His Majestys Dragon by Naomi Novik
THE DECK OF the French ship was slippery with blood, heaving in the choppy sea; a stroke might as easily bring down the man making it as the intended target. Laurence did not have time in the heat of the battle to be surprised at the degree of resistance, but even through the numbing haze of battle-fever and the confusion of swords and pistol-smoke, he marked the extreme look of anguish on the French captain's face as the man shouted encouragement to his men.
It was still there shortly thereafter, when they met on the deck, and the man surrendered his sword, very reluctantly: at the last moment his hand half-closed about the blade, as if he meant to draw it back. Laurence looked up to make certain the colors had been struck, then accepted the sword with a mute bow; he did not speak French himself, and a more formal exchange would have to wait for the presence of his third lieutenant, that young man being presently engaged belowdecks in securing the French guns. With the cessation of hostilities, the remaining Frenchmen were all virtually dropping where they stood; Laurence noticed that there were fewer of them than he would have expected for a frigate of thirty-six guns, and that they looked ill and hollow-cheeked.
Many of them lay dead or dying upon the deck; he shook his head at the waste and eyed the French captain with disapproval: the man should never have offered battle. Aside from the plain fact that the Reliant would have had the Amitie slightly outgunned and outmanned under the best of circumstances, the crew had obviously been reduced by disease or hunger. To boot, the sails above them were in a sad tangle, and that no result of the battle, but of the storm which had passed but this morning; they had barely managed to bring off a single broadside before the Reliant had closed and boarded. The captain was obviously deeply overset by the defeat, but he was not a young man to be carried away by his spirits: he ought to have done better by his men than to bring them into so hopeless an action.
"Mr. Riley," Laurence said, catching his second lieutenant's attention, "have our men carry the wounded below. " He hooked the captain's sword on his belt; he did not think the man deserved the compliment of having it returned to him, though ordinarily he would have done so. "And pass the word for Mr. Wells. "
"Very good, sir," Riley said, turning to issue the necessary orders. Laurence stepped to the railing to look down and see what damage the hull had taken. She looked reasonably intact, and he had ordered his own men to avoid shots below the waterline; he thought with satisfaction that there would be no difficulty in bringing her into port.
His hair had slipped out of his short queue, and now fell into his eyes as he looked over. He impatiently pushed it out of the way as he turned back, leaving streaks of blood upon his forehead and the sun-bleached hair; this, with his broad shoulders and his severe look, gave him an unconsciously savage appearance as he surveyed his prize, very unlike his usual thoughtful expression.
Wells climbed up from below in response to the summons and came to his side. "Sir," he said, without waiting to be addressed, "begging your pardon, but Lieutenant Gibbs says there is something queer in the hold. "
"Oh? I will go and look," Laurence said. "Pray tell this gentleman," he indicated the French captain, "that he must give me his parole, for himself and his men, or they must be confined. "
The French captain did not immediately respond; he looked at his men with a miserable expression. They would of course do much better if they could be kept spread out through the lower deck, and any recapture was a practical impossibility under the circumstances; still he hesitated, drooped, and finally husked, "Je me rends," with a look still more wretched.
Laurence gave a short nod. "He may go to his cabin," he told Wells, and turned to step down into the hold. "Tom, will you come along? Very good. "
He descended with Riley on his heels, and found his first lieutenant waiting for him. Gibbs's round face was still shining with sweat and emotion; he would be taking the prize into port, and as she was a frigate, he almost certainly would be made post, a captain himself. Laurence was only mildly pleased; though Gibbs had done his duty reasonably, the man had been imposed on him by the Admiralty and they had not become intimates. He had wanted Riley in the first lieutenant's place, and if he had been given his way, Riley would now be the one getting his step. That was the nature of the service, and he did not begrudge Gibbs the good fortune; still, he did not rejoice quite so wholeheartedly as he would have to see Tom get his own ship.
"Very well; what's all this, then?" Laurence said now; the hands were clustered about an oddly placed bulkhead towards the stern area of the hold, neglecting the work of cataloguing the captured ship's stores.
"Sir, if you will step this way," Gibbs said. "Make way there," he ordered, and the hands backed away from what Laurence now saw was a doorway set inside a wall that had been built across the back of the hold; recently, for the lumber was markedly lighter than the surrounding planks.
Ducking through the low door, he found himself in a small chamber with a strange appearance. The walls had been reinforced with actual metal, which must have added a great deal of unnecessary weight to the ship, and the floor was padded with old sailcloth; in addition, there was a small coal-stove in the corner, though this was not presently in use. The only object stored within the room was a large crate, roughly the height of a man's waist and as wide, and this was made fast to the floor and walls by means of thick hawsers attached to metal rings.
