I AM AN OFFICER NOW, though," Temeraire said, "so I do not see why I must wait."
"You might be a general, and it will not make you any smaller," Laurence said. "A twenty-ton dragon must give over trying to sneak, and that is our only hope at all of getting Granby out."
"But what if you should be captured," Temeraire said, "and then I would be just as bad as Iskierka: it is my duty to keep you safe."
They had fought very nearly this same battle before, however, in Istanbul, and his protests were rather an expression of unhappiness than fresh and determined objections. "We have not time to quarrel; Granby's very life if not his liberty may depend on quick action," Laurence said gently, and Temeraire sank to his belly with his ruff pinned back, threshing the matted straw of the meadow uneasily with his claws and raking up dust and furrowed earth with it.
Laurence was grateful for the established habit of the conversation, if a little guilty, for it allowed him to practice a degree of deceit: he knew under ordinary circumstances, he would not in this same situation go, however much he might wish to. If he were captured, Temeraire would be prisoner, and in their already dire straits the risk could not be run, not for so slim a chance as they faced to bring out Granby and Iskierka.
The circumstances were not ordinary. Laurence was a man already dead in law. He could not value preserving his own life very high; and so long as he were killed instead of captured in the attempt, which he had some right to hope might be arranged, Temeraire would not be lost to Britain: he had made the agreement with Wellesley, and now was bound directly, not only through Laurence himself.
And there was no-one else to go. Iskierka had been the only one of their motley company with a proper crew, and all of them had been captured with her: lieutenants, midwingmen, even her ground crew all aboard. All that were left now were Laurence's small handful of crew, and for senior officers only Dunne and Wickley, former midwingmen of Laurence's crew who had acquired enough of the ferals' language to be useful as translators. A handful of other officers had been similarly placed with the ferals for a gift with languages more than any other quality; most of them were young, very young: nearer fourteen than twenty, and not to be sent on an expedition little better than a dice-throw.
Tharkay shook his head at the lot of them, and said to Laurence, "Better if we go alone."
Tharkay had taken a commission with the Corps, at least for the moment; but this was not something which any service could require. "You are not obliged - " Laurence began.
"No," Tharkay agreed civilly, with one raised brow, and Laurence bowed and left it there.
Laurence exchanged his bottle-green coat for Blythe's leather smock, with its pockets large enough to conceal a multitude of sins: two pistols and a good knife, and one of Blythe's hammers. Tharkay gave him a handful of dirt to apply to his face, already rubbing more into his own hands and beneath his nails.
Dunne watched their preparations at a distance, sidelong and hesitating, with occasional glances at the other officers; but he did not say anything. It was not cowardice. He had made sufficient proof of his courage, in previous service, that Laurence did not doubt it now. Dunne's reluctance had a source less palatable: plainly he did not wish to serve with Laurence again. There could be no harm to Dunne's career from such cooperation here - some, indeed, might occur if he chose not to go and Laurence did not return - so the objection was one of principle.
Laurence bent his head over the fresh loading of his pistols, and did not see more of Dunne's struggle than he had to; the sense of disapproval did not weigh upon him so greatly, now. He felt himself a righted ship, heaved off her beam-ends and into a course dangerous but for the immediate distance clear, even if there was a lee-shore off his bows and impenetrable murk ahead. He might be dashed on rocks, if the wind turned against him, but at least for the moment he knew what must needs be done, and he was free to do it.
They were ready in less than ten minutes, and would have gone at once, but Gong Su came and offered them a makeshift plate of bark with two small skewers upon it, tiny hearts and livers, still steaming from a makeshift butchering, and raw. Laurence regarded it with dismay. "A little of the divine wind inside," Gong Su explained: they had come from the birds which Temeraire had inadvertently slain. "That makes good fortune."
Laurence was not superstitious, but he ate; they could hardly refuse any advantage whatsoever. Tharkay took his own dose, pulled up the hood of his cloak over his face, and they went out to the road.
"THEY MAY ALREADY have sent Granby to France, of course," Tharkay said to him, in Chinese, while they sat in the back of a drover's cart.
"I hope not risk the Navy," Laurence said, fumbling in his turn through the difficult language, which he knew he made nearly unintelligible, despite Temeraire's many despairing attempts to correct his pronunciation. It at least gave them a privacy nearly impossible to breach, even by the hungry curiosity of the drover, who for a couple of quiet shillings had agreed to take them along to market with the cattle the man hoped to sell before they should be confiscated.
Tharkay nodded. If Napoleon were sure enough of his grip on London, or at least on enough of it to establish a prison, he might choose rather to be safe, and keep his valuable captive penned within it instead of risking Granby's death in a crossing under fire, and the resulting frenzy of a Kazilik unleashed upon his forces. They could hope for at least a brief delay while the question was considered, during which Granby would be held nearby. They had to hope: otherwise there was no chance at all.
