THE QUESTION SENT OUT, Temeraire found it was almost worse to have the prospect of an answer; to know that there was an answer, and that it would reach him soon. Before, the world itself had been undecided, if Laurence was still in it: he might as easily be alive as not, and so long as Temeraire did not know otherwise, Laurence was alive at least in part, which was almost all which could be hoped for: the news at best would only be that he was still imprisoned. As the day crept onward, Temeraire began to feel certainty was a weak reward to repay the risk of receiving the dreadful contrary answer, a possibility which Temeraire could not bear to envision: a great blankness engulfed him if he tried, like a grey sky full of clouds above and below, fog all around.
He wanted distraction badly, and there was none, except to talk to Perscitia; which was at least interesting, if from time to time infuriating also. Perscitia liked to think herself a great genius, and she was certainly unusually clever even if she could not quite grasp the notion of writing; occasionally, to Temeraire's discomfiture, she would leap quite far ahead, and come out with some strange notion, which was in none of the books Temeraire had read, but which could not at all be disproved or quarreled with.
But she was so jealous of her discoveries that she flew into a temper when Temeraire could inform her that any of them had been made before, and she was resentful of the hierarchy of the breeding grounds, which as she saw it denied her the just deserts of her brilliance. Because of her middling size, she had to make do with an inconvenient poky clearing down in the moorlands, of which she complained endlessly - no prospect and little more than an overhang to shelter from the rain.
"So why do you not take a better?" Temeraire said, exasperated. "There are several very nice, directly over there, in the cliff face; you would be much more comfortable there, I am sure."
"One does not like to be quarrelsome," Perscitia said, evasive and entirely false: she liked very well to be quarrelsome, and Temeraire did not understand what that had to do with taking an empty cave, either; but at least it diverted the subject.
The only event of note was that it rained for a week without stopping, with a steady driving wind behind it which came in to all the cave-mouths and permeated the ground, and made everyone perfectly miserable; Temeraire was very glad of his antechamber, where he could shake off the water and dry before retreating to the comfort of his larger chamber. Several of the smallest dragons, courier-weights living in the hollows by the river, were flooded out of their homes entirely; sorry for their muddy and bedraggled state, Temeraire invited them to stop in his cavern, while the rain continued, so long as they first washed off the mud. They were loud with appreciation for his arrangements, gratifyingly, and a few days later, while he was brooding anxious and solitary once again over Laurence, a shadow crossed over the mouth of his cave.
It was the big Regal Copper, Requiescat; he ducked in through the antechamber and came into Temeraire's main chamber, uninvited, and gazed around the room with a pleased air, nodding, and said, "It is just as nice as they said."
"Thank you," Temeraire said, thawed a little by the compliment, although he did not much want company, just then; and then he remembered he must be polite. "Will you sit down? I am sorry I cannot offer you tea."
"Tea?" Requiescat said, but absently, not expecting an answer; he was poking his nose into the corners of the cave, even putting his tongue out to smell them, Temeraire saw indignantly, as if he were at home; Temeraire's ruff began to try to bristle.
"I beg your pardon," he said, stiffly, "I am afraid you have found me unprepared for guests," which he thought was a clever way of hinting that Requiescat might go away again, any time he chose.
But the Regal Copper did not take the hint; or at any rate he did not choose to go, but instead settled himself comfortably along the back of the cave and said, "Well, old fellow, I am afraid we will have to swap."
"Swap?" Temeraire said, puzzled, until he divined that Requiescat meant caves. "I do not want your cave," adding hastily, "not that it is not very nice, I am sure; but I have just got this one arranged to suit me."
"This one is much bigger now," Requiescat explained, or by his tone thought he was explaining, "and it is much nicer in the wet; mine," he added regretfully, "has been full of puddles, all this week; wet clear through to the back."
