Dark Hunger

Chapter 9

IN ANOTHER HOUR, there would have been nothing to do but stand and be pounded to pieces from either side; the little early warning was enough to try and disengage, at least, and Dalrymple at once issued the order for the retreat. Wellesley fought a brilliant rear-guard action, bloody and terrible, stretching his men to hold the full breadth of Napoleon's line while the rest of them withdrew behind that shield.

But still the retreat became rout by the end: ten thousand men left floundering in the marsh to be taken prisoner, and the rest straggling ignominiously away north through the countryside, without more than their muskets and their boots, and sometimes lacking those. The dragons were carrying the guns, dispiritedly, and occasionally Temeraire would look back over his shoulder at the battlefield they had fled and the dragons in the distance, chasing, with a quivering ruff. He did not propose to turn, but looked away again and put his head down, dogged, and kept flying.

Bonaparte's harrying pursuit fell off at last, near evening: the French dragons, having labored all day in battle or in carrying Davout's men near, had reached their limits, and one by one began to sink further behind into the gloaming; until they must have been called off and could be seen turning away.

Laurence put his hand on Temeraire's neck. "We have slipped the trap," he said quietly. "You have bought us that, at least."

"I still think we ought to go back," Iskierka said, grumbling, flying beside them; she had been very angry to awaken only to be told she would not have any fighting after all, and Temeraire only had managed to half-persuade, half-bully her into flying along with the rest. "I am hungry, and I do not like carrying this cannon; it makes my shoulders ache."

"We are all hungry," Temeraire said, in a temper, "so pray stop complaining; you are very tiresome."

"I am not!" she said, "only because you do not want to fight, and would rather run away - "

"That is enough," Excidium said to her sternly, descending. "We will go back when we are ready to, and have more men and guns, and can be sure to win. That is strategy," he added, "and you are old enough to understand it."

Iskierka subsided, still muttering, as the older dragon flew on ahead.

Somewhere far behind, the remnants of the infantry and cavalry marched on, towards reinforcements and resupply at the well-defended central depot in Weedon Bec. The dragons however flew straight on through the night and the next day, putting an impractical distance between them and pursuit, and ensuring the safety of the artillery. There was not much for them to eat: the farmers hid their cattle, and they could not easily stop to hunt during the day. "The Quality must put up with having their game eaten," Jane said, and divided them up into small companies, each to make camp on an estate large enough to have a deer park.

They would be in Nottinghamshire before nightfall, and Wollaton Hall had a herd of four hundred or more. "I can send you elsewhere," Jane said, but Laurence shook his head. He little wished to be at home in the present circumstances: a condemned traitor, with the worst sort of news, bringing twenty hungry dragons to tear up the estate. But it could not be helped; worse if he took himself to some other house nearby, without paying his formal respects, and let some other group of dragons use the grounds; that would be cowardice, and shirking. If Lord Allendale chose to forbid him the house when he came, that was his father's privilege; his own duty was to endure the rebuke he had earned.

They landed at last a few hours later, the dragons setting down their burdens with deep and grateful sighs; it was no joke even for a heavy-weight to carry two sixteen-pounders, over a distance of thirty miles, and Maximus and Requiescat had been loaded down with four apiece. Temeraire sighed and stretched himself out upon the cool ground like a long black snake.

Laurence slid down from Temeraire's back, weary and sore himself with the long hours sitting dragon-back. "Will you speak to them up at the house?" Jane asked him, "or will I send Frette?"

"No; I will go," Laurence said, and touching his hat turned away.

"Pray give my best regards to your mother," Temeraire said, rousing a little, when Laurence rubbed his muzzle in farewell.

He walked slowly and with reluctance to the house, the windows mostly dark, and only a few link lights burning, near the door. There were a couple of footmen outside gripping muskets, nervously. "It is all right, Jones," Laurence said, when he came close enough to recognize their faces. "It is only me; is Lord Allendale at home?"

"Oh - yes, sir, but," Jones said, looking at him wide-eyed, and then the door opened. For a moment Laurence thought it was his father; but it was his eldest brother George, in slippers and dressing-gown over his nightshirt, and a valet getting a coat on over his shoulders.

"For Heaven's sake, Will," George said, coming down the stairs: he was Laurence's senior by six years, and nearly as much time had gone by since Laurence had last seen him; he had grown stouter, but the tone of exasperation was unchanged. "That will be all," he added abruptly to the footmen, "you may go back inside." He said nothing more, until the door had shut behind them, and then turning back to Laurence hissed, "What in God's name are you doing here? And coming to the front door - you might have a little discretion, at least. Have you - are you - hungry, do you need - "

He floundered, and Laurence flushed in sudden understanding, and bit out, "I have not fled gaol and come to the door to beg; I am paroled, to fight the invasion."

"Paroled?" George said. "Paroled, for the invasion, and here you are in the middle of Nottinghamshire! Whoever is likely to believe such a story, I ask you."

"Good God, I am not lying to you," Laurence said impatiently. "I am not going to explain this twice over; will my father see me?"

"No; I shan't so much as tell him you are here," George said. "He is sick, Will: three stone down since August, and the doctors have said he must keep quiet, do you understand, perfectly quiet, if we want him to see another year. He cannot even oversee the estate manager anymore; why do you think I am here? and no wonder, with the worry he has had. If you need money, or someplace to sleep - "

"I am not here for myself," Laurence broke in on him at last, feeling stiff and strange; the idea of his father ill, reduced, seemed unreal. "I am here with the Corps; we must requisition the deer, to feed the dragons. There are nine at present," he added, "and will be more before morning; I did not want you to be alarmed."

"Nine - " George looked towards the deer park, and saw the lights, the shadows of many dragons moving. "Then, you are not lying," he said slowly. "What has happened?"

The news could hardly be concealed. "Trounced us, outside London," Laurence said. "The army is strung out from Weedon to here, and he took ten thousand prisoner. We are falling back on Scotland."