The last two crawling miles to the city were infuriating, when they had flown fifty this morning in what seemed less time, and the outskirts of London sounded already like a province of France. Tens of thousands of soldiers were busy making encampments, calling to one another and to the dragons who were helping them dig ditches and move stones and even widen roads, and those local shopboys more industrious than patriotic were running up and down the lanes of the camp, plying food and more commonly drink in high carrying voices and awkward, badly accented bits of French: "Une frank, monser" and "s'il voo plait," but they were already improving.
"He is not shy of permanent alterations," Tharkay said, indicating with a jerk of his chin the buildings which were being put up: large stones were being laid into the ground and pressed down by dragons, to make a raised platform once mortar had been poured over and between them, and logs sunk at the corners. There were no walls to the shelters, but as they came nearer the city Laurence saw one already finished and in use: dragons sleeping on three sides, and soldiers crammed into the sheltered space between them. They would sleep warm despite the coming winter; warmer than the British soldiers would. The work bore all the hallmarks of a long occupation; Napoleon was not planning any immediate campaign, Laurence realized grimly, but rather to entrench himself, and to let time and use dull the intolerable into the everyday.
The lowing cows plodded along after the cart, driven on by the drover's boys, the sour grassy smell and the dust of the road rising up thick around them. Their shillings and tried patience did at least buy them an easy entry into the city: the French sergeant on duty on the Aldersgate road brightened at the sight of the cattle and waved them in with only a cursory question or two for the farmer and his companions, pointing them towards Smithfield and the slaughterhouses. Laurence and Tharkay stayed in the cart a little longer, until it had turned a corner towards the marketplace, the herd and the boys momentarily out of sight, then Tharkay touched Laurence's elbow, and quick and unannounced they slipped from the back of the cart and into a narrow alleyway.
Newgate Prison was their target. A few coins at a pub bought Laurence a healthy dose of gossip and rumor, most of it worthless and irrelevant, but for the information that Bonaparte was staying in Kensington Palace, and "that unnatural white beast of his lying in Hyde Park like some overgrown eel, with those horrid red eyes," and much shuddering all around.
Tharkay had better fortune, if so it could be called: some prisoners were indeed being kept at the prison, but there had been no new arrivals to-day: not that anyone had seen, and without prompting they had mentioned Iskierka's appearance in particular. She had been seen in Hyde Park also, and eating two cows and setting the entire city ablaze, if some of the reports were to be believed; but one street-sweeper at least swore that no British aviators or crew had been brought to Newgate that day.
"In consolation," Tharkay said, "neither have they been shipped to the coast. No large dragons have gone, since she came in, and certainly he has not been sending anyone by boat."
"He might have Granby in Kensington Palace," Laurence said after a moment.
"It would be very convenient for us, certainly," Tharkay said, dryly.
"It sounds like folly, I know," Laurence said, "but if I may be pardoned for forming an opinion on the grounds of one meeting, I would say that Bonaparte is unreasonably fond of seduction, to the point that he likes to believe he has a chance of persuasion where rationally anyone would see there is none. He will never miss a chance for a grand gesture, if he thinks he might coax Granby into service."
Tharkay listened and shrugged. "We may as well take the chance; the trail is cold otherwise."
It was dark by the time they reached the outskirts of Mayfair. Here and there the life of the city continued, at a muted tone, alehouses spilling warmth and the smell of fresh beer onto the dirty cobbles, and firelight gleamed from behind closed shutters, those who had not fled the city, whether from unwillingness or from inability. In the fashionable section, Laurence took the lead from Tharkay - these streets he knew well, going past his father's house and those of his friends and political acquaintance, of men Laurence had known in the Navy, all of them shuttered and dark. Laurence did not hesitate: he had expected silence, abandoned houses, perhaps even wreckage and looting; he moved on steadily and did not look to see what damage might have been done, until he came into Dover Street, and was at last surprised: to find it crammed with carriages, ten linkmen standing at the door of one great town-house, fine young ladies and their chaperones, British gentlemen, French officers all going up the stairs and a great bustling noise of music and laughter and dish-clattering spilling down.
He stopped in the street, appalled, and had to be drawn back from the lights by Tharkay. "We will not get past that soon," Tharkay said. Laurence did not immediately answer, too choked with anger. He had never been a visitor in the house, but thought it was let to a member from Liverpool, a man who might have voted with his father on occasion. Laurence mastered himself and drew Tharkay along the street a few doors to another house still occupied, but quietly so: a few subdued lights gleaming out from between shutters, not a party to welcome the conquerors. Waiting by the gate they might pass for footmen or grooms, and be dismissed from notice; with any luck the owner and his family were already abed.
They stood nearly an hour, stamping a little to warm their feet, and drawing back against the sides of the house now and then as another carriage reached the door to disgorge its passengers. Every minute brought a fresh cause for indignation: the smell of hot beef, a burst of singing in French, a lady waltzing with a French officer past the open balcony doors. The carriages thinned out only a little over the course of their wait: a sad crush, with the King fled to Scotland and thousands of British soldiers dead and prisoner.