"Then I can hardly see why I would change," Temeraire said, still more baffled, and then he sat up, outraged and astonished, and let his ruff spread fully as it had so wanted to do. "Why, you are a damned scrub," he said. "How dare you come here, and behave like a visitor, and all the time it is a challenge? I never saw anything so sly in my life; it is the sort of thing Lien would do, I suppose," he added, cuttingly, "and you may get out at once; if you want my cave you may try and take it; I will meet you anytime you like: now, or at dawn tomorrow."
"Now, now, let us not get excited," Requiescat said pacifyingly. "I can see you are a young fellow, right enough. A challenge, really! It is nothing of the sort; I am the most peaceable fellow in the world, and I do not want to fight anyone. I am sorry if I was ham-handed about it. It is not that I want to take your cave, you see - " Temeraire did not see, in the least. " - it is a question of appearances. Here you are a month, with the nicest cave, and you nowhere the biggest, either." Requiescat preened his own side, a little; certainly he outweighed any dragon Temeraire had seen but Maximus and Laetificat. "We have our own little ways here, of arranging things to keep everyone comfortable. No-one wants any fighting to cut up our peace, not when there is no need; it would be a nasty-tempered sort of fellow who would get to fighting over one cave versus another, both of them large and handsome enough for anyone; but distinctions must be preserved."
"Stuff," Temeraire said. "It sounds to me like you have got so lazy, having all your meals given you, and nothing to do, that you do not even want to put yourself to the trouble of properly bullying other people; or maybe," he added, having made up his mind to be really insulting, "you are just a coward, and thought I was the same: well, I am not, and I am not going to give you my cave, either, no matter what you do."
Requiescat did not rise to the remarks, but only shook his head dolefully. "There, I am not a clever chap, so I have made a mull of explaining, and now your back is put up. I suppose we will have to get the council together, or you will never believe me. It is a bother, but it is your right, after all." He heaved himself back up to his feet and added, infuriatingly, "You may keep the place until then; it will take me a day or so to get word to everyone," before he padded out again, leaving Temeraire quivering with rage.
"His cave is the nicest," Perscitia said anxiously, later, "at least, certainly we have always thought so; I am sure you would like it, and maybe you could make it even more pleasant than this. Why don't you go and see, first, before fighting him?"
"I do not care if it is Ali Baba's cave, and full of gold and lamps," Temeraire said, not trying to master his temper; it was better to be angry than miserable, and he was glad of anything to think about instead of what he could do nothing to repair. "It is a question of principle: I am not going to be bullied, as though I were not up to his weight. If I made the other cave nice, he should only try and take that back, I am sure; or some other dragon would try and push me out: no, thank you. Who are this council?"
"It is all the biggest dragons," Perscitia said, "and a Longwing, although Gentius does not bother to come out much anymore."
"All of them his friends, I suppose," Temeraire said.
"No one much likes Requiescat," Moncey said, perched on the lip of Temeraire's cave. "He eats so much, and will never take less, even if it is short commons all around. But he is the biggest, and so there shouldn't be fighting, the general rule is that caves go by who is strongest, if there is any quarrel; and no-one is allowed to take a place out of his class, or others will get jealous and squabble."
"You see it is just as I told you, all unfairness," Perscitia said bitterly, "as if the only quality of any importance were one's weight, or how good one is at scratching and biting and kicking up a fuss; never any consideration for really remarkable qualities."
"I will allow it to have some practical sense," Temeraire said, "as a way to choose caves; but it is nonsense that after I have taken one, which he might have had at any moment before I came, and did not want, that he should be able to snatch it from me after I have gone to so much trouble to make it nice. And he is not stronger than me, either, if he does weigh more. I should like to know if he has sunk a frigate, alone, with a Fleur-de-Nuit on his back; and as for distinction, my ancestors were scholars in China while his were starving in pits."
"That's as may be, but he knows all the council, and you don't," Moncey said, practically. "You ain't going to fight a dozen heavy-weights at once, and beg pardon, but no-one looking at you would say, right-o, there is a match for old Requiescat: not that you are little, but you are a bit skinny looking."