"My God," George said, and they stood together in silence a moment. "Are you staying by the wood?" When Laurence had nodded, George said, "Well - you may take whatever you need of the deer, of course; it is the King's right. There are the stables, and the farmhouse - I will send food down to you all from the kitchens, and your commander, we can give him a bed - " It was all a long string of delaying tactics, and at last he came to it and finished, awkwardly, "I am still not going to have you in, Will; I am sorry."

"No," Laurence said. "No, of course." He might have insisted, for himself or his fellows: it was their right as officers to be quartered, when there was room in the house. But he could not bear to do so. Jane might, if she chose; he could not, himself, force his way in.

"Will you tell me - will he come through here?" George asked him, low. "Ought I send Elizabeth and Mother and the children away, to Northumbria perhaps - "

"I imagine he will send men to take cattle, for his beasts," Laurence said, "but if he marches, he will march up the coast; he cannot leave our outposts behind his flank." He drew his hand across his forehead, tiredly. "I am sorry, I cannot be sure of the counsel I am giving you, but I think there is no place much safer than here, unless you send them to Liverpool and by ship to Halifax."

George nodded again, and turned and went up the stairs. He hesitated at the door, as if he would have spoken again; but in the end he said nothing. He went back inside, and the door shut behind him.

Laurence walked back alone from the house, his feet sure on the familiar lanes despite the dark; no insect sounds or any noise but the sighing of wind, occasionally, shaking the few dried leaves like rattles, drifting the smell of the dragons near, and of smoke. The ground crews of the harnessed dragons were making a little camp, not comfortless; fire at least was easy enough to come by when Granby only needed ask Iskierka for a little. The other captains were standing by it, warming their hands and talking in low voices, tracing the course they should take in the morning.

Some of the dragons were still arriving, who had guarded the rear of the retreat, and others already deep into their dinners, the lean bodies of deer stretched out limp upon the ground. Iskierka was doing the hunting, to the satisfaction of all except the smaller creatures of the forest, who fled out into the open with the panicked deer when she belched a roaring tongue of flame over the timber: mice and rabbits and sparrows, and a few poachers from the village fleeing with their snares.

"We will head onwards to Scotland, to Loch Laggan," Jane was saying, "and wait there for the army to regroup. It will be a precious slow trip for them, but Wellington will pick up twenty thousand men at Weedon Bec guns, and another twenty in Manchester."

"But can we keep the beasts fed along the way, and while we wait?" another woman's voice asked from above, as another Longwing settled. "Mort, be a love and set me down."

Laurence had never met Captain St. Germain before; she had long been assigned to Gibraltar. Mortiferus put her down beside the fire: a woman very tall and fat with delicate features, a mop of fair hair curling in wisps and pale-lashed blue eyes; in complete effect rather like a Rubens painting. She could have made two of Jane, who was not slender, and likely would have tipped the scales over Berkley.

"The countrymen will find venison thin on the ground for a few winters, but we will manage somehow," Jane said. She looked around, at a small shriek; the servants from the house with their lanterns and the baskets of food had come down the lane, and one of the maids had stopped and fainted, on seeing the dragons. "Why, I call that handsome, Laurence; I hope you have given them our thanks," she said, and waved her men forward to go take the food off their hands.

Laurence felt rather he might blush for the lack of hospitality, that left them out in the cold with the great house standing there on the hill, so many windows staring out empty with no-one behind them. But he was evidently the only one so conscious: the other aviators walked up the hill with expressions of pleased surprise, to meet the baskets coming, full of cold meat and bread, fresh-boiled eggs, and many pots of hot tea. One servant did come down the hill with them, carrying an enormous steaming platter that smelled pungently of Oriental spices, and even before he had stepped into the firelight, and Laurence saw his face, Temeraire had already raised his head and said joyfully, "Gong Su, you are here."

The cook came forward and bowed repeatedly, to Temeraire and then as afterthought to Laurence, beaming as he set the platter down to be attacked by the aviators. "I am glad to find you well; but how came you here?" Laurence asked.

"Lady Allendale's generosity," Gong Su said, and turned to Temeraire, explaining in Chinese that Lady Allendale had written the Corps, and obtained the names of all Laurence's followers, to see them taken care of by one means or another; she had given Gong Su a place. "And he says that he will come with us again," Temeraire added with satisfaction, to the end of this translation, "so we may have properly cooked food, and if we will stop eating the deer now, he will soon have them stewed for us, with some grain." At this announcement, several of the dragons unenthusiastically drew their deer all the closer, and began to eat as quickly as they could.

A fuss was still being made, along the path; the maid now enjoying her hysterics sufficiently to resist being helped away by a couple of the footmen who would just as lief had been gone themselves. "That is quite enough, Martha; Peyle, take her back to the house and give her hartshorn," Lady Allendale said, putting an end to the noise; she continued on towards them steadily, well-wrapped in furs and trailed unhappily by a footman with a lantern, who lagged as they came closer and closer the clearing.

Lady Allendale herself paused, near the edge; she had last seen Temeraire some ten weeks after his hatching, before he had reached his full growth or even sprouted his ruff. It had been rather a different experience to encounter one half-grown beast in broad daylight, than now a dozen of them, mostly heavy-weights and the alarming orange-eyed Longwings, all of them up to their jowls in blood and magnified by the flickering of the fire upon their scaled hides.

Laurence was already on his feet; the other officers hastily stood as she came in timidly to their circle. "I am very happy to see you again, my lady," Temeraire said, adding in an undertone to Laurence, "that is correct, is it not? - and thank you for keeping Gong Su safe for me."

"Quite correct," Lady Allendale said, and coming forward with a struggling, unhappy smile gave Laurence her hands; he silently bent and kissed her offered cheek. It was paler than it had been, the skin a little dry and papery, and more lined; her hair was quite silver. She did not keep smiling long, but let it fade, and took his arm for a support she for once truly needed, to look around the camp. "I hope you are all comfortable; we should be happy to make up beds, inside, for you gentlemen - I am sure room can be found - "

No-one immediately answered her, and then Jane had to say, "We do very well here, ma'am, although I thank you for the hospitality; we sleep with our dragons, when we are on the march. Frette, can you manage a chair," she added, and Lady Allendale looked at her, and at Laurence, with a bewildered expression.

