THEY PULLED THE ship's boats into Dover harbor past eleven o'clock at night, sweating underneath their chilled, wet clothing, hands blistered on the oars; they climbed out shivering onto the docks, Captain Puget handed up in a litter almost senseless with blood-loss, and Lieutenant Frye, nineteen, the only one left to oversee; the rest of the senior officers were all dead. Frye looked at Laurence with great uncertainty and glanced around. The men offered him nothing, beaten down with rowing and defeat, silent. At last Laurence said quietly to the young man, "The port admiral," prompting, and Frye colored and said to a gangly young midshipman, clearing his throat, "You had better take the prisoner to the port admiral, Mr. Meed, and let him decide what is to be done."
With two Marines for guards, Laurence went with Meed along the dockside streets to the port admiral's office, where they found nearly more confusion than had been on the deck of the Goliath in her last moments after the double broadside had dismasted her: smoke everywhere, fire crawling steadily down through the ship towards the powder magazine, and cannon running wild back and forth on her decks; here instead the hallways were thick with unchecked speculation. "Five hundred thousand men landed," one man said in the hallway, a ridiculous number, inflated by panic without common sense; "Already in London," said another, "and ten millions in shipping seized," the very last of these the only plausible suggestion. If Bonaparte had captured one or two of the ports on the Thames estuary, and taken the merchantmen there, he might indeed have reached something like that number: an enormous collection of prizes to fuel the invasion already begun, like coal heaped into a burning stove.
"I do not give a damn if you take him out and lynch him, only get him out of my sight," the port admiral said furiously, when Meed finally managed to work his way through the press and ask him for orders; there was a vast roaring noise outside the windows like the wind rising in a storm, even though the night was clear. More petitioners were shoving frantically past them, so Laurence had to catch Meed by the arm and hold him up as they were carried away: the boy could scarcely have been fourteen and was a little underfed.
Set adrift, Meed looked helplessly. Laurence wondered if he should have to find his own prison and lock himself into it, but then one young lieutenant pushed through towards them, flung him a look of flat contempt, and said, "That is the traitor, is it? This way, and you two damned dogs take a proper hold of him, before he crawls away in this press."
He took up an old truncheon in the hallway, left from some press-gang perhaps, and swinging it to clear the way took them out into the street, Meed trotting gratefully after. He brought them to an old run-down sponging house two streets away, with bars upon the windows and a mastiff tied in the barren yard, howling unhappily to add to the clamor of the uneasy, half-rioting crowd. Beating upon the door brought out the master of the house, who whined objections which the lieutenant overruled one after another, and at last defeated entirely by pushing in upon him.
"There, and better than you deserve," he said to Laurence coldly, having taken them up to the small and squalid attic, and held open the door. He was a slight young man with a struggling moustache, and a solid push would have served to lay him out upon the unkempt floor. Laurence looked at him a moment, and then went inside, stooping under the lintel; the door was shut upon him. Through the wall he heard the lieutenant ordering the two Marines to stay and stand watch, and the owner's complaints trailing him back down the stairs.
It was bitterly cold. The irregular floor of warped and knotted boards felt strange under Laurence's feet, still expecting the listing motion of the ship. There was a handkerchief-square of a window for air and light, which at present let in only the thick smell of smoke, and a reddish glow shining on the undersides of the rooftops, all that he could see.
Laurence sat down on the narrow cot and looked at his hands. There would be fighting by now all along the coast: men landed at Deal, and likely along points north, all around the mouth of the Thames. Not five hundred thousand, nothing like, but enough, perhaps. It would not take a very large company of infantry to establish a secure beachhead, secure enough, and then Napoleon could land men as quick as he could get them across the Channel.
This, Laurence would have said, could be not very quickly; not in the face of the Navy. But that opinion fell before the maneuvers he had witnessed today: pitting great numbers of light-weights, easy to feed and quick to maneuver, against the British heavy-weights, in the face of all common wisdom; and using the massed power of their own heavy-weights instead against the ships, the British point of strength. It bore the same tactical stamp as the whirling attack which he had seen at the battle of Jena, spearheaded there by Lien, and Laurence had no doubt her advice had served Napoleon in this latest adventure.