Laurence could not help feeling the liveliest curiosity, and after a moment's struggle he yielded to it. "Mr. Gibbs, I think we shall have a look inside," he said, stepping out of the way. The top of the crate was thoroughly nailed down, but eventually yielded to the many willing hands; they pried it off and lifted out the top layer of packing, and many heads craned forward at the same time to see.
No one spoke, and in silence Laurence stared at the shining curve of eggshell rising out of the heaped straw; it was scarcely possible to believe. "Pass the word for Mr. Pollitt," he said at last; his voice sounded only a little strained. "Mr. Riley, pray be sure those lashings are quite secure. "
Riley did not immediately answer, too busy staring; then he jerked to attention and said, hastily, "Yes, sir," and bent to check the bindings.
Laurence stepped closer and gazed down at the egg. There could hardly be any doubt as to its nature, though he could not say for sure from his own experience. The first amazement passing, he tentatively reached out and touched the surface, very cautiously: it was smooth and hard to the touch. He withdrew almost at once, not wanting to risk doing it some harm.
Mr. Pollitt came down into the hold in his awkward way, clinging to the ladder edges with both hands and leaving bloody prints upon it; he was no kind of a sailor, having become a naval surgeon only at the late age of thirty, after some unspecified disappointments on land. He was nevertheless a genial man, well liked by the crew, even if his hand was not always the steadiest at the operating table. "Yes, sir?" he said, then saw the egg. "Good Lord above. "
"It is a dragon egg, then?" Laurence said. It required an effort to restrain the triumph in his voice.
"Oh, yes indeed, Captain, the size alone shows that. " Mr. Pollitt had wiped his hands on his apron and was already brushing more straw away from the top, trying to see the extent. "My, it is quite hardened already; I wonder what they can have been thinking, so far from land. "
This did not sound very promising. "Hardened?" Laurence said sharply. "What does that mean?"
"Why, that it will hatch soon. I will have to consult my books to be certain, but I believe that Badke's Bestiary states with authority that when the shell has fully hardened, hatching will occur within a week. What a splendid specimen, I must get my measuring cords. "
He bustled away, and Laure
"At best, sir," Gibbs said, nodding.
"I cannot imagine how they came to be here with it," Riley said. "What do you mean to do, sir?"
His initial satisfaction turning gradually into dismay as he realized the very difficult situation, Laurence stared at the egg blankly. Even in the dim lantern light, it shone with the warm luster of marble. "Oh, I am damned if I know, Tom. But I suppose I will go and return the French captain his sword; it is no wonder he fought so furiously after all. "
Except of course he did know; there was only one possible solution, unpleasant as it might be to contemplate. Laurence watched broodingly while the egg was transferred, still in its crate, over to the Reliant: the only grim man, except for the French officers. He had granted them the liberty of the quarterdeck, and they watched the slow process glumly from the rail. All around them, smiles wreathed every sailor's face, private, gloating smiles, and there was a great deal of jostling among the idle hands, with many unnecessary cautions and pieces of advice called out to the sweating group of men engaged in the actual business of the transfer.
The egg being safely deposited on the deck of the Reliant, Laurence took his own leave of Gibbs. "I will leave the prisoners with you; there is no sense in giving them a motive for some desperate attempt to recapture the egg," he said. "Keep in company, as well as you can. However, if we are separated, we will rendezvous at Madeira. You have my most hearty congratulations, Captain," he added, shaking Gibbs's hand.
"Thank you, sir, and may I say, I am most sensible - very grateful - " But here Gibbs's eloquence, never in great supply, failed him; he gave up and merely stood beaming widely on Laurence and all the world, full of great goodwill.
The ships had been brought abreast for the transfer of the crate; Laurence did not have to take a boat, but only sprang across on the up-roll of the swell. Riley and the rest of his officers had already crossed back. He gave the order to make sail, and went directly below, to wrestle with the problem in privacy.
But no obliging alternative presented itself overnight. The next morning, he bowed to necessity and gave his orders, and shortly the midshipmen and lieutenants of the ship came crowding into his cabin, scrubbed and nervous in their best gear; this sort of mass summons was unprecedented, and the cabin was not quite large enough to hold them all comfortably. Laurence saw anxious looks on many faces, undoubtedly conscious of some private guilt, curiosity on others; Riley alone looked worried, perhaps suspecting something of Laurence's intentions.
Laurence cleared his throat; he was already standing, having ordered his desk and chair removed to make more room, though he had kept back his inkstand and pen with several sheets of paper, now resting upon the sill of the stern windows behind him. "Gentlemen," he said, "you have all heard by now that we found a dragon egg aboard the prize; Mr. Pollitt has very firmly identified it for us. "
Many smiles and some surreptitious elbowing; the little midshipman Battersea piped up in his treble voice, "Congratulations, sir!" and a quick pleased rumble went around.
