Chapter 14

I DO NOT SEE what is wrong with it," Iskierka said, still nibbling upon the charred beef bones of her dinner. "They are stealing the cows for their dragons, it is not our fault if their dragons are too lazy to come and get the cows themselves."

"It is not wrong," Temeraire said, dissatisfied, "precisely."

"Not very sporting, though," Gentius said. "They did not even have a gun."

"The village did not have a gun, either, or even muskets," Lily said, "so it was not very sporting of those soldiers, in the first place."

"Anyway," Iskierka added, with an air of smug virtue, "we must obey our orders."

Temeraire did not argue further. It was not that he minded for himself, anyway, very much, although it had not been a very interesting battle: they had dived, the soldiers had fired a few shots, and then they had all run away into the woods, if they were not dead; it had lasted scarcely five minutes, and nothing to show for it. Except of course the cows, but those they mostly had to give back.

He was not going to say so, of course, but he rather felt Iskierka was right. If the soldiers had not wanted to be attacked, they ought not have been going about in other people's territory, taking their food and much more than they could eat themselves. Only, he was a little worried, because it seemed the sort of thing that Laurence might have minded, and he felt instinctively there was something strange, that Laurence did not seem to care.

The villagers certainly had been very grateful. "Two months to spring. We would have starved, or near enow; thank ye, sir," the village headman said, the half-burned cottage quite forgiven, as the others came nervously out to look over their cattle and their goods, and make their own anxious courtesies.

A few young men from Maximus's ground crew had driven back those cows which had not been killed or panicked to death in the fighting; Gladius and Chalcedony had carried back the two large carts of grain, also, and the villagers had sent word back along the road, to those others pillaged, to come and share what there was left to have.

But Laurence did not seem pleased by their many thanks, either; he only nodded, and said, "Send word also that if you should see or hear of any French movements, you are to light a beacon: smoke, or a bonfire at night, and we will come for it if we see."

Gong Su had taken those cows which had been killed; enough for all the dragons to have a little fresh roast beef, and then a share of soup and bones and meat mixed with vegetables and grain, for all the crew and everyone in the village besides. The atmosphere was celebratory, and all the more when the villagers brought out a concealed store of honey wine. Temeraire had even enjoyed a cupful poured into his mouth, so he might close his jaws on it and keep the crisp fragrant smell on his tongue.

Laurence had not eaten very much, and now he came away from the village and the celebration, back to Temeraire's side; but only to get out his maps again and study the roads.

Temeraire drew a deep breath, watching him, and said valiantly, "Laurence - Laurence, I have been thinking. Perhaps you might sell my talon-sheaths. I do not mean just now," he added, hurriedly, "but, when the war is over - "

"Why?" Laurence said, a good deal more absently than Temeraire felt such an offer merited. "Are you tired of them?"

"No, of course not, who could become tired of them?" Temeraire said, and then paused; he was not sure how he might explain, without betraying his knowledge of the loss which Laurence had concealed, surely because it wounded him greatly. "I only thought," he tried, "that perhaps you might like to have some more capital, as you have given me so much of it yourself."

"I have no need of capital," Laurence said, "and you had better keep them, against future need. I thank you for the offer; it was handsomely made," he added, which ought to have been a tremendous relief, but Temeraire found that instead he was only unhappier, for having tried his most desperate notion and found it of no use. Laurence had not seemed even a little moved by the prospect of having so splendid a treasure for his own; the gratitude had been only formal.

He put his head down upon his forelegs and watched Laurence a little longer; Laurence had a lamp, and in the light, he looked a little odd - he was not quite clean-shaven, Temeraire realized, and there was some dried blood upon his jaw, which he had not taken off. His hair was tied roughly back, and grown long. But he did not seem to care for any of it; all his attention was for the map, and the figures he was studying.

"May I not help you, Laurence?" Temeraire asked at last, rather hopelessly, for lack of any other idea.

Laurence paused over the papers, then put one sheet out with the lamp upon it. "Is it large enough for you to see? - it is the tax roll for the last year. I expect the French will first plunder the wealthier estates and villages, so we will look for them there."

"Yes, I can read it," Temeraire said; it was only a little difficult, if he squinted. "Shall I tell you all the richest ones, in order?"

AS THEY PUSHED GRADUALLY SOUTHWARD, the raiding parties grew steadily larger and more desperate: no longer small bands, out to forage for themselves as much as for the beasts, but urgent support for dragons headquartered now at small outposts and encampments throughout the heart of England, to distribute the burden of their feeding. If the cattle did not arrive daily, the dragons would soon go hungry; and some number of them would have to be transferred elsewhere, southwards, even perhaps back to France.