And then a troop of horses came down the street: Old Guard, in their tall hats and pomp, shouting to clear the way and muscling the remaining carriage-horses aside with cool indifference to the protests of their drivers, making room for the great coach to come rolling along through the crush: an eagle painted in gold upon the door. It drew up before the house, and through the ranks of guards lined up the stairs, Laurence saw Napoleon emerge from the carriage and mount up to the house: in trousers and Hessian boots and a long leather coat more suited to mid-air than a drawing room, though splendid with gold braid and buttons, and dyed richly black. Another man was beside him, one of the Marshals: Murat, Laurence thought, the Emperor's brother-in-law; they went up the stairs together, and applause welcomed them inside.
"Disgusting," a man said, nearby, low, and Laurence started and looked around: while he had been watching the spectacle, two gentlemen had descended a carriage at the very door of the house where he stood. They were presently between him and Tharkay, who had drawn back a little into the shadow of the house. "Do you know, I heard Lady Hamilton was going to attend?"
"Her and half the other women of quality left in the city," the second gentleman answered him, a voice vaguely familiar. "You there," the man raised his voice to address Laurence, "what do you mean, loitering on the street gawking as though you were at a play? They don't need any damned encouragement," and Laurence in sinking sense of disaster recognized him: Bertram Woolvey, a distant acquaintance and the son of a friend of Lord Allendale's.
Woolvey had married Edith Galman, if any better cause were needed for lack of love between him and Laurence, but they had never been friends even before that event. Woolvey was a gamester and a spendthrift, with the one saving grace that he could afford to be, and their circles had always been very different: Laurence knew nothing good of him besides his choice of a wife. And now Woolvey was stepping closer, frowning at the lack of an answer. Laurence was out of the street-light circle, and his face obscured by the smudged dirt he had applied. But in a moment he should be recognized, and all at an end: the slightest outcry would bring ten men from the guards outside the party, whether Woolvey meant to draw them down on him or not.
Laurence took two quick steps to Woolvey's side and gripped him by the arm, covering his mouth with another hand. "Say nothing," he said, hissed and low, to Woolvey's staring eyes. "Do you understand? Say nothing; nod if you understand me."
Woolvey's companion said, "What are you - " and stopped: Tharkay had caught him from behind and clapped a hand over his mouth also.
Woolvey nodded, and when Laurence took away his hand said at once, "William Laurence? What the devil are you - " and had to have his mouth covered again.
The door of the house opened, a footman looking out, puzzled. "Into the house," Laurence said. "Quickly, for God's sake," and half-pushed Woolvey up the stairs, before they should draw attention. The footman backed in at a loss before their awkward rush, Tharkay and Woolvey's companion - a gentleman Laurence vaguely recognized, a Mr. Sutton-Leeds - directly on Laurence's heels.
Tharkay let go Sutton-Leeds as soon as they were inside, and snatched the door away to shut it again. "What on earth," the man said, "is it thieves?" more incredulous than alarmed.
"No, stay there, and for God's sake do not stir up the house any further," Laurence said sharply, to the footman who was edging towards the bell-pull. "Enough of a muddle as it - " and stopped; Edith was on the stairs, in a dressing-gown and cap, saying, "Bertram, may I beg you to be as quiet as you can? James is only just asleep - "
There was a moment of general uncomfortable silence, until Woolvey broke it, saying pompously, "I think you had better explain yourself, Laurence, and what you mean by this invasion of my house."
"Nothing," Laurence said, after a moment, "but to keep you from drawing attention from the French on the stoop: we may not be discovered." His hand was closed and hard upon the pistol in his waist, for no good reason. The fool, the damned fool, keeping his wife and child in the middle of an occupying army. Laurence had no right and knew it, but he could not help but ask, "Why in God's name have you not left the city?"
"Measles," Edith said, from the stairs: she had come halfway down, from the landing. Her face was composed, but her hand gripped tightly on the railing. "The doctor said the baby might not be moved." She paused and added quietly, "The French have not troubled us: one officer came to question us, but they have been perfectly civil."
"Not that we are sympathizers, and if you mean to suggest as much - wait," Woolvey said, "haven't I heard - you were - " He stopped, and was plainly stuck for an explanation which Laurence had not the slightest desire to try and give him.
"You must pardon me, I do not know what you have heard," Laurence said. "I am most heartily sorry to have troubled you, but we are on an urgent errand, and it is not of a nature to be discussed in your front hall."
"Then come into the sitting room: discuss it there," Sutton-Leeds said: he was more than a little drunk, if not to the point of slurring. "Secret mission, splendid: I have been aching to do something against these damned Frogs, prancing through the city as though they owned it."
Neither was Woolvey sober, or perhaps it was belligerence, but he with more suspicion seconded this demand, and added, "And I tell you, Laurence, I expect some better answers. No, you shan't go, unless you do want me to set up a shout. You cannot accost a man in the street in times like these and then claim it is all secret missions and go bounding away, you with this Chinaman in tow."