Laurence frowned; he understood their high spirits, and if the circumstances had been only a little different, he would have shared them. The egg would be worth a thousand times its weight in gold, brought safely to shore; every man aboard the ship would have shared in the bounty, and as captain he himself would have taken the largest share of the value.
The Amitie's logs had been thrown overboard, but her hands had been less discreet than her officers, and Wells had learned enough from their complaints to explain the delay all too clearly. Fever among the crew, becalmed in the doldrums for the better part of a month, a leak in her water tanks leaving her on short water rations, and then at last the gale that they themselves had so recently weathered. It had been a string of exceptionally bad luck, and Laurence knew the superstitious souls of his men would quail at the idea that the Reliant was now carrying the egg that had undoubtedly been the cause of it.
He would certainly take care to keep that information from the crew, however; better by far that they not know of the long series of disasters which the Amitie had suffered. So after silence fell again, all Laurence said was simply, "Unfortunately, the prize had a very bad crossing of it. She must have expected to make landfall nearly a month ago, if not more, and the delay has made the circumstances surrounding the egg urgent. " There was puzzlement and incomprehension now on most faces, though looks of concern were beginning to spread, and he finished the matter off by saying, "In short, gentlemen, it is about to hatch. "
Another low murmur, this time disappointed, and even a few quiet groans; ordinarily he would have marked the offenders for a mild later rebuke, but as it was, he let them by. They would soon have more cause to groan. So far they had not yet understood what it meant; they merely made the mental reduction of the bounty on an unhatched egg to that paid for a feral dragonet, much less valuable.
"Perhaps not all of you are aware," he said, silencing the whispers with a look, "that England is in a very dire situation as regards the Aerial Corps. Naturally, our handling is superior, and the Corps can outfly any other nation of the world, but the French can outbreed us two to one, and it is impossible to deny that they have better variety in their bloodlines. A properly harnessed dragon is worth at least a first-rate of one hundred guns to us, even a common Yellow Reaper or a three-ton Winchester, and Mr. Pollitt believes from the size and color of the egg that this hatchling is a prime specimen, and very likely one of the rare large breeds. "
"Oh!" said Midshipman Carver, in tones of horror, as he took Laurence's meaning; he instantly went crimson as eyes went to him, and shut his mouth tight.
Laurence ignored the interruption; Riley would see Carver's grog stopped for a week without having to be told. The exclamation had at least prepared the others. "We must at least make the attempt to harness the beast," he said. "I trust, gentlemen, that there is no man here who is not prepared to do his duty for England. The Corps may not be the sort of life that any of us has been raised to, but the Navy is no sinecure either, and there is not one of you who does not understand a hard service. "
"Sir," said Lieutenant Fanshawe anxiously: he was a young man of very good family, the son of an earl. "Do you mean - that is, shall we all - "
There was an emphasis on that all which made it obviously a selfish suggestion, and Laurence felt himself go near purple with anger. He snapped, "We all shall, indeed, Mr. Fanshawe, unless there is any man here who is too much of a coward to make the attempt, and in that case that gentleman may explain himself to a court-martial when we put in at Madeira. " He sent an angry glare around the room, and no one else met his eye or offered a protest.
He was all the more infuriated for understanding the sentiment, and for sharing it himself. Certainly no man not raised to the life could be easy at the prospect of suddenly becoming an aviator, and he loathed the necessity of asking his officers to face it. It meant, after all, an end to any semblance of ordinary life. It was not like sailing, where you might hand your ship back to the Navy and be set ashore, often whether you liked it or not.
Even in times of peace, a dragon could not be put into dock, nor allowed to wander loose, and to keep a full-grown beast of twenty tons from doing exactly as it pleased took very nearly the full attention of an aviator and a crew of assistants besides. They could not really be managed by force, and were finicky about their handlers; some would not accept management at all, even when new-hatched, and none would accept it after their first feeding. A feral dragon could be kept in the breeding grounds by the constant provision of food, mates, and comfortable shelter, but it could not be controlled outside, and it would not speak with men.
So if a hatchling let you put it into harness, duty forever after tied you to the beast. An aviator coul
Yet they sprang from good families, gentlemen's sons handed over at the age of seven to be raised to the life, and it would be an impossible insult to the Corps to have anyone other than one of his own officers attempt the harnessing. And if one had to be asked to take the risk, then all; though if Fanshawe had not spoken in so unbecoming a way, Laurence would have liked to keep Carver out of it, as he knew the boy had a poor head for heights, which struck him as a grave impediment for an aviator. But in the atmosphere created by the pitiful request, it would seem like favoritism, and that would not do.
He took a deep breath, still simmering with anger, and spoke again. "No man here has any training for the task, and the only fair means of assigning the duty is by lot. Naturally, those gentlemen with family are excused. Mr. Pollitt," he said, turning to the surgeon, who had a wife and four children in Derbyshire, "I hope that you will draw the name for us. Gentlemen, you will each write your name upon a sheet here, and cast it into this bag. " He suited word to deed, tore off the part of the sheet with his own name, folded it, and put it into the small sack.