"I am not; am I?" Temeraire said, craning his head anxiously to look back at himself. He did not have spines along his back, the way Maximus or Requiescat did, but was sleek; he was perhaps a bit long for his weight, by British standards. "But anyway, he is not a fire-breather, or an acid-spitter."
"Are you?" Moncey inquired.
"No," Temeraire said, "but I have the divine wind; Laurence says it is even better." However, it belatedly occurred to him that perhaps Laurence might have been speaking partially; certainly Moncey and Perscitia looked blank, and it was difficult to explain just how it operated. "I roar, in a particular sort of way - I have to breathe quite deeply, and there is a clenching feeling, along the throat, and then - and then it makes things break; trees, and so on," Temeraire finished in an ashamed mutter, conscious that it sounded very dull and useless, when so described. "It is very unpleasant to be caught in it," he added defensively, "at least, so I understand, from how others have acted, if they are before me when I use it."
"How interesting," Perscitia said, politely. "I have often wondered what sound is, exactly; we ought to do some experiments."
"Experiments ain't going to help you with the council," Moncey said.
Temeraire switched his tail against his side, thinking, and then he said with distaste, "No, I see that: it is all politics. It is plain to me: I must work out what Lien would do."
He cornered Lloyd, the next morning, and said, "Lloyd, I am very hungry to-day; may I have an extra cow, to take up to my cave?"
"There, that is a little more like," Lloyd said approvingly; not deaf at all to a request so satisfactory to his own ideas of dragon-husbandry, he ordered it directly; and while waiting, Temeraire asked, attempting an air casual, as though he were only making conversation, "I do not suppose you might recall, who Gentius has sired?"
The old Longwing cracked a bleary eye, when Temeraire landed, and peered at him rather incuriously. "Yes?" he said. His cave was not so large, but a comfortable dry hollow tucked well under the mountainside, on higher ground overlooking a curve of the creek, so he might merely creep downhill for a drink without flying, and then back up, to a large flat rock full in the sun, where he presently lay napping.
"I beg your pardon for not coming by before, sir," Temeraire said, inclining his head, "to visit you; I have served with Excidium these last three years at Dover - your third hatchling," he added, when Gentius looked vague.
"Yes, Excidium, of course," Gentius said, his tongue licking the air, experimentally, and Temeraire laid down before him the cow, butchered with the help of Moncey's small claws to take out the large bones. "A small gift to show my respect," Temeraire said, and Gentius brightened. "Why, that is tr¨¨s gentil of you," he said, with atrocious pronunciation, which Temeraire just in time remembered not to correct, and took the cow into his mouth to gum at it slowly with the wobbly remainder of his teeth. "Very kind, as my first captain liked to say," Gentius mumbled reminiscently around it. "You might go in there and bring out her picture," he added, "if you are very careful with it."
The portrait was rather odd and flat-looking, and the woman in it very plain, even before time and the elements had faded her; but it was in a really splendid golden frame, so large and thick that Temeraire could take it delicately between two talon-tips to lift it, and carry it out into the sun. "How beautiful," he said sincerely, holding it where Gentius could at least point his head in its direction, although his eyes were so milky with cataracts he could not have seen it as more than a blur in the golden square.
"Charming woman," Gentius said, sadly. "She fed me my first bite, fresh liver, when my head was no bigger than her hand. One never quite gets over the first, you know."
"Yes," Temeraire said, low, and looked away unhappily; at least Gentius had not had her taken from him, and put who knew where.
When he had put the portrait back with equal care, and listened to a long story about one of the wars in which Gentius had fought - something with the Prussians, where pepper guns had been invented: very unpleasant things, especially when one had not been expecting them at all - then Gentius was quite ready to be sympathetic, and to shake his head censoriously over Requiescat's behavior. "No proper manners, these days, that is what it is."
"I am very glad to hear you say so: that is just what I thought, but as I am quite young, I did not feel sure of myself, without advice from someone wiser, like yourself," Temeraire said, and then with sudden inspiration added, "I suppose next, he will propose that if any of us have some treasure, which he likes, gold or jewels, we must give it to him: it follows quite plainly."