Already the disruption of the foraging was having an effect. Without the smaller parties bringing in regular provender, the soldiers had more effort to keep themselves fed, as well as the dragons, and this made them all the more ruthless. Villages and farms and estates were now stripped to the bone and often torn apart in the search for hidden stores; or even to no end but wanton destruction: some vicious urge in the soldiers, brought on by too much license to ruin what they found. If any villagers sought to protect their homes and livelihoods, they were as often murdered or abused, or at best left to starve with a house burning behind them.

These brutalities soon roused the countryside from a sullen, small resistance, which would gladly have thrashed French soldiers making boastful remarks in a pub or passed news of them to British parties, while concealing food from them all alike, to open hatred. No-one fled from the dragons now when they landed, but marched out their cattle to feed them, and daily the plumes of beacon-fires rose. The little feral dragons of the Pennines, who lived wild and ordinarily raided farms for their meals, had been recruited by hunger and Temeraire's persuasion to collect the far-flung intelligence: they darted from one beacon to another, where the townspeople provided them with a sheep or goat, and in return they carried the information back to Laurence's encampment, daily edging farther south. Laurence thought it likely he knew more of the movements of the French than their own generals did, and he daily sent long letters back to Jane and to Wellesley.

A little blue feral came darting into camp, an evening in Cumbria, while they sat mostly dull and quiet, sharpening bayonets or drinking watered whiskey at their small fires, and in an incongruously deep voice announced, "The French are coming this way, with guns, and twelve dragons."

"Leave the camp," Laurence said, standing, and put back on his sword. "No, everything; we need the time more than the supply. Leave the fires burning. All aloft, gentlemen, at once," he said sharply, while everyone yet hesitated a moment, and spurred them into action.

"But, Laurence," Temeraire murmured, as he climbed aboard, "why do we not stay and fight them? It is our first chance of a real battle, and perhaps they will even have eagles - "

"There is no honor to be won in a battle between thieves," Laurence said flatly, taking the maps which Demane held out to him, and skimmed them over. "Divide into parties of no more than three, and take separate routes, all of you; we rendezvous at Cross Fell," he called, and they lifted one and all away.

They were too agile a band to be easily tracked or caught, with a thousand eyes in every direction looking out danger for them, and three more such attempts failed as thoroughly to find anything more than their abandoned fires and cooking pits. Rewards, offered in vast sums, were scornfully ignored, and in frustration the French grew savage and turned instead to reprisals against any they suspected of providing intelligence or comfort, which made nearly all the citizenry. At Howick Hall, perhaps two weeks into their raiding, they caught a large company, busy pillaging not only the cattle and the food, but carrying out also paintings, and china plate, and great silver candelabra, while the house burned slowly down around them, and their officers laughed and drank wine from the cellars in the courtyard.

The dragon-shadows falling over them silenced their merriment, and hurriedly two dozen muskets were raised up. Temeraire hovering over them roared out at the house, and nearly the whole front wall, flickering with flame, slid down in a heap and buried half the soldiers with it, leaving the building for a moment like a child's doll-house, opened for viewing, with more of the looters staring out at them.

Then the roof, groaning in complaint, gave way, and the great house folded in upon itself, walls crumbling into brick, slates clattering and spilling down upon the lawn still smoking. The horses and cows stampeded madly away, and the remaining soldiers fled in the other direction, leaving a great pirate-heap of goods in an oxcart, pitiful next to the smoldering ruins.

The village, in the shelter of the house, had also been struck; the men having tried to resist had been slaughtered nearly one and all. The women and children had taken shelter in the church, which had not given them much protection: the soldiers had come in and outraged some of the young women, and murdered the vicar, a man of eighty, when he had feebly tried to intercede.

"We ought to hunt down the rest of them," one young midshipman said, "every last one," and there was no disagreement. Laurence felt only weary.

"Berkley," he said, "have your men clear the village, and let the dragons bury the dead. Sutton, Little, take the other Reapers, and bring over what you can from the house: they will need more supply, here. Or we can take you to Craster," he offered, to the matron who had got the survivors into some order.

"They won't have better houses for us there," she said. "Whatever you can bring us, we'll thank you for, Captain, and we will manage; they didn't find all there was to find." She did not say, aloud, that they had now fewer mouths to feed.