Riley stepped forward at once, and the others followed suit obediently; under Laurence's cold eye, Fanshawe flushed and wrote his name with a shaking hand. Carver, on the other hand, wrote bravely, though with a pale cheek; and at the last Battersea, unlike virtually all the others, was incautious in tearing the sheet, so that his piece was unusually large; he could be heard murmuring quietly to Carver, "Would it not be famous to ride a dragon?"
Laurence shook his head a little at the thoughtlessness of youth; yet it might indeed be better were one of the younger men chosen, for the adjustment would be easier. Still, it would be hard to see one of the boys sacrificed to the task, and to face the outrage of his family. But the same would be true of any man here, including himself.
Though he had done his best not to consider the consequences from a selfish perspective, now that the fatal moment was at hand he could not entirely suppress his own private fears. One small bit of paper might mean the wreck of his career, the upheaval of his life, disgrace in his father's eyes. And, too, there was Edith Galman to think of; but if he were to begin excusing his men for some half-formed attachment, not binding, none of them would be left. In any case, he could not imagine excusing himself from this selection for any reason: this was not something he could ask his men to face, and avoid himself.
He handed the bag to Mr. Pollitt and made an effort to stand at his ease and appear unconcerned, clasping his hands loosely behind his back. The surgeon shook the sack in his hand twice, thrust his hand in without looking, and drew out a small folded sheet. Laurence was ashamed to feel a sensation of profound relief even before the name was read: the sheet was folded over once more than his own entry had been.
The emotion lasted only a moment. "Jonathan Carver," Pollitt said. Fanshawe could be heard letting out an explosive breath, Battersea sighing, and Laurence bowed his head, silently cursing Fanshawe yet again; so promising a young officer, and so likely to be useless in the Corps.
"Well; there we have it," he said; there was nothing else to be done. "Mr. Carver, you are relieved of regular duty until the hatching; you will instead consult with Mr. Pollitt on the process to follow for the harnessing. "
"Yes, sir," the boy responded, a little faintly.
"Dismissed, gentlemen; Mr. Fanshawe, a word with you. Mr. Riley, you have the deck. "
Riley touched his hat, and the others filed out behind him. Fanshawe stood rigid and pale, hands clasped behind his back, and swallowed; his Adam's apple was prominent and bobbed visibly. Laurence made him wait sweating until his steward had restored the cabin furniture, and then seated himself and glared at him from this position of state, enthroned before the stern windows.
"Now then, I should like you to explain precisely what you meant by that remark earlier, Mr. Fanshawe," he said.
"Oh, sir, I didn't mean anything," Fanshawe said. "It is only what they say about aviators, sir - " He stumbled to a stop under the increasingly militant gleam in Laurence's eye.
"I do not give a damn what they say, Mr. Fanshawe," he said icily. "England's aviators are her shield from the air, as the Navy is by sea, and when you have done half as much as the least of them, you may offer criticism. You will stand Mr. Carver's watch and do his work as well as your own, and your grog is stopped until further notice: inform the quartermaster. Dismissed. "
But despite his words, he paced the cabin after Fanshawe had gone. He had been severe, and rightly so, for it was very unbecoming in the fellow to speak in such a way, and even more to hint that he might be excused for his birth. But it was certainly a sacrifice, and his conscience smote him painfully when he thought of the look on Carver's face. His own continued feelings of relief reproached him; he was condemning the boy to a fate he had not wanted to face himself.
He tried to comfort himself with the notion that there was every chance the dragon would turn its nose up at Carver, untrained as he was, and refuse the harness. Then no possible reproach could be made, and he could deliver it for the bounty with an easy conscience. Even if it could only be used for breeding, the dragon would still do England a great deal of good, and taking it away from the French was a victory all on its own; personally he would be more than content with that as a resolution, though as a matter of duty he meant to do everything in his power to make the other occur.
The next week passed uncomfortably. It was impossible not to perceive Carver's anxiety, especially as the week wore on and the armorer's attempt at the harness began to take on a recognizable shape, or the unhappiness of his friends and the men of his gun-crew, for he was a popular fellow, and his difficulty with heights was no great secret.
Mr. Pollitt was the only one in good humor, being not very well informed as to the state of the emotions on the ship, and very interested in the harnessing process. He spent a great deal of time inspecting the egg, going so far as to sleep and eat beside the crate in the gunroom, much to the distress of the officers who slept there: his snores were penetrating, and their berth was already crowded. Pollitt was entirely unconscious of their silent disapproval, and he kept his vigil until the morning when, with a wretched lack of sympathy, he cheerfully announced that the first cracks had begun to show.