Laurence had reported on the Battle of Jena to the Admiralty; it was a bitter thought to consider that his treason must have undermined that intelligence, and likely discredited all his reports. Jane at least, he had thought - had hoped - would still have kept it under consideration, even if she had not forgiven; would have understood him so far, to know that his treason had begun and ended with delivering the cure. But in what he had seen of the battle, the British dragons had been locked in their same formations, all the same antiquated habits of aerial war.
The noise outside the window rose and fell like the sea; somewhere nearby glass was breaking. A woman shrieked. The glow increased. He lay down and tried to sleep a little; his rest was broken by ragged eruptions of noise, already falling back into the general din by the time he jarred awake, panting and sore, from fragmentary images of the burning ship, which in his dreams became black and glossy beneath the flames, scales curling and crisping at the edges. He rose once; there was a small dirty pitcher of water to which he was not yet thirsty enough to resort for drinking, and he splashed his face a little with a cupped handful. His fingers came away streaked black with soot and grime. He lay down again; there was more screaming outside, and a stronger smell of smoke.
It did not grow light so much as less dark; there was a thick sooty pall over the city, and his throat ached sharply. No one came with food; there was not a word from his guards. Laurence paced his cell: four long strides across, three lengthwise from the bed, but he used smaller steps and made it seven, restless; his arms clasped behind his back, feeling as though they were weighted down with round-shot, dragging; he had rowed for five hours without a pause.
That at least had been something to do: something besides this useless fretting away to no purpose. The city burned, and all he could do here was burn with it; or moulder to be taken a prisoner by the French, with Napoleon's army scarcely ten miles distant. And even if he died, Temeraire might never know - might keep himself a prisoner long after any cause had gone, and stay to be taken by the French. Laurence could not trust Napoleon for Temeraire's safety: not while Lien was his ally. Her voice, and the self-interest which would see him master of the only Celestial outside China's borders, would be louder in Napoleon's ear than any prompting of generosity.
The guards might be persuaded to let him out by their own desire to be gone, if nothing else; if only Laurence could persuade himself he had any right to go. But he had been court-martialed and convicted, and justly so, with all due process of law, though he would gladly have forgone it all. The endless dragging out of evidence, though he had been condemned already by his own voice; the panel of officers listening, faces blank if not tight with disgust. Navy officers all of them; not an aviator had been allowed to serve. Too many of them had been one after another dragged into the vile business, implicated and smeared any way they could be - Ferris, because Laurence must have confided in his first lieutenant - "And it must present a curious appearance to the court," the prosecutor had said, sneering, while Ferris sat drawn and pale and wretched and did not look at Laurence, "that he did not raise the alarm for an hour after the accused and his beast were known to be missing, and did not at once open the letter which was left behind - "
Chenery, too, had been named, only because he had also been in London covert at the time, and Berkley and Little and Sutton all brought in to give evidence; and if Harcourt and Jane had not been mentioned, Laurence was sure it was only because the Admiralty did not know how to do it, without embarrassing themselves more than their targets. "I did not know a damned thing about the business, and I am sure neither did anyone else; anyone who knows Laurence will tell you he would not have breathed a word of it to anyone," Chenery had said defiantly, "but I do say sending over the sick beast was a blackguardly thing for the Admiralty to have done, and if you like to hang me for saying so, you are welcome."
They had not hanged Chenery, thank God, for lack of evidence and for need of his dragon; but Ferris, a lieutenant with no such protection, had been broken out of the service: every effort Laurence had made to insist that the guilt was his alone had been ignored. A fine officer lost to the service, his career and his life spoilt - Laurence had met his mother, his brothers; they were an old family and a proud, and Ferris had been away from home from the age of seven: they did not have that intimate, personal knowledge which should make them confident of his innocence, and give him the affectionate support now denied him from his fellow-officers. To witness his misery and know himself culpable hurt Laurence worse than his own conviction had done.