The Yellow Reapers were a while in returning, and came back with an air of grim satisfaction, bloodstained, carrying also some dead cattle and deer.

"I will venture a little farther," Laurence said. "We will not encamp yet, but we will raid farther south, as far as we can fly in and out again in a day."

"Just as well," Little said, low. "Let them look over their shoulders, everywhere in England," to a murmur of agreement. The French had thus reconciled them all to their mission; few of the captains anymore looked askance at their attacks, or urged quarter. Laurence heard it without satisfaction.

"I am sure I can fly a little quicker, if I try," Maximus put in; they held their conferences out in the air, so the dragons might listen in.

Some four days later, summoned by another column of smoke, they found and destroyed another raiding party at Wollaton. Flying back from the battlefield, with the corpses left behind dark and crimson on the snow, Laurence saw one after another the blackened husks of houses he knew, familiar. Great houses were burning everywhere, ideal targets: their cellars full of wine and brandy, their pantries laden for winter. The Galman estate yet stood, but deserted, with a ragpicker's wares strewn all over the courtyard: curtains and carpets, torn and trodden into mud, and more hanging out of the shattered windows. The stables were burnt to the ground, and the old lily-pond, where he had used to walk with Edith, choked upon the bloated corpse of a horse, torn at the haunches where dogs had got to it.

He knew he must expect to find Wollaton Hall itself burnt, and only hope his family had managed to flee in time. He was steeled for it, he thought; at least he could contemplate the possibility without a feeling of anything more than a calm and distant regret. Then they came over the lake, and Wollaton Hall stood upon the crest of its hill, untouched, with light in the windows and neat thin trails of smoke only from the chimneys; gilt and golden, and deer bounding away urgently.

They landed in the park; the dragons went to hunt. Laurence climbed a ridge and stood looking at the house with a sense almost of unreality: twilight was deepening as he watched, and in the muted light the edges of the house blurred. "Well, it is good luck," Harcourt said to him, uncertainly.

"You will pardon me," he said. "I will not be long," and he walked across the lawn towards the house. The hedge-rows were trimmed, and the walks had been swept of snow; there was a murmur of noise and life, louder as he came to the house, until standing in the formal gardens he might look in through the glass at the candle-lit ballroom, full of people, standing and sitting and lying, on pallets and on camp-beds: cottagers he recognized, others from the village.

"Here now, what are you about? You may come to the front, if you're wanting something," someone said to Laurence, making him start: a young gardener, scowling and holding a rake as though he would do something with it.

"I am William Laurence," he said. "Is Lady Allendale here?"

She came out to him, wrapped in a cloak against the chill: wool only, and not her furs. "Will, my dear," she said, "are you well? Have you come alone - "

"We are encamped in the park, to hunt only," Laurence said. "We leave again as soon as the dragons are fed: are you well? And my father?"

"As well as anyone could expect, with all this upheaval," she said. "He knows a little of what has happened: he knows you are with the Corps again," she added, anxiously.

He said nothing; there was nothing to be proud of, in the service he was giving. "I am glad to find you unmolested," he said after a moment; strangely reluctant. "We came over the village - I hope Lord and Lady Galman are well."

Lady Allendale, too, hesitated. "Yes, they stay with us."

He paused again, and reaching into his coat brought out the ring, in the small envelope of paper he had folded around it. "I wish that I had not - I am sorry to bear ill-tidings," he said. "Mr. Woolvey was killed, in London - I have kept it to send to Edith, when that might be possible. If her parents might - "

"Yes, we had word," she said, low and unhappy, and took it from him; she curled her hand around the envelope, and her face looked drawn.

"He died well," Laurence said, "if that can be said; he died bravely, at least, in service to the Crown."

She nodded, and they stood silently; a little snow yet was falling, white flecks upon her dark cloak. "Tell me," he said, finally.

"An officer came, and gave us the Emperor's compliments, and assurances that we would never be harmed," she said. "None of the raiding parties have come here; even lately, when they are pillaging everywhere - "

"Yes," Laurence said, stopping her. "I understand," and understood also his own dread; of course. Bonaparte had managed to pay him for his treason, after all.

"We can shelter a great many more," she said quietly, after a moment. "Our stores, also, are untouched, if there are any you would like to send to us."

"If you can send a cart to Wollaton," he said, "they were struck this morning, and have wounded."

"Yes, of course," she said. "Can you not stay the night?"