There was no help for it, of course, and he said, "Mother, may I present Admiral Roland, of Excidium; Lady Allendale."

Jane bowed, and offered a hand to shake; Lady Allendale had recovered herself enough to accept it with cordiality, and also the folding camp chair which Frette brought from out of Jane's tent and set near the fire, with another for Jane herself. Captain St. Germain was walking up and down the camp, stretching her legs, and had not noticed the visitor yet. "Thankee, Frette, I had rather stand; we will be sitting all day tomorrow," she said, when he offered her one; and then pulled up short seeing Lady Allendale. There was a little awkward silence. Lady Allendale gazed with fascination at Jane, and at St. Germain, and around all the camp, with more attention than she had paid before to the other aviators. She was no fool; Laurence saw her marking out, quickly, the handful of other female officers: another on Jane's crew, a lieutenant on Berkley's, and a few midshipmen and ensigns, scattered about.

No-one offered any explanation, and of course she did not ask, but only said to Jane, "You are bound for Scotland, then," politely.

"Aye, ma'am," Jane said, "I hope we do not put you out," an admirable beginning to a brief exchange of wine and small conversation, which might be quickly brought to a close with no rudeness on either side.

But Temeraire was now unoccupied, waiting for his dinner to be cooked, and he put in, anxiously, "Perhaps you had better come with us, and not stay here; I have just thought of it. Perhaps Napoleon may come here, before we have had a chance to beat him properly."

"You cannot be carrying about civilians where you like," Jane said to him, repressively. "A nice job we would do of keeping anyone safe, when it is our duty to go look him out. He may come marching through here by bad luck, or not; but we are sure to meet him sooner or late."

"Yes, but when we meet him, we can fight him," Temeraire said, "and be sure of keeping our friends safe."

"I am very grateful for the concern," Lady Allendale said gently, "but we will not go, I think; it would be quite unforgivable to leave our servants and the tenants alone to manage, in such circumstances: that is our duty."

But this quite changed the conversation; she then inquired of Jane, whether her own family was somewhere safe. "I haven't any to worry for, but my Emily, and of course I am lucky enough to have her in eye-shot, at present," Jane said, nodding at where Emily was helping to put up the camp, and naturally then Emily had come over to be introduced, and having made her bow added earnestly, "And thank you very much, my lady, for the present; I am much obliged to you."

Laurence knew his mother well enough to see, as most strangers would not have, that she was puzzled; and then understanding dawned. "Do you like the garnets, then?" she said, and leaned forward to look searchingly into Emily's face, with a very different sort of interest; while Laurence felt his heart sink.

In London, the past year, his father had drawn entirely the wrong conclusion, from Emily's presence among Temeraire's crew and Laurence's evident responsibilities towards her; and he had passed that conclusion along to Lady Allendale in terms not sufficiently guarded as to prevent her becoming very interested in Emily's welfare.

"Oh, yes," Emily said, "and I have been able to wear them, twice, to the theater in Dover."

"Are you, are you in service, then?" Lady Allendale asked, willing to be inquisitor of a young girl, and where she felt she had a right, as she had not been of Jane herself. Emily unconcernedly nodded, unaware of any undercurrent, and said, proudly, "I am lately made ensign, my lady."

"There, enough puffery; Dorset is looking for you," Jane said, more discreet, and Emily bobbed once more and dashed away.

Lady Allendale watched her run back to her duties. The surgeon was working over the dragons: Temeraire was not the only one of the unharnessed beasts who had been carrying a musket-ball too long, and several of them were having to be treated in similar wise. Fortunately, he was downwind at present, and working on Ballista's far side, so the gruesome operation was not in open view. Emily vanished around her flank, and Lady Allendale turned back and ventured, "She is very young," to Jane, with not a little anxiety.

"Oh, she has been in harness since before she could walk," Jane said. "We start them young, ma'am, so they don't have much to be trained out of; and then she must be up to snuff to take Excidium, when I get too long in the tooth to be scrambling about aloft."

"Well, I see where you come by it," Jane said to Laurence, later: most of the dragons and the aviators asleep, and the fire crackling to cover their low conversation, a conversation made easier by several glasses of the wine which had been sent down for their supper, "all that noblesse oblige; but it is not stiffness. I like her. That is prodigious kind of her, to have taken an interest in Emily; does she think her your by-blow?"

So Laurence, who had been hoping devoutly Jane had noticed nothing out of the ordinary, had to admit the wretched muddle. Jane laughed heartily, as he had feared she would; but under the circumstances he found he could not be sorry to have given her a cause for unfeigned pleasure, even one embarrassing to himself. "Whyever did you not set her right?" she said, amused. "No, never mind. I expect she has not said a word about it openly, which you could answer, and you would not broach the subject if hot pokers were put to you. It must be very inconvenient, talking of anything awkward in your family."

She fell silent then; it evoked too well their own awkward circumstances, and she looked down at her cup and rolled it between her palms. "I do beg your pardon," Laurence said, after a moment, "with all my heart."

"Yes," Jane said, "but you beg it for the wrong things. Charging off alone, without a word, and that appalling letter you left for me, all 'I could not love thee dear, so much,' as though you owed me apology as a lover and not as your commander. I blushed to show it to anyone, and of course it had to be handed over. For a week, I could cheerfully have run you through myself, sitting in rooms with them reading out bits of it in insinuating tones, and putting Sanderson over me, damn them."

"Jane," he said, "Jane, you must see, I could ask no-one; to have put you in such a position - "

"What position, which you did not put me into, regardless?" Jane said. "They could not have suspected me more if I had really had all the guilty knowledge in the world."