That was indeed enough to rouse Gentius up, with so handsome a treasure of his own to consider. "I do not see that you are wrong at all," he said, darkly. "Of course we cannot have Winchesters taking caves fit for Regal Coppers, there would be no end of trouble and quarreling, and then sooner or later the men will involve themselves, and make it all even worse; they think somehow Reapers are less use than Anglewings, because there are more of them and they are clannish, instead of the other way round; and they have many more such odd notions. But that is not the same as taking away a cave perfectly suitable to your weight and standing." He paused and said delicately, "I do not suppose you had a formation of your own?"
"No," Temeraire said, "at least, not officially; although Arkady and the others fought under my orders, and I was wing-mates with Maximus: he is Laetificat's hatchling."
"Laetificat, yes; fine dragon," Gentius said. "I served with her, you know, in 'seventy-six; we had a dust-up with the colonials at Boston. They got artillery above our positions - "
Temeraire came away eventually with Gentius's firm promise to attend the council-meeting, and returned to his cave well-pleased with the success of his first efforts. "Who else is on the council?" he asked.
While Perscitia began listing off names, Reedly, a mongrel half-Winchester with yellow streaks, piped up from the corner, "You ought to speak to Majestatis."
Perscitia bristled at once. "I see no reason why he ought do any such thing. Majestatis is a very common sort of dragon; and he is not on the council, anyway."
"He made sure I got a share of the food, when we were all sick, and things were short," Minnow said, on the other side; she was a muddy-colored feral with touches of Grey Copper and Sharpspitter and even a little Garde-de-Lyon, which had given her vivid orange eyes and blue spots to set off her otherwise drab coloring.
A low murmur of general agreement went around. A crowd had gradually accumulated in Temeraire's cave to offer their advice and remarks, a good many of the smaller dragons having interested themselves in Temeraire's case: those he had sheltered and their acquaintance, and besides them the not-insignificant number who had some injury, real or imagined, to lay at Requiescat's door. "And he is not on the council only because he does not care to be; he is a Parnassian," Minnow added, to Temeraire.
"If he were a Flamme-de-Gloire, it would hardly signify," Perscitia said coldly, "as he does nothing but sleep all the time."
Moncey nudged Temeraire with his head and murmured, "Corrected her once, six years ago."
"It was only an error of arithmetic!" Perscitia said heatedly. "I should have found it out myself in a moment, I was only occupied with the much more important question - "
"Where does he live?" Temeraire asked, interrupting; he felt that anyone who did not have time for politics must be rather sensible.
Majestatis was indeed sleeping when Temeraire came to see him; his cave was out of the way, and not very large; but Temeraire noticed that there was a carefully placed heap of stones, along the back, which blocked one's view into the interior; if he widened his pupils as far as they would go, he thought he could make out a darker space behind them, as if there were a passageway going back deeper into the mountainside.
He coiled himself neatly and waited without fidgeting, as was polite; but at length, when Majestatis showed no signs of waking - after ten minutes, or perhaps five - very nearly five - Temeraire coughed; then he coughed again, a little more emphatically, and Majestatis sighed and said, without opening his eyes, "So you are not leaving, I suppose?"
"Oh," Temeraire said, his ruff prickling, "I thought you were only sleeping, not ignoring me deliberately; I will go at once."
"Well, you might as well stay, now," Majestatis said, lifting his head and yawning himself awake. "I don't bother to wake up if it isn't important enough to wait for, that's all."
"That is sensible, I suppose; if you like to sleep better than to have a conversation," Temeraire said, dubiously.
"You'll like it better in a few years yourself," Majestatis said.
"No, I do not suppose I will," Temeraire said. "At least, the Analects say the superior dragon does not sleep more than fourteen hours of the day, so I shan't; unless," he added, desolately, "I am still shut up in here, where there is nothing worth doing."
"If you think so, what are you doing here, instead of in the coverts?" Majestatis said. He listened to the explanation with the same casual sympathy of one hearing a story-teller, which Temeraire was beginning to expect, and passed no judgment, other than to nod equably and say, "A bad lot for you, poor worm."