Laurence at once ordered the egg uncrated and brought up on deck. A special cushion had been made for it, out of old sailcloth stuffed with straw; this was placed on a couple of lockers lashed together, and the egg gingerly laid upon it. Mr. Rabson, the armorer, brought up the harness: it was a makeshift affair of leather straps held by dozens of buckles, as he had not known enough about the proportions of dragons to make it exact. He stood waiting with it, off to the side, while Carver positioned himself before the egg. Laurence ordered the hands to clear the space around the egg to leave more room; most of them chose to climb into the rigging or onto the roof of the roundhouse, the better to see the process.
It was a brilliantly sunny day, and perhaps the warmth and light were encouraging to the long-confined hatchling; the egg began to crack more seriously almost as soon as it was laid out. There was a great deal of fidgeting and noisy whispering up above, which Laurence chose to ignore, and a few gasps when the first glimpse of movement could be seen inside: a clawed wing tip poking out, talons scrabbling out of a different crack.
The end came abruptly: the shell broke almost straight do
Laurence himself was impressed; he had never seen a hatchling before, though he had been at several fleet actions and witnessed the grown dragons of the Corps striking in support. He did not have the knowledge to identify the breed, but it was certainly an exceedingly rare one: he did not recall ever seeing a black dragon on either side, and it seemed quite large, for a fresh-hatched creature. That only made the matter more urgent. "Mr. Carver, when you are ready," he said.
Carver, very pale, stepped towards the creature, holding out his hand, which trembled visibly. "Good dragon," he said; the words sounded rather like a question. "Nice dragon. "
The dragonet paid him no attention whatsoever. It was occupied in examining itself and picking off bits of shell that had adhered to its hide, in a fastidious sort of way. Though it was barely the size of a large dog, the five talons upon each claw were still an inch long and impressive; Carver looked at them anxiously and stopped an arm's length away. Here he stood waiting dumbly; the dragon continued to ignore him, and presently he cast an anxious look of appeal over his shoulder at where Laurence stood with Mr. Pollitt.
"Perhaps if he were to speak to it again," Mr. Pollitt said dubiously.
"Pray do so, Mr. Carver," Laurence said.
The boy nodded, but even as he turned back, the dragonet forestalled him by climbing down from its cushion and leaping onto the deck past him. Carver turned around with hand still outstretched and an almost comical look of surprise, and the other officers, who had drawn closer in the excitement of the hatching, backed away in alarm.
"Hold your positions," Laurence snapped. "Mr. Riley, look to the hold. " Riley nodded and took up position in front of the opening, to prevent the dragonet's going down below.
But the dragonet instead turned to exploring the deck; it flicked out a long, narrow forked tongue as it walked, lightly touching everything in its reach, and looked about itself with every evidence of curiosity and intelligence. Yet it continued to ignore Carver, despite the boy's repeated attempts to catch its attention, and seemed equally uninterested in the other officers. Though it did occasionally rear up onto its hind legs to peer at a face more closely, it did as much to examine a pulley, or the hanging hourglass, at which it batted curiously.
Laurence felt his heart sinking; no one could blame him, precisely, if the dragonet did not show any inclination for an untrained sea-officer, but to have a truly rare dragonet caught in the shell go feral would certainly feel like a blow. They had arranged the matter from common knowledge, bits and pieces out of Pollitt's books, and from Pollitt's own imperfect recollection of a hatching which he had once observed; now Laurence feared there was some essential step they had missed. It had certainly seemed strange to him when he learned that the dragonet should be able to begin talking at once, freshly hatched. They had not found anything in the texts describing any specific invitation or trick to induce the dragonet to speak, but he should certainly be blamed, and blame himself, if it turned out there had been something omitted.
A low buzz of conversation was spreading as the officers and hands felt the moment passing. Soon he would have to give it up and take thought to confining the beast, to keep it from flying off after they fed it. Still exploring, the dragon came past him; it sat up on its haunches to look at him inquisitively, and Laurence gazed down at it in unconcealed sorrow and dismay.
It blinked at him; he noticed its eyes were a deep blue and slit-pupiled, and then it said, "Why are you frowning?"
Silence fell at once, and it was only with difficulty that Laurence kept from gaping at the creature. Carver, who must have been thinking himself reprieved by now, was standing behind the dragon, mouth open; his eyes met Laurence's with a desperate look, but he drew up his courage and stepped forward, ready to address the dragon once more.
Laurence stared at the dragon, at the pale, frightened boy, and then took a deep breath and said to the creature, "I beg your pardon, I did not mean to. My name is Will Laurence; and yours?"
No discipline could have prevented the murmur of shock which went around the deck. The dragonet did not seem to notice, but puzzled at the question for several moments, and finally said, with a dissatisfied air, "I do not have a name. "
Laurence had read over Pollitt's books enough to know how he should answer; he asked, formally, "May I give you one?"