"If I had spoken, you should have been obliged to stop me," Laurence said.

"And a good thing too if I had," Jane said. "One private note to some Frenchman with a little rank, and they would have had the mushroom in hand in a month. Do you think every servant at Loch Laggan is incorruptible, knowing that Bonaparte would pay a million francs for the damned things?" He recoiled inwardly, and she saw it. "No, of course it would not have suited you to have done the whole thing quietly, you and your damned honor."

"It would not have been any less treason," Laurence said.

"No, but as you were bent on that in any case, it would have been a good deal less pain," Jane said, and then she rubbed the back of her hand across her forehead. "No, never mind. I do not mean it. I do not suppose there was any decent way to go about it: all decency was already gone. But damn you anyway, Laurence."

He felt the justice of her rebuke, and bowed his head over his hands. After a moment she added, "And to crown the whole, you must needs come back and make a martyr of yourself, so now anyone who cares a farthing for your life must watch you hanged; that is, if they do not decide to make a spectacle of it and draw and quarter you in the fine old style. I suppose you would go to it like Harrison, 'as cheerful as any man could do in that condition.' Well, I should not be damned cheerful, and neither should anyone else who loved you, and some of them can knock down half of London Town if they should choose."

"I SHOULD CERTAINLY CHOOSE," Temeraire said, and thought to himself that he would make a point of speaking again to the Ministry gentleman, or perhaps one of those generals, to make it perfectly plain. "Pray do not worry, Laurence," he added, "I am sure they will not be so foolish."

"Men can be very foolish indeed," Laurence said, "and I must, I do, beg you not to enter into a resolution, which should prevent my being able to face death with equanimity. You should make me a coward, if I must fear that my death should turn you against my country."

"But I do not at all want you to face death with equanimity," Temeraire said, "if by that you mean letting them hang you, instead of making a fuss. If that should make you unhappy, so should I be unhappy, if you were killed. It was dreadful, so dreadful, when I thought that you were gone. I did not feel as though I knew myself anymore. I even wanted to kill poor Lloyd, for no reason at all, and I do not ever wish to feel so again."

Laurence said, "Temeraire, you must know that you shall, inevitably; I have two score years or three perhaps at most, and you ten, to look forward to."

Temeraire flattened his ruff, unhappily, not wishing even to speak of the matter. "But that at least, will not be anyone's fault; no one will have taken you." The distinction was very plain in his mind. Anyway he did not mean to think about something so far-away and misty. Perhaps he might think of some way to prevent it, by then; if dragons might live two hundred years, he did not see why people might not, also.

He turned his head gladly as Moncey came dropping down beside him. "Temeraire, they are hungry over by Nottingham Castle: there were not enough deer for everyone."

"They may come here and share our breakfast," Temeraire said, indicating the great pit where Gong Su had made them a great thickened wheat porridge flavored with venison and greens and preserved lemons. It had been ingeniously made waterproof by a thick lining of canvas, and heated by stones which Iskierka had fired, dropped in. "And from now on we will all go shares; you must all admit," he said to the others, "it is perfectly nice."

"Nothing as good as a fresh hot buck all to oneself," Requiescat said, grumbling.

"Well," Temeraire said, "if you prefer, you may take a single buck or a cow to yourself instead of three days of soup or porridge, because that is how far they may be stretched, Gong Su says."

He was very happy to turn to such mundane affairs, and to pretend that he and Laurence had finished their conversation, and were again in perfect accord, although it made him feel a little ashamed. He knew Laurence would not interrupt anything which was like work: Laurence did not think much of officers who had conversations or pleased themselves while their duty waited. So it was a good excuse, and as long as Temeraire made himself busy, he could be sure not to be asked to return again to the difficult and unhappy subject.

He was quite resolved that he was not going to let Laurence be killed, no matter what. Laurence would certainly never be happy after being killed, so it did not seem to Temeraire much consolation that he should be a little happier beforehand. And Temeraire was now very sure that the only way to be certain of protecting Laurence, would be to make it plain to their Lordships that something dreadful would happen to them, if they dared to hurt him, so he had no intentions of withdrawing his threat. But he could not help but peer cautiously sidelong to where Laurence was speaking now with Admiral Roland: he looked tired, and although of course he would not let his shoulders slump, there was some quality of unhappiness in the way he stood, and Temeraire's conscience smote him even while he considered his escape from the discussion with gratitude.

At least Laurence was dressed respectably now: Temeraire felt that there, at least, he had done his duty a little better. He had whispered a quiet word to Lady Allendale, last night, and she had sent down some clothes from the house: a warm thick cloak, and some of Laurence's old things, which had been given her to keep when Laurence had been put in prison. It was not quite how Temeraire should have liked to see him dressed; but at least he had his sword again, and better boots, and a coat which fitted.

Then Palliatia landed, with four more Yellow Reapers, and a couple of Grey Coppers, hungry, and punished him by making his subterfuge quite real. They fell upon the porridge, were noisy and quarrelsome while eating, and when it was all gone she said belligerently, "And where will we eat tomorrow? No treasure and no food either; what of all your fine promises now?"

He was rather taken aback to be so challenged, and said, "You needn't snap at me, because we have lost a battle. After all, if Napoleon were so easy to beat, he would not have any treasure worth taking. So you must expect some difficulties, and I call it poor-spirited to begin to complain only because you were not clever enough to find yourself enough dinner last night."

"Oh, you did not talk of difficulties before," she said, "and you did not seem to think so much of Napoleon either. If he has so much treasure, then it stands to reason he must be very difficult to beat, and perhaps we are not going to win at all."

"And if we do," a Grey Copper named Rictus said pointedly, raising his head out of the porridge-pit, "I expect there will be no pavilions anyway, or treasure, not for us, or leastways not for those of us who haven't got our captains again, and a place in the Corps waiting for us any time we like. No, it'll be back to the breeding grounds with us, and if we are only to end up as we began, I don't see why we are going about getting ourselves shot, and clawed, and flying across all Creation hungry."