"Why have you come here?" Temeraire ventured. "You are not very old, yourself; do you really like to sleep so much? You might have a captain, and be in battles."
Majestatis shrugged with one wing-tip, flared and folded down again. "Had one, mislaid him."
"Mislaid?" Temeraire said.
"Well," Majestatis said, "I left him in a water-trough, and I don't suppose he is still sitting there, so I have no notion where he has got to."
He was not inclined to be very enthusiastic; when Temeraire had explained, he sighed and said, "You are young, to be making such a fuss out of it."
"If I am," Temeraire retorted, "at least I am not complacent, and ready to let this sort of bullying go on, when I can do something about it; and I do not mean to be satisfied," he added, with a pointed look at the back of Majestatis's cave, "to arrange matters better only for myself."
Majestatis's eyes slitted narrow, but he did not stir otherwise. "It seems to me you are as likely to make it worse for everyone. There's no wrangling now, at least, and no one is getting hurt."
"No one is very comfortable, either," Temeraire said. "We all might have nicer places, but no one will work to improve theirs, if they know it may be taken away from them, at any time, because they have made it nice. Once a cave is yours, it ought to be yours, like property."
The council looked a little dubious at this argument, when Temeraire repeated it to them, the next afternoon: a strong westerly wind had swept the last scattering traces of rain-clouds before it and scraped the sky to a wintry brilliance, and they had gathered in a great clearing among the mountains, full of pleasant broad smooth-topped rocks, warmed by the sun. Majestatis had come after all, and Gentius, although the old dragon was mostly asleep after the effort of making the flight, curled upon the blackest rock and murmuring occasionally to himself. Requiescat sprawled inelegantly across half the length of the clearing, making himself look very large; Temeraire disdained the attempt and kept himself neatly coiled, with his ruff spread proudly; although he privately wished he might have had his talon-sheaths, and even a headdress such as he had seen in some of the markets along the old silk caravan roads; he was sure that could not fail to impress.
Ballista, a big Chequered Nettle, thumped her barbed tail on the ground several times to silence the muttering which had arisen amongst the council, in the middle of Temeraire's remarks. "And if we agree," Temeraire went on, valiantly, in the face of so much skepticism, "that everyone may keep their own cave, when they have got it, I would be very happy to show anyone the trick of arranging them better; so you all may have nicer caves, if you only take a little trouble to make them so."
"Very nice I am sure," one peevish older Parnassian said, "if you are a yearling, to be fussing with rocks and twigs."
There were several snorts of agreement; and Temeraire bristled. "If you do not care to, and you are happy with your cave as it is, then you needn't; but neither ought you go and take someone else's cave, when they have done all the work. Certainly I am not going to be robbed, as if I were a lump; I will smash the cave up myself and make it not at all nice for anyone, before I hand it over meekly."
"Now, now, then," Ballista said. "There is no call to go yelling about smashing things or making threats; that is enough of that. Now we'll hear Requiescat."
"Hum, quarrelsome, ain't he," Requiescat said. "Well, you all know me, chums, and I don't mean to make a brag of myself, but I expect no one would say I couldn't take any cave I liked, if I wanted to. I am not a squabbler, and don't like to hurt anybody; a young fellow like this is excitable enough to bite off a bigger fight than he can swallow - "
"Oh!" Temeraire said indignantly. "You mayn't claim any such thing, unless you like to prove it; I have beat dragons nearly as big as you."
Requiescat swung his big head around. "Ain't it true you're bred not to fight? Persy was going about saying some such."
Perscitia gave an angry yelp of "I never," stifled quickly by the other small dragons sitting around her at Ballista's censorious glare.
"Celestials," Temeraire said, very coolly, "are bred to be the very best sort of dragon. In China, we are not supposed to fight unless the nation is in danger, because China has a good deal many more dragons than here, and we are too valuable to lose; so we only fight in emergencies, when ordinary fighting-dragons are not up to the task."