It - or rather he, for the voice was definitely masculine - looked him over again, paused to scratch at an apparently flawless spot on his back, then said with unconvincing indifference, "If you please. "
And now Laurence found himself completely blank. He had not given any real thought to the process of harnessing at all, beyond doing his best to see that it occurred, and he had no idea what an appropriate name might be for a dragon. After an awful moment of panic, his mind somehow linked dragon and ship, and he blurted out, "Temeraire," thinking of the noble dreadnought which he had seen launched, many years before: that same elegant gliding motion.
He cursed himself silently for having nothing thought out, but it had been said, and at least it was an honorable name; after all, he was a Navy man, and it was only appropriate - But he paused here in his own thoughts, and stared at the dragonet in mounting horror: of course he was not a Navy man anymore; he could not be, with a dragon, and the moment it accepted the harness from his hands, he would be undone.
The dragon, evidently perceiving nothing of his feelings, said, "Temeraire? Yes. My name is Temeraire. " He nodded, an odd gesture with the head bobbing at the end of the long neck, and said more urgently, "I am hungry. "
A newly hatched dragon would fly away immediately after being fed, if not restrained; only if the creature might be persuaded to accept the restraint willingly would he ever be controllable, or useful in battle. Rabson was standing by gaping and appalled, and had not come forward with the harness; Laurence had to beckon him over. His palms were sweating, and the metal and leather felt slippery as the man put the harness into his hands. He gripped it tightly and said, remembering at the last moment to use the new name, "Temeraire, would you be so good as to let me put this on you? Then we can make you fast to the deck here, and bring you something to eat. "
Temeraire inspected the harness which Laurence held out to him, his flat tongue slipping out to taste it. "Very well," he said, and stood expectantly. Resolutely not thinking beyond the immediate task, Laurence knelt and fumbled with the straps and buckles, carefully passing them about the smooth, warm body, keeping well clear of the wings.
The broadest band went around the dragon's middle, just behind the forelegs, and buckled under the belly; this was stitched crosswise to two thick straps which ran along the dragon's sides and across the deep barrel of his chest, then back behind the rear legs and underneath his tail. Various smaller loops had been threaded upon the straps, to buckle around the legs and the base of the neck and tail, to keep the harness in place, and several narrower and thinner bands strapped across his back.
The complicated assemblage required some attention, for which Laurence was grateful; he was able to lose himself in the task. He noted as he worked that the scales were surprisingly soft to the touch, and it occurred to him that the metal edges might bruise. "Mr. Rabson, be so good as to bring me some extra sailcloth; we shall wrap these buckles," he said over his shoulder.
Shortly it was all done, although the harness and the white-wrapped buckles were ugly against the sleek black body, and did not fit very well. But Temeraire made no complaint, nor about having a chain made fast from t
Temeraire was not a clean eater, tearing off large chunks of meat and gulping them down whole, scattering blood and bits of flesh across the deck; he also seemed to enjoy the intestines in particular. Laurence stood well clear of the carnage and, having observed in faintly queasy wonder for a few moments, was abruptly recalled to the situation by Riley's uncertain, "Sir, shall I dismiss the officers?"
He turned and looked at his lieutenant, then at the staring, dismayed midshipmen; no one had spoken or moved since the hatching, which, he realized abruptly, had been less than half an hour ago; the hourglass was just emptying now. It was difficult to believe; still more difficult to fully acknowledge that he was now in harness, but difficult or not, it had to be faced. Laurence supposed he could cling to his rank until they reached shore; there were no regulations for a situation such as this one. But if he did, a new captain would certainly be put into his place when they reached Madeira, and Riley would never get his step up. Laurence would never again be in a position to do him any good.
"Mr. Riley, the circumstances are awkward, there is no doubt," he said, steeling himself; he was not going to ruin Riley's career for a cowardly avoidance. "But I think for the sake of the ship, I must put her in your hands at once; I will need to devote a great deal of my attention to Temeraire now, and I cannot divide it so. "
"Oh, sir!" Riley said, miserably, but not protesting; evidently the idea had occurred to him as well. But his regret was obviously sincere; he had sailed with Laurence for years, and had come up to lieutenant in his service from a mere midshipman; they were friends as well as comrades.
