to clear his eyes at least. "So long as you are sure to be strapped on tight, or he will sneeze you clean off. Will you excuse me?"

So in the end Temeraire had his long flight after all: the Allegiance left dwindling behind in the blue-water depths, and the ocean shading to jeweled glass as they drew nearer the coast: old cliffs, softened by the years and sloping gently to the water under a cloak of unbroken green, with a fringe of jagged grey boulders at their base to break the water. There were a few small stretches of pale sand, none large enough for Temeraire to land even if they had not grown wary; but otherwise the trees were impenetrable, even after they had flown straight inland for nearly an hour.

It was lonely, and as monotonous as flying over empty ocean; the wind among the leaves instead of the lapping of the waves, only a different variety of silence. Temeraire looked eagerly at every occasional animal cry that broke the stillness, but saw nothing past the ground cover, so thickly overgrown were the trees. "Does no one live here?" he asked, eventually.

He might have been keeping his voice low because of the cold, but Laurence felt the same inclination to preserve the quiet, and answered softly, "No; we have flown too deep. Even the most powerful tribes live only along the coasts, and never venture so far inland; there are too many feral dragons and other beasts, too savage to confront."

They continued on without speaking for some time; the sun was very strong, and Laurence drifted neither awake nor asleep, his head nodding against his chest. Unchecked, Temeraire kept on his course, the slow pace no challenge to his endurance; when at last Laurence roused, on Temeraire's sneezing again, the sun was past its zenith: they would miss dinner.

Temeraire did not express a wish to stay longer when Laurence said they ought to turn around; if anything he quickened his pace. They had gone so far that the coastline was out of sight, and they flew back only by Laurence's compass, with no landmarks to guide them through the unchanging jungle. The smooth curve of the ocean was very welcome, and Temeraire's spirits rose as they struck out again over the waves. "At least I am not tiring anymore, even if I am sick," he said, and then sneezed himself thirty feet directly upwards, with a sound not unlike cannon-fire.

They did not reach the Allegiance again until nearly dark, and Laurence discovered he had missed more than his dinner-hour. Another sailor besides Tripp had also spied Feng Li on deck the night before, with similar results, and during Laurence's absence the story of the ghost had already gone round the ship, magnified a dozen times over and thoroughly entrenched. All his attempted explanations were useless, the ship's company wholly convinced: three men now swore they had seen the ghost dancing a jig upon the foresail yard the night before, foretelling its doom; others from the middle watch claimed the ghost had been wafting about the rigging all night long.

Liu Bao himself flung fuel onto the fire; having inquired and heard the tale during his visit to the deck the next day, he shook his head and opined that the ghost was a sign that someone aboard had acted immorally with a woman. This qualified nearly every man aboard; they muttered a great deal about foreign ghosts with unreasonably prudish sensibilities, and discussed the subject anxiously at meals, each one trying to persuade himself and his messmates that he could not possibly be the guilty culprit; his infraction had been small and innocent, and in any case he had always meant to marry her, the instant he returned.

As yet general suspicion had not fallen onto a single individual, but it was only a matter of time; and then the wretch's life would hardly be worth living. In the meantime, the men went about their duties at night only reluctantly, going so far as to refuse orders which would have required them to be alone on any part of the deck. Riley attempted to set an example to the men by walking out of sight during his watches, but this had less effect than might have been desired by his having to visibly steel himself first. Laurence roundly scolded Allen, the first of his own crew to mention the ghost in his hearing, so no more was said in front of him; but the aviators showed themselves inclined to stay close to Temeraire on duty, and to come to and from their quarters in groups.

Temeraire was himself too uncomfortable to pay a great deal of attention. He found the degree of fear baffling, and expressed some disappointment at never seeing the specter when so many others had evidently had a glimpse; but for the most part he was occupied in sleeping, and directing his frequent sneezes away from the ship. He tried to conceal his coughing at first when it developed, reluctant to be dosed: Keynes had been brewing the medicine in a great pot in the galley since the first evidence of Temeraire's illness, and the foul stench rose through the boards ominously. But late on the third day he was seized with a fit he could not suppress, and Keynes and his assistants trundled the pot of medicine up onto the dragondeck: a thick, almost gelatinous brownish mixture, swimming in a glaze of liquid orange fat.

Temeraire stared down into the pot unhappily. "Must I?" he asked.

"It will do its best work drunk hot," Keynes said, implacable, and Temeraire squeezed his eyes shut and bent his head to gulp.

"Oh; oh, no," he said, after the first swallow; he seized the barrel of water which had been prepared for him and upended it into his mouth, spilling much over his chops and neck and onto the deck as he guzzled. "I cannot possibly drink any more of it," he said, putting the barrel down. But with much coaxing and exhortation, he at length got down the whole, miserable and retching all the while.

Laurence stood by, stroking him anxiously: he did not dare speak again. Keynes had been so very cutting at his first suggestion of a brief respite. Temeraire at last finished and slumped to the deck, saying passionately, "I will never be ill again, ever," but despite his unhappiness, his coughing was indeed silenced, and that night he slept more easily, his breathing a good deal less labored.

Laurence stayed on deck by his side as he had every night of the illness; with Temeraire sleeping quiet he had ample opportunity to witness the absurd lengths the men practiced to avoid the ghost: going two at a time to the head, and huddling around the two lanterns left on deck instead of sleeping. Even the officer of the watch stayed uneasily close, and looked pale every time he took the walk along the deck to turn the glass and strike the bell.

Nothing would cure it but distraction, and of that there was little prospect: the weather was holding fair, and there was little chance of meeting any enemy who would offer battle; any ship which did not wish to fight could easily outrun them. Laurence could not really wish for either, in any case; the situation could only be tolerated until they reached port, where the break in the journey would hopefully dispel the myth.

Temeraire snuffled in his sleep and half-woke, coughing wetly, and sighed in misery. Laurence laid a hand on him and opened the book on his lap again; the lantern swaying beside him gave a light, if an unreliable one, and he read slowly aloud until Temeraire's eyelids sank heavily down again.

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