"I beg your pardon," Tharkay said, in his most frigidly aristocratic accents, and drew their stares. "I do not believe we have been introduced, gentlemen."
"What the devil are you doing made up like a Chinaman, then," Sutton-Leeds said, peering at Tharkay's face, as if he expected to find some artifice responsible for his features.
In the brief distraction, Laurence caught Woolvey's arm and said low and sharply, "Do not be a damned fool. If they take us in your house, they will take you up as a spy, do you understand, and if they care to be suspicious your wife also. Forget we were ever here and pay your servants to do the same: every moment we stay here, we put you all in danger, to no purpose."
Woolvey wrenched himself free and returned, as coldly, "That you take me for a fool, I very well know, but I am not so simple as to take the word of a convicted traitor - yes, I have heard - that you are skulking loose in the streets, the day after Bonaparte marches in, and all for the benefit of the King."
"Then I am lying and a turncoat for the French," Laurence said impatiently, "and if you interfere with me likely I could have you all arrested: either way you had better let me go."
"I am not a coward," Woolvey said, "and if you are on some black business for that Corsican, I will stop you if I have to blow a hole in you to do it, yes, and go to prison for it too, damn you."
"Gentlemen," Edith said, breaking in to this charged atmosphere, "I beg you go into the sitting room before you wake all the house," and there was nothing to be done for it.
* * *
SUTTON-LEEDS WAS DISPOSED of by means of a substantial glass of brandy, which dose left him snoring in an armchair. The credit was Edith's: they had scarcely gone into the room before she had come down again, hastily dressed, and taken the decanter around at once. But though Woolvey accepted his own glass automatically, he then looked at it and set it down, and said, "I will have coffee, my dear, if you please," with determined mien, and waited for the cup with his arms folded across his chest.
Laurence looked at the clock: nearly eleven. While Bonaparte and so many of his entourage were engaged at the party, surely gave them their own best chance of success, and every minute was now doubly precious.
Tharkay caught his eye, and said low, "He has horses," with a jerk of his head at Woolvey: a suggestion which Laurence did not in the least like. He saw no better alternative, but every feeling rebelled against putting his life, all their lives, in Woolvey's hands, and he did not trust Woolvey's servants not to listen.
They remained standing all in silence, except for the continuing low snuffles of Sutton-Leeds's snoring. A maid brought the coffee service, and took a long while arranging it on the table, covertly glancing up at them all. They made an absurd gathering: Woolvey in his evening-dress; Edith in a soft high-waisted morning gown of clear lawn, without stays: she must have snatched it from the closet and put it on alone. Tharkay and himself, in their rough workman's clothes, smudged with dirt and stinking, no doubt, of cattle and of the docks.
"Thank you, Martha," Edith said at last, "I will pour," and bent over the table when the maid had gone. She gave them cups, or Woolvey and Laurence; she hesitated a moment, and then finally poured another for Tharkay.
Tharkay smiled with a faint twist at her doubtful gesture towards him. "Thank you," he said, and drank the coffee quickly; then setting down the cup he went to the door and opened it again. The maid and footman lingering outside made shift to vanish quickly. Tharkay glanced back at Laurence and, meaningfully, at the clock, then he slipped into the hall, closing the door behind him: no-one now would be able to come near and eavesdrop.
Laurence put down his own cup of excellently strong coffee, and looked at the dark square of the casement window: framed with thick curtains of velvet in pale blue, with elegant gold tasseled cords. He had the unreasonable desire to simply smother Woolvey with one of them, and leave him trussed on the floor while they fled; but of course he would begin to shout at once, and Laurence could not put Edith in such a position.
"Well?" Woolvey said. "I am not going to be put off, Laurence, and if you keep me waiting any longer I have a dashed notion to have my footmen put you in the cellar, and there let you sit until morning."
Laurence compressed his lips on the first several answers he wished to make. He was aware he was unjust. Woolvey had no more reason to love him than the reverse, and no reason to believe him. "We do not have until morning," he said, at last, shortly. "Earlier today a British officer was captured, a dragon captain - "
"What of it? I hear ten thousand men were captured yesterday." Woolvey spoke bitterly and with real feeling: one sentiment at least which Laurence could share.
"It means his beast is taken prisoner, too," Laurence said. "He is hostage for her good behavior: and his beast is our fire-breather - our only fire-breather."
"Oh," Edith said, suddenly. " - I saw her, this morning. She came down in Hyde Park."
Laurence nodded. "And there is some little chance he is yet held at the palace itself," he said. "Do you understand now our urgency? While Bonaparte - "
"I am not a simpleton," Woolvey said, interrupting, "but why only you and this havey-cavey fellow with you - "
"One good man is better than a dozen of lesser ability, in such an expedition," Laurence said. "We were the only ones nearby enough, to make the attempt. No: enough questions," he added sharply. "I am not going to waste time answering whatever sequence of objections you can dredge up. If you mean to continue this blundering interference, where you have no understanding of the situation, you may be damned: we will take our chances in the street with Bonaparte's guardsmen."