That had never been in any doubt. There had been no defense to make, and no comfort but the arid certainty that he had done as he ought; that he could have done nothing else. That was no comfort at all, but that it saved him from the pain of regret: he could not regret what he had done. He could not have let ten thousand dragons, most of them wholly uninvolved in the war, be murdered for his nation's advantage. When he had said as much, and freely confessed that he had disobeyed his orders, assaulted a Marine, stolen the cure, and given aid and comfort to the enemy, there was nothing else to say; the only charge which he had contested, was that he had stolen Temeraire, too. "He is neither the King's possession nor a dumb beast, and his choice was his own and freely made," Laurence had said, but he had been ignored, of course; and he had scarcely been taken from the room before he was brought back in again to hear his sentence of death pronounced.
And then at once quietly postponed: he had been hurried from the chamber under guard, and into a stifling, black-draped carriage. A long blind rattling journey ending at Sheerness, where he had been put aboard the Lucinda and then transferred to Goliath, and put into the brig: an oubliette meant only to keep him breathing, and little else. A living death, worse than the hanging he was promised in future, and if he stayed, and was not taken by the French, they would only put him back into an upright coffin. Laurence knew it well.
But that was not his choice to make; he had made one choice, and sacrificed all the others. His life was no longer his own, even if the court chose to leave it to him a little while longer, and to flee now would be no better than to have fled to China, or to have accepted Napoleon's offers and solicitations to stay. He could not go. He had no other way of knowing himself not a traitor, no other reparation he could make. He might look at the door, but he could not open it.
A brief glaze of rain washed the window and thinned the smoke outside. He went to stand by the window, though he could not see anything but a general grey dimness. The sun, if it had come up, stayed hidden; he rather felt than knew it was past dawn.
The knob rattled in the door, and the door opened. Laurence turned and stopped, staring, at the man on the other side: the familiar but unexpected lean face, travel-leathered, and the Oriental features. "I hope I find you in good health," Tharkay said. "Will you come with me? I believe there is still a danger of fire."
The guards had vanished; the house was entirely deserted, but for a couple of men who had wandered in drunk off the street and were sleeping in the front hall. Laurence stepped over their legs and out into the morning: a thin pallid haze of smoke and false dawn lying over the docks and drifting out to sea. Glass and broken slate and charred wood littered the street, and unspeakable trash; a couple of sweepers lugubriously pushed their brooms down the middle of the lane, doing not very much to help.
Tharkay led Laurence down a side alley, where the dead body of a horse, stripped of saddle and bridle, lay blocking the way; a young kestrel with long trailing jesses perched on its side, tearing occasionally at the flesh and uttering a satisfied cry. Tharkay held out his hand and whistled, and the kestrel came back to him, to be hooded and secured upon his shoulder.
"I am three weeks back from the Pamirs," Tharkay said. "I brought another dozen feral beasts for your ranks; in good time, it seems. Roland sent me to bring you in."
"But how came you here?" Laurence said, while they picked their way onwards through the unfashionable backstreets. The town looked very much as though it had been already sacked, and those windows and doors yet intact were all shut tight, some boarded, giving the house-fronts an unfriendly glowering air. "How you knew I was in the town - "
"The town was not the difficulty; the wreckers off the coast knew which way the Goliath's boats had gone," Tharkay said. "I was here before you were, I imagine; finding where you had been stowed was more difficult. I foolishly went to the trouble to get these, first," showing Laurence a folded packet of papers, "from the port admiral, in the assumption he would know the whereabouts of the prisoner he was assigning to me, but he left me in the hall two hours, and quarreled with me another, and only when I had his signature did he at last confess to having not the least knowledge where you were, with the harbor on fire."
They came to a bare clearing, a courier-covert, where little Gherni waited for them fidgeting anxiously; she hissed at Tharkay urgently. He answered her in the same tangled dragon-language, which Laurence could not make much sense of, and then clambered up her scanty rigging to her back, pointing Laurence at the couple of handholds to get himself aboard.