"Oh, China," Requiescat said dismissively. "Anyway, fellows, there you have it plain as day. I say I am tops, and ought to have the best cave; he says it ain't so, and he won't hand it over. Ordinary, there'd be no ways to work that out but a tussle, and then someone gets hurt and everyone is upset. This is just the sort of thing the council was made up for, and I expect it ought to be pretty clear to all of you which of us is right, without it coming to claws."
"I do not say I am 'tops,'" Temeraire said, "although I think it is just as likely that I am; I say that the cave is mine, and it is unjust for you take it. That is what the council ought to be for: justice, not squashing everyone down, just to keep things comfortable for the biggest dragons."
The council, being composed of the biggest dragons, did not look very enthusiastic. Ballista said, "All right; we have heard everyone out. Now look, Temeraire - " She pronounced it quite wrongly, Teymuhreer. " - we don't want a lot of fuss and bother - "
"I do not see why not," Temeraire said. "What else have we to do?"
Several of the smaller dragons tittered, rustling their wings together; she cleared her throat warningly at them and continued, "We don't want a lot of fighting, anyhow. Why don't you just go on and show us a bit of flying, so we know what you can do; then we can settle this clear."
"But that is not at all the point!" Temeraire said. "If I were as small as Moncey - " He looked, but Moncey was not among the little dragons observing, so he amended, "If I were as small as Minnow there, it oughtn't make any difference. No one was using it, no one wanted it; not before I had it."
Requiescat gave a flip of his wings. "It was not the nicest, before," he said, in reasonable tones.
Temeraire snorted angrily; but Ballista said impatiently, "Yes, yes; go on, then; unless you don't like us to see," and that was too much to bear; he threw himself aloft, spiraling high and fast as he could, tightening into a spring, and then dived directly into formation-maneuvers: that was what would please them, he thought bitterly. He finished the training pass and backwinged directly into the reverse, flying the pattern backwards, and then hovered mid-air before descending straight downwards: showing away, of course, but they had demanded he do so; and landing he announced, "I will show you the divine wind, now; but you had all better clear away from that rock wall, as I expect a lot of it will come down."
There was a good deal of grumbling as the big dragons shifted themselves, with dragging tails and annoyed looks; Temeraire ignored them and breathed in very deeply, several times, stretching his chest wide: he meant to do as much damage as he could. He noticed in belated dismay, though, that the face of the rock wall was not loose, or even the nice soft white limestone in the caves, which crumbled so conveniently. He nosed out to it and scraped a claw down the face: he barely left white scratches on the hard grey rock.
"Well?" Ballista said. "We are all waiting."
There was no help for it; Temeraire backed away from the cliff, and drew breath, preparatory; and then there was a hurried rush of wings above: Moncey dropped into the clearing beside him, panting, and said, "Call it off; it's all off," urgently, to Ballista.
"Hey, what's this, then?" Requiescat said, frowning.
"Quiet, you fat lump," Moncey said, slitting a good many eyes; he was not much bigger than the Regal Copper's head. "I'm fresh from Brecon: the Frogs have come over the Channel."
A great confused babble arose, all around; even Gentius roused, with a low hiss, and while everyone spoke at once, Moncey turned to Temeraire and said, "Listen, your Laurence, word is in they locked him up on a ship called the Goliath - "
"The Goliath!" Temeraire said. "I know that ship; Laurence has spoken of it to me before. That is very good - that is splendid; it is on blockade, I know just where it is, nearly, and I am sure anyone at Dover can tell me exactly where - "
"Old fellow, I wish I needn't pop it out so; but there's no good way to say it," Moncey said. "The Frogs sank her this morning, coming across. She is at the bottom of the ocean, and not a man got off her before she went down."
Temeraire did not say anything; a terrible sensation was rising, climbing up his throat. He turned blindly away to let it come, the roar bursting out like the roll of thunder overhead, silencing every word around him, and the wall of stone cracked open before him like a pane of mirrored glass.
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