Woolvey looked still undecided. "Will," Edith said, quietly, and they both looked at her, "will you swear on the Bible that you are telling the truth?"
This gesture did not entirely satisfy Woolvey, but Edith took him by the arm and said, "Dearest, I have known Will since we were little children: I can believe he would have managed to get himself convicted of treason, but not that he would lie under oath."
Sullenly he said, "Still; it is all a dashed rum affair if you ask me." He drew away from her and poured himself a second cup of coffee, in an irritable tension that splashed it across the china and the polished wood, and did not bother to put in the cream but drank it straight from the cup, a few swallows only, and set it down again with a clatter. "So what is it, do you mean to rescue him?" he said abruptly, with a new note of something even more dangerous than suspicion: enthusiasm.
"If we can," Laurence said, and forced himself to ask, "If you can spare us your carriage-horses - "
"No," Woolvey said after a moment. "No, I will take you, in the carriage. Lord Holland's servants know me, and his grounds march with the palace gardens: it is not a mile from his house. If you really mean to get yourselves into the palace, and it is not all a phantasy, I will see you there. And if it is all a pack of nonsense, and you have some other thing in mind, I dare say with the coachman and a couple of footmen we can just as well put paid to your notion."
Edith flinched. "Woolvey, do not be absurd," Laurence said. "You have not been brought up for this sort of work."
"Driving you an easy couple of miles, to the house of a gentleman of my acquaintance, and then a stroll through his park?" Woolvey shot back, sarcastic. "I dare say I will manage somehow."
"And then?" Laurence said. "When we have gone into the house, and taken Granby out, and a hue and cry is raised after us?"
"I am certain I know Kensington Park a damned sight better than you," Woolvey said, "so as for getting out, I have a better chance than you of doing it. What is your next objection? I am ready to be as patient as you care to be, Laurence, you are the one insisting on a hurry."
Woolvey went upstairs to change his clothes, having first taken the precaution of calling down two footmen to watch them, while the coach was pulled around. "Can you not persuade him?" Laurence asked Edith, low, in a corner: she had her arms folded about her waist, hands gripping at the elbows.
"What would you have me say?" she returned. "I will not counsel my husband to be a coward. Will this not be of assistance to you?" He could not deny it, and she shook her head and looked away, her lips pressed tight, and Laurence could not work on her any further. "I had thought I was done with these fears, anyway," she added, low and unhappily, but he knew how little her personal feelings would be permitted to sway her judgment: as little as he would have allowed himself.
He moved away from her, as Woolvey came down the stairs and went to bid her farewell. The two of them stood talking low a little while, hands clasped, and then he bent his head to hers.
Tharkay was watching the scene with a dry interest. "I beg your pardon for embroiling us so," Laurence said.
"In a practical sense, we could ask for nothing better," Tharkay said. "We are not likely to be stopped in a blazoned carriage bowling away down the street in open view of everyone. Noticed, certainly, and he may find his neck in a noose for it afterwards, but that is his concern, and those who would weep for him." He looked at Laurence. "Although those may be of interest to you also."
Laurence was sorry to be so transparent, and sorry even more to be shut up in a carriage for half-an-hour with Woolvey for the drive to Holland House. There was no conversation of any kind; there could be nothing said between them, the rejected suitor and the husband. Laurence was silenced further by a difficult, inchoate sensation, which had no place in the present circumstances and yet insisted on making itself felt.
He had never thought very much of Woolvey before; he had dismissed the man as a spendthrift idler, but in fairness, Woolvey had never been given impetus to his own improvement. With nothing to do but spend money, he might easily have fixed himself in a vicious character, a deep gamester or a selfish coward. But he had chosen instead to establish himself respectably, with a wife no man could blush for; and no coward had acted tonight as he had. If he were a little dull and mulish when he was in drink and angry for his country's humiliation, that was not the worst thing that could be said of a man.
And Edith had looked very well. Not happy, no-one could be happy with an army at the door and a quarrel in the entrance hall; but that she was contented with the lot she had chosen was plain. She did not regret.
Laurence wholeheartedly wished her happy: his feeling had not that envious quality. But it was uncomfortable to think Woolvey had brought it about, and, Laurence was painfully aware, he had not. He had kept Edith on the shelf with expectations, when she might have had more advantageous offers; and their last interview, he could not remember with anything like satisfaction: all selfish petulance on his side, the gall even to make her an offer which could only be unwelcome, after he had pledged himself to the Corps. He looked at Woolvey, who was staring out the carriage window. What had Edith to regret? Nothing: she had rather to congratulate herself on a lucky escape.
The coach drew to a stop. Holland House was dark, and the horses stamped uneasily, warm breath steaming in the air, while a footman came rubbing sleep from his eyes to hold their heads. "Yes, I know the family are away," Woolvey was saying, already climbing out as another opened the door for him. "Be so good as to stable my horses and bring Gavins out, I want a word with him."