With an effort, he kept himself from recoiling, and only touched his hat. "I must beg your pardon; we have some hours yet to fly tonight," he said, and bowed, and turned; the lights of the house glittered on the snow as he walked away.

TEMERAIRE HAD GOT THREE DEER, despite their springiness, and felt rather pleased with the world until Laurence came back from the house, pale, and refused his share of dinner. "I am very happy the house is not burnt up," Temeraire said to him anxiously, as they made ready to get under way, wondering if something else perhaps had happened, if there were some damage which he could not see.

Laurence paused, and looked over his shoulder. Temeraire looked, too, and thought the house looked very like a jewel itself; the pale yellow stone glowed with light, warm and inviting, coming out of so many windows in so interesting a variety of shapes; all the dozens of intricate towers and ornaments in perfect order.

"I will never come here again," Laurence said, and pulled himself up the harness. "Let us be away."

It was all of a piece; Laurence was not himself at all, and Temeraire was increasingly certain they would never make matters right this way. They had taken no prizes whatsoever all their long weeks of raiding: the French soldiers had nothing but the food they had stolen, not even a cannon or a flag to be proud of, and if ever any more suitable battle offered, Laurence would insist on their flying away at once, to hide.

What battles they did have were over very quickly. Perscitia had devised a method of tearing up tall yew-trees, with bushy tops and smooth long trunks, and dragging their crowns along the ground during a diving rush. It was most convenient: the soldiers could simply be swept away by the dozens, and the branches sheltered one from the musket-fire; so there was no risk at all. The chief difficulty was to keep the men from scattering, and it felt rather unpleasant and odd to be chasing anyone so very small who would just as soon have run away; even if, as Messoria explained, they would only regroup and go stealing again. It was not the sort of fighting Temeraire had looked for, even though everyone else seemed to approve.

"Where is the rest of the army, I should damn well like to know! But at least you fellows are showing the Frogs what-for," one stout elderly gentleman said, thumping his stick on the floor for emphasis. They had stopped a raiding party outside a village in Derbyshire, and the children were brought out to see them all. A few of the older boys, very bold, came running up to touch them; one put his hand on Temeraire's foreleg, and then stared up large-eyed when Temeraire peered down at him in interest and said, "Hello."

The child ran away very quickly. "Chinese children are braver," Temeraire said to Laurence, "but I am glad that these are getting a little better, and coming to see us. I suppose it is because we are being heroic?" he added, interrogatively; he was hopeful that if this was not very interesting fighting, at least it was the sort which Government would like.

"Their parents had done better to keep them locked away," Laurence said, without much emotion. "Will you look over the maps with me?"

So it certainly made Laurence no happier, although Temeraire did not perfectly understand why Laurence should insist on their fighting so, if he did not approve it himself. Since they had seen Wollaton Hall, however, he seemed all the more fixed upon his course.

"I fear it is the unhealthy climate and the diet of this country," Gong Su said. "No-one could be well, eating in such an unbalanced way."

"But we do not have much choice what we eat, while we are at war, and I cannot do anything about the climate," Temeraire said.

"Too bad," Demane said, rather indistinctly; he was not enjoying his first British winter, and snuffling almost continuously into his sleeve. Sipho was not suffering, or rather not in the same manner: he was regularly bundled into every spare piece of clothing which Demane could find, and now wearing three shirts, a knitted waist, two coats, a boat-cloak, a hood, and a hat crammed down upon it all, could scarcely move from where he had been put down near the fire.

Roland was sitting with her arms curled about her knees. "It is not right," she said. "I don't mean, we oughtn't to be stopping them, but we ought to be letting them surrender when they see us, and taking them prisoner; although, I don't know what we should do with them. I wish Mother were here," she added, desolately.

Many of the other captains were also dissatisfied; the very next day Temeraire overheard Granby speaking with Laurence, in low voices, and then Laurence said, "Captain Granby, I hope you know that you may transfer to another station, at any time you wish: I would not keep anyone at this task against his will."

"Why, damn you, Laurence," Granby said, and walked away.

"Of course Granby is not happy," Iskierka said, yawning, when Temeraire went so far as to ask her. "I am not happy either, this is all very boring, and we have no treasure. But it is still better than just carrying soldiers about, or patrolling. At least we are doing something. And it is orders, anyway, which you ought not question," she added; Temeraire put back his ruff.