There was a low scattered murmur of agreement, and worse, several other dragons raising their heads, in some interest, to see how he would answer. Temeraire sat up angrily. "I am not a sneak, and if you like to call me one, you may say so at once, and plainly, instead of creeping about implying it."

"Well, what do you mean to do, when we have won?" Ballista said, having listened in so far. "Rictus isn't wrong to say that you needn't worry about the rest of us anymore: you are not unharnessed anymore, even if you haven't much of a crew to speak of."

Temeraire flattened his ruff at this last remark. After all, he had Gong Su back now, and Dorset - even if Dorset was not quite so desirable as Keynes - and of course Emily and Demane and Sipho, and Fellowes and Blythe, and even Allen, so he had a perfectly respectable number, which in any case had nothing to do with the matter. "You had a crew before, and might have one again, yourself, and so might any of us," he pointed out, "so the question is not whether one is in harness, but whether one may choose to be, or not, and if it is only a choice between being in harness or being in the breeding grounds, that is not enough of a choice at all, when the breeding grounds are so boring; and that is the case even if one is in harness for the moment."

"Yes, but," Ballista said, and then paused until Majestatis, lying next to her, said bluntly, "Look, old worm, we are all doing what you say, so what if they should offer you something you want, if only you keep us quiet and fighting with the rest of the harnessed fellows? We all know they want to hang your captain - what if they should offer you his life?"

Temeraire paused in his turn. "Well, I am not going to let them hang Laurence no matter what," he said, with a hasty glance to be sure he had not been overheard, "but I do see: they might offer me a very large pavilion, or a great deal of gold." He rubbed a talon back and forth over his forehead, thoughtfully. "It would not be fair," he said at last, "if I took anything that should be for me only, when I should be getting it not for my own work but for all of ours: we are all sharing. So perhaps," he added, "one of you had better come along, when I go and talk to the generals again: one of the little ones who can go all about and let everyone know what it is they will give us."

"I will come along," Minnow said. "I have never been harnessed, and I don't look to be ever, so no-one can say I am inclined to go soft on them. Anyway I would like to see a general, I never have."

Temeraire stretched his head over to ask Laurence and Admiral Roland who was presently in command, and where they might be; which he thought quite a straightforward question. "Well, it isn't," Admiral Roland answered him. "It is still Dalrymple for the moment, I suppose. But he is likely to be replaced as soon as we get to Scotland and Government have a chance to take him out of harm's way: our harm, that is. If there is a lick of sense among them it shall be Wellesley in his place, but we ought not put our hopes so high."

"But then who am I to talk to?" Temeraire said. "I do not like to say so, but the others are not quite happy - after all our hard work, we have lost, and got no treasure, and they would like to know what use it is to keep on. Not," he added hastily, in case Laurence or Admiral Roland should think that he was a poor officer, "that we have no discipline, but after all, they are not harnessed, so they wonder why we are helping so much."

Laurence was silent a moment, and then he said, "We may as well speak to Wellesley: it cannot much matter who we have made arrangements with, if the war is lost."

Admiral Roland nodded and said, "I will tell you: now we have got the guns out of the way, I meant to send some of us back anyway, to cover the infantry when they come out of Weedon. It is too close to London, and Bonaparte has too many dragons by half. I think I have worked out where he is getting them from," she added. "He is using unharnessed beasts, too, pulled out of his own breeding grounds: I dare say that Celestial of his can talk them out of their caves as well as Temeraire can ours."

"I do not see that she needed go to any special effort," Temeraire said, with feeling, "when Napoleon is doing everything nice, and giving his dragons pavilions and treasure, too, I expect: I am sure no-one is complaining to her."

Admiral Roland snorted. "Well, whether she has had much work or not, I am confident this is the best explanation for how he has laid hands on a hundred spare dragons, in so little time; he hasn't taken a single beast off his eastern borders at all. And that means he can afford to spend a few dozen of them to harry our foot, on the march."

Laurence nodded, and Temeraire saw the danger plainly: with the infantry walking to Scotland, they would be an easy target on the road for aerial assault; and going at their creeping pace of twenty miles a day would be in striking range of dragons headquartered at London for a week.

"The unharnessed beasts can less easily be taken by boarding, if Bonaparte should manage to put together some clever little strike," she went on, "so it would be just as well to make Temeraire's regiment the guard; and let him hash this out with Wellesley, before we have a mutiny on our hands: I haven't the right to promise them anything, and you may be sure if I did their Lordships wouldn't abide by it. And if you do secure them any pay," she added dryly, "pray be sure it comes to the harnessed dragons, too: I am sure Excidium would not say no to a little treasure of his own."

"It seems a great bother to me, to be flying back," Armatius grumbled, when Temeraire had brought back the news: he did not much like always carrying Gentius around, but he was the least maneuverable of the heavy-weights, save Requiescat, so it fell to him nearly all the time.

"At least you do not need to carry a gun, too, in this direction," Temeraire said, "and flying slower we will be able to find more food. Anyway, we are going to go arrange for our pay, which is like treasure that is given you every month without your having to work for it, so you cannot complain."

Except the harnessed dragons sharing the park with them, who were disgruntled at not being allowed to come along and get some pay themselves. "Well, I am going back with you," Iskierka announced, and would not be dissuaded, no matter what Granby said; and to Temeraire's deep disgust Admiral Roland finally said, "No, it is just as well, Granby: she will only fuss, lying about in Scotland or going on patrol."

But despite this setback, it was in any case satisfying to be flying back south, even though they were not to stay, because it felt to Temeraire a little as though they were reclaiming their territory; or at least refusing to acknowledge it was not theirs anymore. He still did not like to fall back all the way to Scotland, no matter how much more secure it should be, for regrouping; but if they must do it, at least they should not have run there directly from the battlefield, with the French dragons on their heels all the way: and perhaps they would even have a little fighting, if the French tried to attack the infantry on the march.