He gave airy excuses, for his presence in the city, and for his visit: the baby ill and squalling, the wife impatient, "and I thought to myself what I needed was a walk in the fresh air, and to have a look at the stars - too many lights in Mayfair - sure Lord Holland would not mind - "
It was a bizarre proposal, at midnight, with an army in the streets and two men in rough clothing behind him, but Gavins only bowed: familiar with the odd starts of gentlemen in their cups, and too well-trained to show it, if he were puzzled. "I must advise you, sir, not to go too close to the east end of the park, if you should walk beyond the gardens," he said. "I am afraid we have several dragons sleeping there."
"Oh," Woolvey said, and when they had been let into the park, he said in a low undertone, "What are we to do about the beasts?"
"Walk by them," Tharkay said, blowing out the lantern which they had been given.
"There is no need for you to come farther," Laurence said. "You have done us a great service already, Woolvey - "
"I am not afraid," Woolvey returned, angrily, and strode on ahead.
Tharkay shook his head, and when Laurence looked at him said quietly, "It would be difficult to follow an officer of some public repute, in the affections of a woman who loves courage."
It had not occurred to Laurence, that Woolvey meant to display to advantage for Edith's benefit, or in any sense of competition with him. "My reputation is hardly such as any sensible man would covet."
"It does not call you a coward," Tharkay said. "Whatever has Bertram Woolvey done?"
THE GROUNDS IMMEDIATELY near the house were wooded, cedar trees fragrant around them amid the silent denuded oaks and plane-trees, all crusted with frost. These yielded to broad meadows, hard-frozen, and their boot-heels crushed the grass like sand underfoot. If their object really had been to observe the stars, they would have been served well: the night was clear and cold and still; the wind had died, and no moon.
The dragon interlopers were peacefully snoring, if so could be described a noise like mill-wheels grinding, audible at a quarter-of-a-mile. It did not have that same hollow-chest resonance of the voices of the great combat-weight beasts; there were not many men about, and no fires: it looked to be a company of smaller dragons, couriers, with their solitary captains sleeping huddled up against their sides.
As a practical matter it ought not to have been difficult to simply evade them. Laurence thought himself well used to the company of dragons by now, and he had not minded the streets of Peking, or the pavilions where the great beasts slept in vast coiled heaps; but in the near-absence of light, the persistent low churning noise magnified, and he yet could not wholly repress the shudder which climbed his back as they walked from one stand of trees to another, crossing the meadows where the dragons slept.
The intellect might know these were thinking creatures, who would rather capture than kill him, but his belly did not: it knew only that here nearby were a dozen beasts or more, which he could not see if they chose to move, and which in the ordinary course of animal life would have made an easy meal of him. They were oddly all the more alarming for their smaller size: a man could not be of as much interest to the larger dragons as a meal.
So he informed himself, in cool reasoning terms, and nodded back, the whole exchange wholly divorced from his body's involuntary response, where every outline became a dragon, and every grumble of rustling leaves a prelude to attack, and they had yet to keep moving on steadily, through pitch impenetrable enough that Laurence put out his hand before his face, to keep from running into any branches.
Woolvey's breath rasped loud ahead of him, ragged short breaths, and he stumbled occasionally; Tharkay had taken the lead from him. But he kept moving. Laurence paced breath to footsteps and doggedly followed: as near to blind as he ever hoped to be. A flicker, or not even so much, only some vague impression of movement, made his head snap sideways, and he stopped a moment watching, trying to make anything: a hopeless attempt, except for what might have been a dark snaking blot reaching into the sky, wherein no stars showed.
He quickened a few steps to stop Woolvey, and gave a soft hiss to make Tharkay turn and come back again. They waited crouching, listening. The dragon heaved a great yawning sigh and murmured something in French: then a quick flurrying leap, a leathery flap of wings, and it was up and aloft. They did not move while it was audible overhead, and stayed a while longer afterwards, meek rabbits huddling out of the hawk's sight, before they could make themselves resume.
It seemed a very long time walking before they came at last to another broad rustling stand of trees, comforting, and the ground underfoot abruptly became the loose crunch of finely graveled and sanded road: they had reached the end of the estate. Across the road, the broad hedge of the palace garden rose like a great blank wall before them, and the gleam of lights distantly visible at either end of the lane, small as fireflies: the guards on watch. But there were none directly ahead, the patrol idling near their sheltered posts.
Tharkay motioned Laurence to wait with Woolvey, and after a moment came back to silently guide them to a place he had found by the hedge: a low rock butting up near the wall, and a thick elm-branch above: he had already rigged a cord hanging down. Laurence nodded, and taking off the thick leather apron threw it over the top of the hedge. The scramble was as quiet as he could make it, one hand for the rope and arms and feet thrusting inconveniently into the thicket of yew, breathing in the fragrant smell of the needles, and then well-clawed he rolled over its broad flat top on the protective sheet of the apron, and dropped directly into the garden on the other side, jarringly.