"We may have some difficulty," Tharkay said. "Bonaparte's men are still nearly all on the coast, but his dragons are going deep inland. Fifty thousand, I believe," he answered, when Laurence asked how many men, "and as many as two hundred beasts, if one cares to believe the figure. The Corps has fallen back with the rest of the army, to Woolwich. I believe to await Bonaparte's pleasure; why they are being so courteous, you would have to ask the generals."
"I thank you for coming," Laurence said; Tharkay had risked a great deal, with such geography: half Bonaparte's army landed somewhere between them and the Army. "You have taken service, then?" he asked, looking at Tharkay's coat: he wore gold bars, a captain's rank. It was not uncommon in the Army for a man to be commissioned when he was needed, if a rarer phenomenon in the Corps, where the dragon made the rank, than in other branches. But with Tharkay one of the few who could speak with the feral dragons of the Pamirs, it was no surprise the Corps had wanted him; more of one that he had accepted.
"For now." Tharkay shrugged.
"No-one could accuse you of an interested choice," Laurence said, too grim for even black humor, with the smell of the burning city in his nostrils.
"One of its advantages," Tharkay said. "Any fool could throw in his lot with a victor."
Laurence did not ask why he had been sent. Fifty thousand men landed was answer enough: Temeraire must be wanted, and Laurence himself the only, however undesirable, means to come by his services; it was a pragmatic and a temporary choice only, nothing to give him hope of forgiveness either personal or legal. Tharkay himself volunteered no more: Gherni was already springing aloft, and the vigor of the wind blew all possible words away.
The sky had the peculiar late-autumn crispness, very blue and clear and cloudless, beautiful flying weather, and they had scarcely been half an hour aloft before Gherni suddenly plunged beneath them, and trembling went to ground in a wooded clearing of pines. Laurence had seen nothing, except perhaps a few specks drifting that might have been wandering birds; but he and Tharkay pushed forward to the edge of the woods and, peering out from the shade, saw at length two shapes leap up from the ground, and come closer. Two big grey-and-brown dragons, gliding with lazy assurance, and well they might: Grand Chevaliers, the largest of the French heavy-weights, only a little smaller than Regal Coppers. They were messy with recent pillaging, and each had what looked like a dozen cows dangling stupefied in their belly-netting, these occasionally uttering groggy and perplexed moans, and pawing ineffectually at the air with their hooves.
The pair went by calling to each other cheerfully in French too colloquial and rapid for Laurence to follow, their crews laughing. Their shadows passed like scudding clouds, a moment's complete blotting of the sun, while Gherni held very still beneath the branches. Her eyes were the only part of her which moved, tracking the great dragons' passage overhead.
She could not be persuaded back aloft, afterwards, but curled up as deeply as she could wedge herself into the trees, and proposed instead that they should bring her something to eat. She would not go again until it was dark. That the French Fleur-de-Nuits would be out then, in their turn, was not an argument which Laurence wished very much to attempt on her, for fear of her refusing to go on at all. Tharkay only shrugged, and examined his pistols, and put himself on a track towards the nearby farmhouses. "Perhaps the Chevaliers will not have eaten all the cattle."
There were no cows left visible, nor sheep, nor people; only a scattering of unhappy chickens, which Tharkay methodically loosed the kestrel against, one after another. They would not make much dinner for Gherni, but a little was better than nothing; and then in the stable a small pig was discovered, rooting unconcernedly in the straw, oblivious both to the fate which it had earlier escaped and to the one which now descended upon it.
Gherni was neither picky nor patient enough to demand her pork cooked, and they roasted the chickens for themselves over a small, well-banked fire, feeding the kestrel on the sweetbreads, and waving their hands through the smoke to thin it out. Without salt the meat had little flavor, but did well enough to fill their stomachs. They gnawed it down to the bones, and buried the remnants deep; they rubbed their greasy hands clean with grass.
And then only the wait for the sun to go down: a crawling time, when it was scarcely yet noon, and the ground cold and hard to sit upon: wet rotting leaves in a muck everywhere, the wind blowing a steady chill into fingers and feet, with all the stamping they could do. But Laurence could stand when he chose, and go to the edge of the copse and feel the wind blowing freely into his face, and see the placid well-ruled fields in their orderly brown ranks and tall white birch-trees raising their limbs high against the unbroken sky.