WEEDON WAS VISIBLE aloft from a long way: the walls of the depot were built of thick grey blocks of granite, with tall narrow turrets at each corner reaching far into the air, bristling with pepper guns. Around the walls, enormous stands of long halberds and arrow-headed spears had been planted on the ground in lines, so a great company of men might sleep safe from aerial assault, and the remnants of the infantry and cavalry were bivouacked among them. It did not look at all comfortable to attack, and thanks to the defenses, Temeraire had to lead everyone else to land all the way on the far side of the camp.

Wellesley came the long distance out to speak to them with no good grace, especially as he had to walk most of the way. "What the devil are you doing here? You ought to be nearly to Scotland by now, and half my cavalry are in fits."

"We are here to protect you," Temeraire said, injured, "and also to talk to you about pay, and our rights, since we did not win treasure."

"Why, damn you, you can wait to bring the lawyers into it until after we have run the French out," Wellesley said. "Good God, you may be sure Bonaparte does not have to argue his way through every battle."

"If you would like to be compared to him," Temeraire said, "then Bonaparte has also made a marketplace in Paris, for his dragons, and built them pavilions, and he is not penning them up in breeding grounds, either, if they do not like to be there - "

Laurence laid a hand on Temeraire's leg, and Temeraire swallowed the rest of his remarks; it was difficult to remember that one must be respectful to a senior officer, even if the senior officer was unpleasant in return, and to have to think carefully about what one said, instead of laying everything out plainly, even if it was perfectly obvious and fair.

"Sir," Laurence said, "we have been ordered to cover your retreat," and handed Wellesley the note from Admiral Roland: a brief scrawl in her bad handwriting, which Temeraire could not quite read from overhead.

Wellesley scowled through the explanation, and then he crumpled the note and pitched it away; one of his aides hastily retrieved it out of the mud behind his back, to be sure it did not lie about to be picked up. "That woman is more to be relied on than half the general staff; it is a damned embarrassment. So this Chinese beast is managing Bonaparte's dragons for him? How did he get the creature to obey him in the first place? He was not there for her hatching."

"She is snobbish, so I suppose she liked that he is an emperor," Temeraire said, "and that he should make it easy for her to be nasty to me: she is a very unpleasant sort of dragon."

"I think perhaps you dislike her too greatly to be just, Temeraire," Laurence said, and to Wellesley said, "Sir, she had lately lost her companion before coming to France, and being bereft was perhaps more vulnerable to a kindness which ordinarily pride would have armored her against. But Bonaparte has not won her by any trick, but with a high degree of real affection, and certainly all the outward shows of respect; and he has materially altered the conditions for dragons under his rule, for the better."

"So anyone can manage a dragon, then, if you bribe the creature properly, and cosset it like a woman," Wellesley said.

Temeraire laid his ruff back. He did not think he was unjust to Lien at all, himself; but he did see that of course, Laurence's explanation was the more important one, for their own case, and even Lien was not just helping Napoleon because he had given her a few presents. Not that Temeraire would have said no, to a diamond as handsome as the one she had been wearing at the Battle of Jena; but that was after she had decided to help. "It is not bribery or cosseting, if you pay someone what they deserve, and if they do not like to help you otherwise."

"It is a good two thousand pounds to feed a beast your size for a year," Wellesley said. "Do you expect more?"

"Then give me the two thousand pounds," Temeraire said, "and I will undertake to feed myself, and put aside some of the rest, as I like."

"Hah," Wellesley said, "and when you gamble it away, and are starving, and you steal a cow to eat, then what is to be done with you?"

"Of course I would not gamble with treasure," Temeraire said repressively. "If I wanted to take someone else's treasure, I would fight them; and if I did not want to fight them, then I would not want to take it with a game anyway, because if I did win, then of course they would want to fight to get it back afterwards."

"And I suppose every other dragon has as much sense?" Wellesley said.

"If you prefer, sir," Laurence said, "you may pay them their board and a wage above it; the form matters little. The question at hand is, whether you will agree they have a right to pay, and to all the same rights and liberties under which any man serves."

"Why the devil ask me?" Wellesley said. "Go speak to Dalrymple, if you like. I have no authority to make commitments on behalf of the Government."

Laurence said, "Sir, you are likely to be appointed to the command, and to just that authority; we both know that their Lordships are not likely to overrule, in the broad strokes, what commitments you feel necessary to make to secure so critical a victory, nor even question them greatly, if those commitments should deliver to the effort a substantial force of dragons, which otherwise have no inclination to remain and to serve."

Wellesley tapped his boot again, and said nothing for a moment, looking at Laurence. "I can give you my word it will be considered, shall we say," he offered, "and I can promise your beast the two thousand pounds per annum directly, as he is so sure he may be trusted. And we need hear nothing more of your own - difficulties."

"Hah," Minnow said, putting her head over Temeraire's shoulder. "Just so: they are offering you something, only for you and your captain."

Wellesley started back: he had evidently not noticed Minnow sitting quietly on Temeraire's back, listening in.

"Yes, but I am not going to take it," Temeraire said, and lowered his head more closely, so Wellesley had to look at him directly. "I do not choose to wait, and rely on generosity: I know perfectly well how generous their Lordships are. If you would like our help now, then you may say how much it is worth to you, also now. And if it is not as much as I think it worth, I will tell the others so, and they will leave, I expect. I will stay myself for Laurence, but I will not keep the others for my own personal sake. And it is not very handsome of you to propose anything so insulting, either," he added reproachfully, lifting his head back away, "when you know I cannot fight you over it, because you are too small."

"Do you know, you are the most damned peculiar pair of traitors I have ever heard of," Wellesley said to Laurence. "Are you trying to get yourself into Foxe's Book of Martyrs?"