Woolvey came after him, with some delay, panting heavily and in disarray: the fine buckskin of his breeches, better suited to more decorous use, was torn and bloodied. Tharkay last, silently and quick, and the great palace lay across a narrow lawn before them: windows full lit, shadows passing back and forth before the lights, and another half-a-dozen dragons in the way: not sleeping, either, but couriers wide-awake and waiting for messages.
"The stables," Woolvey whispered, pointing: the dragons were as far from the low outbuilding as could be managed. "There is another door, on the side, and from there across only a narrow gap to the servants' entrance, to the kitchens."
The horses whickered at them uneasily, and stamped, watching with liquid terrified eyes; but this was evidently no change in their behavior with the dragons at the door: no one stirred or came to look in at them. Tharkay paused at the far door, fingertips resting against the wood: from outside voices came clear, surly and English. Through a crack Laurence peered at a pair of workmen, who were trundling manure to the heap without any evidence of pleasure.
"Hst," he said, softly, when they came close, and the men jerked. "Steady now, men, and quiet, if you love your country."
"Aye, sir, only say the word," one said whispering back, an automatic touch of the forelock: a man badly wall-eyed, and with blue ink on his bare forearms, sure mark of the sea. He scowled at the lanky younger fellow with him, whose ready protest subsided instead into silent fidgets and darting sideways looks at them.
"Is there a prisoner here kept," Laurence said, "who would have been brought today: a man not thirty years of age, dark-haired - "
"Aye, sir," the seaman said, "brought him in with a guard like he was the King, and to the finest bedroom but the one old Boney copped for himself: there was a noise about it right enough: and that beast of his out front wailing fit to end the world. We thought she would have us all on fire: she said she would. She has only gone quiet this last hour."
Laurence risked it: a quick dash to the corner of the house was enough to confirm Iskierka's presence. She was lying miserably coiled before the house in what had been an elegant formal garden adorned with statuary, and now was a heap of rubble. She no longer wailed, but was gnawing sullenly upon the remnants of a cow, steam issuing from her spines, and she was not alone. Lien was sitting up on her haunches beside her, saying, "You must know that he cannot be given back to you, unless he gives his parole and swears never to take up arms against the Emperor again. There is no sense in your lying here and being uncomfortable. Come away to the park, and you may have something more to eat."
"I am not going away anywhere without my Granby," Iskierka said, "and he will never do any such thing, and as soon as I have him back I will kill you, and your emperor, and all of you, only see if I do not. Here, you may keep your nasty cows," and she threw the mauled remainders of her dinner in Lien's direction.
The white Celestial put back her ruff in displeasure, for just an involuntary moment, and then nudged up a mound of dirt over the carcass with one talon, careful never to touch the offal. "I am sorry to see you insist on being unreasonable. There is no reason we should be enemies. After all, you are not a British dragon. You are a Turkish dragon, and the Sultan is our ally, not Britain's."
"I do not give a fig for the Sultan: I am Granby's dragon, and Granby is British," Iskierka said, "and anyway I have stolen thirty thousand pounds of your shipping, so of course we are enemies."
"You may have another ten thousand, if you would like to come and fight for us, instead," Lien said.
"Ha," Iskierka said disdainfully, "I will have another thirty thousand instead, and take the prizes myself; and I think you are a spineless coward, too."
The nearest troop of guard were staying back, prudently, and the couple of courier-beasts also, all of them with a nervous eye for whatever Iskierka might take it into her head to do, and so a clear path lay open from the house towards her. "If we can only get hold of him," Laurence said quietly to Tharkay, creeping back to the stable door, "and get him out to the open, even an upper window might do, anywhere she might reach us - "
"As soon as we are seen by anyone, looking like ragpickers, they will set up a howl," Woolvey said.
"Begging your pardon," the seaman said, "but there is six of them cavalry-officers sleeping upstairs over the stable, in their clothes."
The nervous stableboy they set to watch the door, and Woolvey to watch him. "Darby, sir, but Janus they call me," the seaman said, "on account of a surgeon we shipped in the Sophie, a learned bloke, saying I saw both ways like some old Roman cut-up by that name; and there I would be still, but my girl in the city losing her mum, and taking sick, and her with three, four mouths to feed," he added, his excuses with an air defensive and vague: likely it had been not one girl but several, and the general lack of them aboard, which had induced him to quietly abandon the sea.
"Very good, Janus," Laurence said, and gave him a pistol. They put out the one lantern, swinging by the door, and at a nod from Tharkay the three of them went up the ladder into the loft one after another, swift on bare feet. The men lay breathing the regular sighs of exhausted sleep, half-sunk into broken-open bales of hay, with their sabers and pistols beside them: one after another Laurence woke them, a folded pad of leather over their mouths, Janus to pin their heels and Tharkay with a pistol steady in the man's face, and they were turned over and trussed quickly with straps, heaved up onto the stack of bales.