"Let us not be complainers, Tom," Laurence said more quietly and less formally, giving a warning glance to where Temeraire was still glutting himself. Dragon intelligence was a mystery to men who made a study of the subject; he had no idea how much the dragon would hear or understand, but thought it better to avoid the risk of giving offense. Raising his voice a little more, he added, "I am sure you will manage her admirably, Captain. "
Taking a deep breath, he removed his gold epaulettes; they were pinned on securely, but he had not been wealthy when he had first made captain, and he had not forgotten, from those days, how to shift them easily from one coat to another. Though perhaps it was not entirely proper to give Riley the symbol of rank without confirmation by the Admiralty, Laurence felt it necessary to mark the change of command in some visible manner. The left he slipped into his pocket, the right he fixed on Riley's shoulder: even as a captain, Riley could wear only one until he had three years' seniority. Riley's fair, freckled skin showed every emotion plainly, and he could hardly fail to be happy at this unexpected promotion despite the circumstances; he flushed up with color, and looked as though he wished to speak but could not find the words.
"Mr. Wells," Laurence said, hinting; he meant to do it properly, having begun.
The third lieutenant started, then said a little weakly, "Huzzah for Captain Riley. " A cheer went up, ragged initially, but strong and clear by the third repetition: Riley was a highly competent officer, and well liked, even if it was a shocking situation.
When the cheering had died down, Riley, having mastered his embarrassment, added, "And huzzah for - for Temeraire, lads. " The cheering now was full-throated, if not entirely joyful, and Laurence shook Riley's hand to conclude the matter.
Temeraire had finished eating by this point, and had climbed up onto a locker by the railing to spread his wings in the sun, folding them in and out. But he looked around with interest at hearing his name cheered, and Laurence went to his side; it was a good excuse to leave Riley to the business of establishing his command, and putting the ship back to rights. "Why are they making that noise?" Temeraire asked, but without waiting for an answer, he rattled the chain. "Will you take this off? I would like to go flying now. "
Laurence hesitated; the description of the harnessing ceremony in Mr. Pollitt's book had provided no further instructions beyond getting the dragon into harness and talking; he had somehow assumed that the dragon would simply stay where it was without further argument. "If you do not mind, perhaps let us leave it awhile longer," he said, temporizing. "We are rather far from land, you see, and if you were to fly off, you might not find your way back. "
"Oh," said Temeraire, craning his long neck over the railing; the Reliant was making somewhereabouts eight knots in a fine westerly wind, and the water churned away in a white froth from her sides. "Where are we?"
"We are at sea. " Laurence settled down beside him on the locker. "In the Atlantic, perhaps two weeks from shore. Masterson," he added, catching the attention of one of the idle hands who were not-very-subtly hanging about to gawk. "Be so good as to fetch me a bucket of water and some rags, if you please. "
These being brought, he endeavored to clean away the traces of the messy meal from the glossy black hide; Temeraire submitted with evident pleasure to being wiped down, and afterwards appreciatively rubbed the side of his head against Laurence's hand. Laurence found himself smiling involuntarily and stroking the warm black hide, and Temeraire settled down, tucked his head into Laurence's lap, and went to sleep.
"Sir," Riley said, coming up quietly, "I will leave you the cabin; it would scarcely make sense otherwise, with him," meaning Temeraire. "Shall I have someone help you carry him below now?"
"Thank you, Tom; and no, I am comfortable enough here for the moment; best not to stir him unless necessary, I should think," Laurence said, then belatedly thought that it might not make it easier on Riley, having his former captain sitting on deck. Still, he was not inclined to shift the sleeping dragonet, and added only, "If you would be so kind as to have someone bring me a book, perhaps one of Mr. Pollitt's, I should be much obliged," thinking this would both serve to occupy him, and keep him from seeming too much an observer.
Temeraire did not wake until the sun was slipping below the horizon; Laurence was nodding over his book, which described dragon habits in such a way as to make them seem as exciting as plodding cows. Temeraire nudged his cheek with a blunt nose to rouse him, and announced, "I am hungry again. "
Laurence had already begun reassessing the ship's supply before the hatching; now he had to revise once again as he watched Temeraire devour the remainder of the goat and two hastily sacrificed chickens, bones and all. So far, in two feedings, the dragonet had consumed his body's weight in food; he appeared already somewhat larger, and he was looking about for more with a wistful air.
Laurence had a quiet and anxious consultation with Riley and the ship's cook. If necessary, they could hail the Amitie and draw upon her stores: because her complement had been so badly reduced by her series of disasters, her supplies of food were more than she would need to make Madeira. However, she had been down to salt pork and salt beef, and the Reliant was scarcely better off. At this rate, Temeraire should eat up the fresh supplies within a week, and Laurence had no idea if a dragon would eat cured meat, or if the salt would perhaps not be good for it.
"Would he take fish?" the cook suggested. "I have a lovely little tunny, caught fresh this morning, sir; I meant it for your dinner. Oh - that is - " He paused, awkwardly, looking back and forth between his former captain and his new.
"By all means let us make the attempt, if you think it right, sir," Riley said, looking at Laurence and ignoring the cook's confusion.