FARMERS NOW SLAUGHTERED their own cattle, if they heard the French approaching, and poisoned their grain; villagers in makeshift armed bands ambushed soldiers while they slept; and one foraging mission after another returned to their encampments empty-handed, when they returned at all. An unwise outpost commander, sorely pressed, at last made the mistake for which Laurence had been waiting, and sent out his dragons to hunt for themselves; the farms immediately around their encampment had already been depleted, and the beasts separated to look farther afield.

"There are nine, two of those big grey ones, and the rest are all smaller, with three only a little bigger than I am," one of their small spies informed them. "The big ones went alone, south, and the others went towards a town north-northeast, with a red steeple, and parted there."

Laurence nodded, and Gong Su led the feral to his reward, a portion of mutton stewed with rabbit, which the little dragon tore into ravenously: the supply of meat was growing increasingly thin throughout the countryside.

"I am sure we can beat seven dragons," Temeraire said, his ruff already excited, and his tail switching.

"We are not going to fight seven," Laurence said. "We are going after the Chevaliers." He laid out his map quickly and showed them all: a large estate lay some three miles south of the outpost, with a dairy.

They kept high, over the cloud cover, and emerged only just above the estate: the Petit Chevaliers were yet on the ground, eating. It had likely been a few days since their last meal, and they were trying urgently to make up for it. Two carcasses already each lay stripped down to bones, and they had moved to thirds; their crew had dismounted and were with similar energy ransacking the dairy-house.

"Those are milch cows," Demane said indignantly, peering down at the dragons and their repast; his own people were great herdsmen, and valued their proper husbandry high.

"Signal the attack," Laurence said, and Temeraire roaring plummeted with the rest; the Chevaliers panicked and flung themselves aloft, instinctively. One leapt only to meet Maximus's full weight upon her back, and bellowing dreadfully was driven down, straight down, into the ground again, and with a snapping crack went silent. Maximus staggered off and shook himself, dazed by the impact; she did not move, and her captain crying her name flung himself heedless across the field towards her.

The other Chevalier managed to beat a little farther aloft, and shouldered past Chalcedony's eager but over-optimistic attempt to repeat Maximus's feat, bowling the Yellow Reaper over; but Iskierka was lunging with ferocious glee, and a torrent of flame engulfed the Chevalier's wing and neck.

"Ow!" Chalcedony said, barely dodging the edge of the flames himself. "You needn't hit me!"

"Well, get out of the way, then!" Iskierka called over her shoulder, already pursuing the crying Petit Chevalier, whose hide and tender membrane showed the blackened and scorched marks of her flame. The dragon was trying to come back around: his captain was yet upon the ground, and despite the wounds, the dragon would not abandon him.

"Je me rends!" the captain cried, from the ground, through a speaking-trumpet; he was waving a white handkerchief furiously. "Je me rends!"

It was the only hope for his dragon. Lily was winging in from the other direction, and Temeraire hovered aloft; the Reapers in a group had barred every point on the rose. In a moment they would bring the Petit Chevalier down.

For a moment, Laurence did not move. A heavy-weight was difficult to manage - their orders - Then he said, "Mr. Allen, signal Captain Berkley: take charge of prisoner. Temeraire, tell that dragon to land, there by those trees, and keep away from his captain."

The rest of the French aviators backed away as the dragons came down, and fled into the dairy-house and the woods behind; the dead dragon's crew dragged their captain away, the man weeping openly like a child; Laurence looked down at the misery and hatred in their faces, turned briefly up towards him.

The French captain submitted to being bound, and while his dragon called to him anxiously, was put aboard Maximus. "Is he fit to fly, Berkley?" Laurence asked.

"I am only a little jarred," Maximus said, trying to nose at his own chest. Berkley's surgeon Gaiters was already palpating the massive ribs with his hands, carefully, in either direction.

"I do not believe there is a crack," he said, "but a few days' rest - "

Berkley snorted. "After this? Not unless we were in Scotland. They will be out in force after us."

"No," Laurence said, still cold, "they will not. They cannot afford it."

In the morning the first reports came from their little spies: the French heavy-weights were retreating south, towards London, forced back into territory under more thorough French control, where their hunger could be satisfied. Slowly after them the rest of the combat-weight beasts also melted away, more every day as the stores depleted, until nothing remained but the small couriers. Now the infantry were exposed, unless they kept in their encampments and did not stir out; in which case they would starve. A few large bands went out with artillery, but could not find enough for all, and in desperation soon broke into smaller parties for foraging; these were at their mercy.