The fourth man opened his eyes too soon, and managed to drum his heels as they reached for him; the other two roused sluggishly and groped for the missing swords and pistols, which Tharkay had already collected away, three of them thrust into his waistband in piratical fashion. It was a short but brutal struggle, even numbers and the necessity of silence driving them: Laurence went for his knife and grimly put it into the unarmed man's throat as the Frenchman tried to wrestle himself up from the ground. The man sank back limply, staring up empty and blind at the ceiling, blood spilling from his neck to soak into the straw. Laurence took up a sword and killed another, quickly, while Janus held him. Tharkay dispatched the last.
The horses below were stamping again, whickering at the smell of blood. "Are you all right?" Woolvey whispered, putting his head up into the loft, and stopped with his mouth a little open.
"Yes," Laurence said shortly, his heart still hammering. "Go below, and keep that fellow at the door."
Whether because of some note in his voice, or the scene, Woolvey made no protest but obeyed in silence, vanishing again below. The trussed men fought and kicked as they were turned over and stripped of their coats and cuirasses, and one of them made a low moan behind the gag as his eyes fell on the dead men lying straight. Friends, or brothers, perhaps; Laurence closed his mind to the thought.
Or tried: Woolvey's shocked expression lingered. The hard use, the necessary brutality of the service, were not of the same world as England, as home; and it was that division which might let a man be a gentleman and a practical soldier both. But now he was in the stables of Kensington Palace with his palms wet with blood, on a spy's errand: yet as necessary as any military action. No-one could deny its necessity. Let it only take place in Paris, or Istanbul, or China, and Woolvey would read of it in the papers and applaud, though the act were the same, or bloodier. But it did not belong here, a black rotten canker taken root in the warm sour horse-smell of the stable attic, above the peaceful gardens.
They made shift out of the four scavenged uniforms not overly stained with blood, and Laurence threw a stable-blanket over the men now stripped and bound again, against the chill. The coat sat uneasily on his shoulders, warm from a dead man's body, as he climbed down the ladder and gave the last coat to Woolvey.
"We will bind you also," Laurence said to the boy, "unless you will come along, to the rescue and to the dragon - " but the boy shook his head vigorously, and preferred to be bound up and thrown into the loft also.
"Perhaps half-an-hour now," Tharkay said, meaning how long they might hope for, before discovery: Laurence himself made it likelier a quarter.
"We go in quickly, then," he said. "Not running, but with purpose: do you know where he is, Janus?"
"Well, sir," Janus said, shrugging awkwardly inside his coat, and looking a poorer match for it than Tharkay, "the maids will sometimes take a fellow up to the better rooms to see, and I don't say I haven't had an invitation or two; but which his room will be, I am sure I can't say."
"There will be no difficulty there," Laurence said. "It will be the door that is guarded."
He went first, with Woolvey beside him: a quick glance would see their faces and perhaps miss the others behind them; Tharkay had a handkerchief up to his face as if to catch a sneeze, for some more concealment. They went up the back staircase, and at Janus's whisper turned off the landing into the hallway.
Some eight or nine men stood in the hall talking near one of the doors, of a room facing onto the rear of the house. Undoubtedly there would be more guards within. Laurence did not pause, but kept walking steadily towards them: the men not stiff at their posts but talking and lounging freely, unalarmed: some sitting on the floor in a game of cards, others crouching by to observe, only a few standing. A maid was coming down the hall past them, loaded down with washing, and picking through the knot of them had a moment's awkward struggle to win past one over-enthusiastic sergeant, who caught at her waist.
"Keep off your hands," she said coldly, and jerked expertly free with a twist of her hips, while the other officers roared with laughter at their fellow's expense. She won past them at last, cheeks angry with color and her eyes downcast; Laurence was nearly even with her now, and as they passed one another he seized one of the sheets from her pile and snapped it open over the entire company.
A confused babble of shouting arose at once: they all four rushed the swathed men, toppling the standing men over. The door to the room opened and another man looked out: Tharkay shot him, and kicked the door wide. Granby, warned by the commotion, took the opening at once and came rushing out of the room, with a bruised cheek and a bandaged arm. "Thank God, give me a pistol," he said, and threw off the sling.
"The window," Laurence said, and turning at the report of a shot, received Woolvey into his arms. There was a startled look on Woolvey's face, and a great stain spreading already through his shirt, visible beneath the swallow-wing lapels of his coat. Another shot fired and another, bullets coming wild through the sheet, small fires catching in the linen in their wake. The maid, screaming, had fled down the hall.
"Iskierka!" Granby was shouting: he had dashed into the room across the way and was leaning out the window.
A look was enough to be sure: the light was already gone from Woolvey's eyes; he was dead weight sliding to the floor. "Laurence," Tharkay said, and shot the first French officer struggling out of the tangled sheet.
"Damn you," Laurence said, not very certain if he meant Woolvey, or the man who had shot him, or indeed himself; he, stooping, worked the wedding-ring from Woolvey's hand, and went after Tharkay into the bedroom. They shut the door and barricaded it with a wardrobe overturned. It would hold only a moment, but they needed no longer: Iskierka's talons were already seeking at the window, scrabbling and tearing away glass and masonry and brick in great shattering blocks.
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