Temeraire snorted angrily: Laurence had read him bits of that book, and it was all about people who had died in especially unpleasant ways. But Laurence only said, "Sir, there are abundant proofs for any man, by now, that any nation which gives its dragons liberty and brings them into the life of the state, winning their loyalty direct and not merely by intermediaries, must profit by it to so great an extent that no enemy which does not follow the same course can long hope to mount an aerial force to compete with them. If you do not care to learn from the example of China - "

One of the young officers on Wellesley's staff, who had walked out with him, made a rude noise. "You need not sniff, either," Temeraire said. "China may not have so many guns as here, but there are thousands of dragons in the army."

"Thousands indeed," Wellesley said, skeptically.

"Six thousand two hundred and eighty-eight, my mother told me," Temeraire said. No one said anything a moment, and he supposed it might seem odd to be so precise, so he explained, "Because that is a lucky number - of course they have more dragons who can fight, but those dragons are not officially in the army."

"And if," Laurence said to Wellesley, "the population of France is not so great as that of China, if they should even achieve the same proportion of dragons to men and arable land, using the same techniques of husbandry which you may be sure Lien has conveyed to Bonaparte, their nation will shortly be able to field a military force of a thousand. Would you care to face that in five years, with the Corps at its present rate of growth?"

"Damn you, I am not in a mood to be lectured at with figures, as though I were in a boardroom in Whitehall," Wellesley said. "Very well. Your beasts will have their keep, and above that, the same wages as any other man in service under the Navy Board - "

"A shilling a day will keep a seaman's wife and children, and let him carouse on shore a little when he comes into port; it will not do as much for a dragon," Laurence said.

"And we don't want little coins we must keep track of, either, and cannot hold on to," Minnow put in. "A proper mess that would be."

Temeraire nodded. "No, and what we really want is to be able to go where we like. That is what I want promised, also: if we may go where we like, and do any work that is offered to us, then even should Government offer us unfair wages, we will work for someone else instead. And the same for harnessed dragons, too," he added.

"Any work that is offered to you?" Wellesley said. "By all means. As for going where you like - "

He and Laurence wrangled a long time, in low voices, over sums and coverts, and how much ought to be paid to a heavy-weight, over a courier, and so on. Temeraire listened carefully, but he did not know all the places which Laurence named, where coverts ought to be, and also he was not quite certain about the money. His breastplate, he knew, was worth nearly ten thousand pounds, but shillings and pence were new. They were interrupted at last only by the arrival of a breathless courier from the main camp, to inform them that the last stragglers from the battlefield had been regrouped, and were ready to begin the march to the north.

"I have no more time for this," Wellesley said. "Twenty coverts, on the Bath Road and the Great North Road, where they can go to sleep and be fed. As for pavilions, they can build the damned things themselves with their own shillings: set themselves up like admirals, if they like. And after this, they had damned well better keep in line."

"Sir," Laurence said, and made a bow: to Wellesley's back; the general had already turned and walked away.

LAURENCE FOUND HIMSELF almost at once the center of a large and interested audience of dragons, all pressing in and jostling for room to hear him, as soon as he had begun to try and explain to Temeraire and Minnow the system of coinage.

"So ten pounds will buy a cow?" Minnow said intently, "and a pound and a shilling is a bit of gold?"

"If it is twenty shillings to a pound, and twenty-four shillings a day," Temeraire said thoughtfully, "then that is nearly four hundred pounds a year for a heavy-weight - " performing calculations in his head, which produced a buzz of satisfaction among the other dragons.

"But where is it?" Iskierka demanded. "I did not come back to just hear numbers; what sort of treasure is that?"

Temeraire snapped at her a little. "It is reliable treasure," he said. "Not all of us want to be always running around picking quarrels and making difficulties, like you, all to grab more and more: this is for everyone every day who does their duty, like proper soldiers, and it is fair."

The other dragons were generally of his mind, if Iskierka continued to sulk, and agreed they were satisfied with their lot. But Laurence himself felt not a little disgusted, on having stooped to such back-room negotiations, at such a moment: maneuvering for personal interest, while Bonaparte marched into London and the French followed on their heels, felt more like treason to him than any of the acts for which he had been charged. "We must see to your dinners," he said, more out of an urgent wish to put an end to the gloating noise. "The Army will march at first light, and we must be ready."

In the morning, when the dragons had breakfasted and gone aloft, the first regiments were already out on the road, their pace sluggish enough that Requiescat remarked, near dinner-time, "Now, this is what I call a pleasant flight, no fussing or hurry." Temeraire only sighed.

"We might go over to them and offer to carry them, at least a little way, as many as could climb aboard us?" he suggested to Laurence. "I am sure they could go faster."

"Not without orders," Laurence said; he could well imagine Wellesley's reaction, or Dalrymple's, if the dragons should begin to fly towards the ranks, and likely panic some of the men and cavalry-beasts into running, after all the difficulty in forming them back into their regiments.

"It is only so dull: we might fly to to-night's rendezvous and back again three times over, before they have got there," Temeraire said, "and some of us more than that. What if Requiescat and a few of the others should stay pacing them, and we go ahead - or perhaps," he added, ruff coming up with enthusiasm, "we might go back, and see if we cannot pay Napoleon back a little, for everything which he has done." He peered back over his shoulder, to see how this was received.

"It is not your place even to propose such a thing, anymore," Laurence said. "You have accepted a commission; you are obliged to preserve discipline, not to undermine it - " Hearing himself thus condemned from his own mouth, Laurence abruptly stopped; he did not know how to speak to Temeraire of duty anymore, without being a hypocrite.

"I suppose," Temeraire said, regretfully. "It is not always so pleasant to be an officer. And I am sure Iskierka will complain, all night, and say more cutting things about going slowly, and running away, and not getting treasure." He snorted, and looked, and then said doubtfully, "Where is Iskierka?"

She had been flying sullenly to their rear all the morning, amusing herself by occasional wild darts into the heavy low clouds above, where her flames made gold and crimson and purple flashes through the white and grey, like a sunset in mid-morning. But Laurence did not remember her doing it the last two hours and more. Arkady was gone also, with a handful of the other ferals, and when questioned, Wringe had a guilty twist to her neck, even while she professed surprise and confusion.