"Thank you, Captain," Laurence said. "We may as well offer it to him; I suppose he can tell us if he does not care for it. "
Temeraire looked at the fish dubiously, then nibbled; shortly the entire thing from head to tail had vanished down his throat: it had been a full twelve pounds. He licked his chops and said, "It is very crunchy, but I like it well enough," then startled them and himself by belching loudly.
"Well," Laurence said, reaching for the cleaning rag again, "that is cer
He took Temeraire down to the cabin afterwards; the ladder presented a bit of a problem, and in the end the dragon had to be swung down by an arrangement of pulleys attached to his harness. Temeraire nosed around the desk and chair inquisitively, and poked his head out of the windows to look at the Reliant's wake. The pillow from the hatching had been placed into a double-wide hanging cot for him, slung next to Laurence's own, and he leapt easily into it from the ground.
His eyes almost immediately closed to drowsy slits. Thus relieved of duty and no longer under the eyes of the crew, Laurence sat down with a thump in his chair and stared at the sleeping dragon, as at an instrument of doom.
He had two brothers and three nephews standing between himself and his father's estate, and his own capital was invested in the Funds, requiring no great management on his part; that at least would not be a matter of difficulty. He had gone over the rails a score of times in battle, and he could stand in the tops in a gale without a bit of queasiness: he did not fear he would prove shy aboard a dragon.
But for the rest - he was a gentleman and a gentleman's son. Though he had gone to sea at the age of twelve, he had been fortunate enough to serve aboard first- or second-rate ships-of-the-line for the most part of his service, under wealthy captains who kept fine tables and entertained their officers regularly. He dearly loved society; conversation, dancing, and friendly whist were his favorite pursuits; and when he thought that he might never go to the opera again, he felt a very palpable urge to tip the laden cot out the windows.
He tried not to hear his father's voice in his head, condemning him for a fool; tried not to imagine what Edith would think when she heard of it. He could not even write to let her know. Although he had to some extent considered himself committed, no formal engagement had ever been entered upon, due first to his lack of capital and more recently to his long absence from England.
He had done sufficiently well in the way of prize-money to do away with the first problem, and if he had been set ashore for any length of time in the last four years, he most likely would have spoken. He had been half in mind to request a brief leave for England at the end of this cruise; it was hard to deliberately put himself ashore when he could not rely upon getting another ship afterwards, but he was not so eligible a prospect that he imagined she would wait for him over all other suitors on the strength of a half-joking agreement between a thirteen-year-old boy and a nine-year-old girl.
Now he was a poorer prospect indeed; he had not the slightest notion how and where he might live as an aviator, or what sort of a home he could offer a wife. Her family might object, even if she herself did not; certainly it was nothing she had been led to expect. A Navy wife might have to face with equanimity her husband's frequent absences, but when he appeared she did not have to uproot herself and go live in some remote covert, with a dragon outside the door and a crowd of rough men the only society.
He had always entertained a certain private longing for a home of his own, imagined in detail through the long, lonely nights at sea: smaller by necessity than the one in which he had been raised, yet still elegant; kept by a wife whom he could trust with the management of their affairs and their children both; a comfortable refuge when he was at home, and a warm memory while at sea.
Every feeling protested against the sacrifice of this dream; yet under the circumstances, he was not even sure he could honorably make Edith an offer which she might feel obliged to accept. And there was no question of courting someone else in her place; no woman of sense and character would deliberately engage her affections on an aviator, unless she was of the sort who preferred to have a complacent and absent husband leaving his purse in her hands, and to live apart from him even while he was in England; such an arrangement did not appeal to Laurence in the slightest.
The sleeping dragon, swaying back and forth in his cot, tail twitching unconsciously in time with some alien dream, was a very poor substitute for hearth and home. Laurence stood and went to the stern windows, looking over the Reliant's wake, a pale and opalescent froth streaming out behind her in the light from the lanterns; the ebb and flow was pleasantly numbing to watch.
His steward Giles brought in his dinner with a great clatter of plate and silver, keeping well back from the dragon's cot. His hands trembled as he laid out the service; Laurence dismissed him once the meal was served and sighed a little when he had gone; he had thought of asking Giles to come along with him, as he supposed even an aviator might have a servant, but there was no use if the man was spooked by the creatures. It would have been something to have a familiar face.
In solitude, he ate his simple dinner quickly; it was only salt beef with a little glazing of wine, as the fish had gone into Temeraire's belly, and he had little appetite in any case. He tried to write some letters, afterwards, but it was no use; his mind would wander back into gloomy paths, and he had to force his attention to every line. At last he gave it up, looked out briefly to tell Giles he would take no supper this evening, and climbed into his own cot. Temeraire shifted and snuggled deeper within the bedding; after a brief struggle with uncharitable resentment, Laurence reached out and covered him more securely, the night air being somewhat cool, and then fell asleep to the sound of the dragon's regular deep breathing, like the heaving of a bellows.