Blue pins for the small French companies daily marched across his maps, back and forth from their encampments; one by one they were plucked out and laid back into their tin, and Laurence rinsed blood mechanically off his hands at the wash-basin. Very little thought now was required, and he was glad of it, distantly. Their own supply gave them no difficulty; if they landed near a town or a village, meat would somehow be managed for them and the dragons, cows or pigs or mutton, even if the villagers themselves went hungry as a consequence. Occasionally the French tried again a pursuit, orchestrated from farther south, but so much early warning reached them they had merely to draw back a little, and let the dragons sleep, while a flock of little ferals kept watch.

They had been raiding then nearly two months, when Arkady arrived the first week of March in a great flurry of noise, carrying Tharkay and with three of his ferals for escort, and at once began to parade before Temeraire and the others to tell them of his adventures since their last meeting. He had only been patrolling with the others, but by his account he had fought hordes of French dragons, and captured many prizes, and he bragged that they would do well, now he had come to join them; at which news Temeraire laid back his ruff in irritation.

"I have a message for you, from Wellesley," Tharkay said to Laurence, and came inside with him. The implacable maps were laid out upon a makeshift table, a door laid over two old trestles, inside the small cottage where he had sheltered overnight; Tharkay stood in the doorway looking out while Laurence opened the letter. Their camp was a strange, silent place: no prisoners but the one solitary French officer, the captain, desolately sitting outside a hut with his hands loosely tied and bound to a stake in the ground, under guard by a couple of Granby's bellmen. The massacred trees, which the dragons used for their sweeping, were in a great heap at the edge of camp and the dark bare branches darker still with dried blood, a forest's graveyard. Every man went about his work silently, and without either fuss or satisfaction; they had killed fifty men that morning.

Wellesley's new orders were not very different: he only directed their efforts more particularly towards the eastern coast, and carefully avoided any word to suggest what those efforts should be; all was left unstated, and Wellesley closed by saying, and you are welcome to this jabbering creature and his fellows, if you can make better use of them.

"Very good," Laurence said, setting it aside. He drew out the map of the North Sea coast, to consider it: there had been some raiding near Stickney, last week, and an outpost near Cromer, one of the places the Fleur-de-Nuits would likely be landing with fresh troops, when they could get across. "They must send out foragers there twice a week," Laurence said to Tharkay. "I will send you there with Berkley, and free the rest of us to go after them at Stickney; if you begin near the outpost and circle outwards, you are likely to find the foragers soon enough; there ought not be more than fifty men. They have stopped sending out larger bands. Berkley will approach from their forward direction, and you will cut off their avenue of retreat - "

"I beg your pardon," Tharkay said. "I prefer not."

Laurence paused, his hand arrested mid-air above the map.

"Arkady, I am sure, will oblige," Tharkay said, "but someone else must captain him. I regret," he added, with a lash of irony, "I have not the luxury of setting aside, for a time, the veneer of civilization; I must be a little more careful. A temporary viciousness may be pardonable in a gentleman, even admirable; but it must brand me forever a savage. Laurence, what are you doing?"

The question was simple enough, and ought to have afforded any of a dozen answers; one after another presented themselves for his consideration. "Killing soldiers," Laurence said, at last, "most of whom are starving; and making them vicious, so they give us still-better excuse."

It had the poor advantage of being true; giving it voice, Laurence tasted all its ugliness on his tongue. He sat down and put a hand over his mouth, and found his face was wet. He could not speak again for a little while, struggling to master himself and his voice; at last he said to Tharkay, hoarsely, "If you will not, what will you do?"

He did not mean the question in the immediate sense, and Tharkay did not take it so. He shrugged in his restrained way, the movement of a hand only. "There is work enough in the world," he answered, "and little enough time."

"And no-one to decide, but yourself," Laurence said. "No authority but your own conscience."

"There are authorities to choose from," Tharkay said, "to suit any action, if you like; I prefer to keep the choice a little closer."

It seemed to Laurence the most miserably solitary existence imaginable; isolated by more than distance or even disdain. "How do you bear it? The choice, and all the consequences thereof, alone - "

"Perhaps use has reconciled me; or," Tharkay said dryly, "perhaps I simply have less natural inclination to hold myself responsible for the sins of the world, rather than for my own."

Laurence covered his face with his hands a moment, and shut his eyes against the filtered reddish light. The hayloft smell of straw and the vanished horses, warm and familiar, and the sulfur bite of the dragons outside; wood-smoke and Arkady's smug prattle, broken occasionally by Temeraire's more resonant protests.

"Very well," he said, and went out, leaving the orders upon the table.


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