Temeraire did not miss it, either. "But how am I to make Wringe tell me where they have gone?" he asked Laurence, and batted her reaching talons away from a bleating sheep. He had brought them down in a broad meadow, the better to interrogate the remaining ferals, and the other dragons were driving the luckless resident herd in towards them all, so they should make a meal while they worked out what Iskierka and the others had done. "No, you may not eat, until you have told me: they have made a great deal of trouble for all of us."

"I call that hard," Requiescat said, mumbling around a sheep. "It ain't as though we will not outstrip those redcoats anyhow, and nobody minds a snack, either."

"You may find it less pleasant when we have had to fly thirty miles back to catch Iskierka up, and then sixty on to the rendezvous," Laurence said grimly; and that the very best outcome they could hope for.

"Hum," Requiescat said, licking his chops thoughtfully, "that's so, but I don't see as we have to go finding her at all. She and those fellows know where the rendezvous is as well as anyone, and they have some men and their compasses with them, if they should get themselves lost like hatchlings. We can just go on and let them catch us up."

"They must know we would miss them, after they have been gone so long," Temeraire said, "so I expect that they have got themselves into a fight, and are probably all dying somewhere full of French bullets." He did not sound as though he would be very sorry to find as much the case.

Wringe squirmed as Temeraire pointedly translated this for her, but still said nothing. "Temeraire," Laurence said, low, "it is not only foolishness on her part; this is a challenge to your authority."

"Oh!" Temeraire said, and, having told Wringe as much, he added, "so now you will tell me, or else," and when she continued mute, he drew a great expanding breath and roared out, over her head.

"Payom zhe reng!" Wringe said, flattening herself to the ground, and everyone jumped. A gentle pattering like rain came from the trees in the path of Temeraire's roar, old acorns shaken loose into the dead leaves, and a few small birds dropping stone-dead. Gong Su promptly went in after them while Wringe muttered her confession: the miscreants had gone back towards London with a notion of taking some of Napoleon's army by surprise, winning either treasure or accolades. There had been no very well-formed goal; they had gone looking for a fight as much as for any practical reward.

"We ought to go on and leave them to catch up," Temeraire said, panting a little, still ruffled and angry, "just as Requiescat says, except then I dare say she will come back with two eagles or something like, and there will be no living with her at all."

Laurence did not like to ill-wish aloud, but if Iskierka had so overridden Granby as to make herself a deserter, she was unlikely to be guided in any other respect of sense, and he thought Temeraire's earlier expectation was the more likely to be met.

But Temeraire brightened after a moment and added, "Anyway, I do not suppose anyone can blame us for going after her, to fetch her back, Laurence? After all, she is very important; or so everyone says."

The roads beneath them were empty as they flew back towards London, warily and quick. The haze of dust which the British soldiers raised had already settled, and no sign of French pursuit. No-one much was to be seen out of doors, except farmers and herdsmen at their husbandry: cattle and crops cared nothing for Napoleon or politics, and implacably demanded all the same attention. But even these few men kept their heads low, and hurried through their work as much as could be done; by late afternoon the countryside seemed nearly deserted, with the sun yearning impatiently to its rest.

"We ought to see her miles off, if she is showing away as she always does," Temeraire was saying ungraciously, as they flew, and then he pricked up his ruff: a small speck in the distance, coming closer, had emerged from the clouds and begun to resolve itself into wings.

It was Gherni: a much-battered Gherni, panting with the speed of her flight, and her face mazed with a trickle of blood she ineffectually tried to rub off against her shoulder, now and again, only smearing it about into a brick-red film overlaid on her blue hide. Tharkay was with her, and he leapt down to Temeraire's back from hers mid-flight, like a boarder, but tethered by a long double strap of thick leather. He unclipped it from his own waist as soon as he had landed and latched on to Temeraire's harness; Gherni caught up the snapping-free loose end, which jangled loudly with small clapper bells, and wrapped it around her own forearm a few times.

"What is that?" Temeraire said, with interest, craning his head to see.

"I had it made in Istanbul, my last journey," Tharkay said, and to Laurence said, "Iskierka has been taken."

He led them to Arkady and the other deserters, huddled and licking their wounds in the shelter of a tall hill that shielded them from the road, casting an afternoon shadow long enough to conceal them from cursory observation from aloft. The red-patched feral roused when Temeraire came in to land, and mantled his wings defensively.

"That is enough, you shan't bristle at me," Temeraire said. "You knew very well you were behaving like a - " He paused, for consideration. " - like a scrub, or else you shouldn't have sneaked, and if you have been served out as you deserved, it is no-one's fault but your own. You had better to be sorry and promise not to do it again, than hiss."

"They broke away a little before noon," Tharkay told Laurence, as they squatted down and scraped clean a patch of dirt, for him to sketch out the action. "Well-managed: they had been going into the clouds all morning, and making a noise with their singing, so by the time we realized they had turned us around you were all far out of ear-shot. Granby's gunners shot off a few flares, but it was a hopeless effort.

"From there our luck was as evil as it might have been: two hours flying towards London without any challenge, so we were on Bonaparte's doorstep by the time we came on any other beasts; and then it was Davout's advance guard out gathering cattle: two Grand Chevaliers and another half-a-dozen heavy-weights. Of course all of them went directly for her; I think I saw sixty men jump for her back at once. Arkady grew remarkably less deaf to me, after that, and we managed to get away; but the French already had Granby trussed like a chicken on one of the Chevaliers and were racing him away as fast as they could go, with Iskierka flinging herself madly after them."

"I knew I ought never have let her have Granby," Temeraire said stormily. "Now look how she has lost him, and not even in a real battle. We ought to get him back and leave her to them, and good riddance."

Laurence exchanged a glance with Tharkay: it was by no means good riddance to lose their one fire-breather to the French, no matter how recalcitrant. "Did you see where they went?" Laurence asked, low.

"Straight for London," Tharkay said.

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