Tharkay came and stood beside him. There was no alteration in his looks or manner; if he was silent, he had been silent before. It was to Laurence as much liberation as the absence of locks and barred doors, to be able to stand here a moment, and be no traitor, but only himself, unchanged, in the company of another. He had suffered wide disapproval before, without intolerable pain, when he knew himself in the right; he had not known it could be so heavy.
Tharkay said, "I might never have found you, of course."
It was an offer, and Laurence was ashamed to be tempted; tempted so strongly he could not immediately make his refusal, not with all freedom open before him, and the stench of smoke and the ship's bilges still thick in the back of his throat, ready to be tasted.
"My idea of duty is not yours," Tharkay said. "But I know of no reason why you owe it to any man to die, to no purpose."
"Honor is sufficient purpose," Laurence said, low.
"Very well," Tharkay said, "if your death would preserve it better than your life. But the world is not yet quite ranged all between Britain and Napoleon, and you do not need to choose between them or die. You would be welcome, and Temeraire, in other parts of the world. You may recall there is at least a semblance of civilization," he added dryly, "in some few places, beyond the borders of England."
"I do not - " Laurence said, struggling, "I will not pretend that I do not consider it, for Temeraire's sake if not my own. But to fly would be to make myself truly a traitor."
"Laurence," Tharkay said, after a pause, "you are a traitor." It was a blow to hear him say so, in his cool blunt way, all the lack of passion in the words serving only to make them seem less accusation than statement of fact. "Allowing them to put you to death for it may be a form of apology, but it does not make you less guilty."
Laurence did not know how to answer; of course Tharkay was right. It was useless to cry, that he loved his country, and had betrayed her only in extremis, as the lesser of two hideous evils. He had betrayed her, and the cause mattered not at all. So perhaps for nothing, now, he condemned Temeraire to lonely servitude, himself to life-long imprisonment. Perhaps all that could be lost, had been lost. And yet - and yet - He could not answer.
They stood a long while, mutely. At last Tharkay shook his head, and put his hand on Laurence's shoulder. "It is getting dark."
"Yes, I sent for him," Jane said, flatly. "And you may leave off your coughing and your insinuations: if I wanted a man between my legs so badly, there is a campful of handsome young fellows outside, and I dare say I could find one out to oblige me, without going to such trouble."
Having momentarily appalled her audience of generals and ministers into silence, she rode on, with no more muttering to contend against, "If the French took him prisoner, they would have two Celestials; and even if the two are too close related to breed direct, they will cross-breed them - perhaps to Grand Chevaliers, if you like to imagine that - and breed the offspring back to fix the traits: in a generation they will have a breed of their own, and we nothing: we haven't a single egg out of Temeraire yet. Put Laurence in a gaol-waggon and bring him along under guard, if you insist; but if you have any sense, you will make use of him, and the beast."
The atmosphere in the generals' tent was not a convivial one. All conversation circled endlessly around the central disaster of the landing, returning to it again and again, and Laurence had already gathered enough to understand: Jane had not been in command of the aerial defense, after all. Sanderson had been made Admiral at Dover, over her head.
For what reason, Laurence scarcely needed to wonder: they had never liked making her commander, but having been forced to do it by necessity, they would likely have gone on as they had begun rather than admit a mistake; if they had not wanted vengeance, if they had not thought her complicit in Laurence's treason.
As for Sanderson, Laurence knew the man a little: he was handler to a Parnassian and commanded a large independent formation at Dover; they had served together, if not very closely. Thoroughly experienced but no brilliant officer, Laurence would have said, and Sanderson's attention was badly divided. Though his Animosia had been dosed with the cure, several times, she still fared poorly from the aftereffects of the epidemic, and it had nearly killed him, too: he was not a year short of sixty, and had scarcely slept or eaten while his dragon ailed.
He sat now in a corner of the tent and wiped occasionally at an oozing cut over his eye with a folded bandage, saying nothing, while the generals shouted instead at Jane; he looked grey and faded under the bright bloody streak on his forehead.
"Splendid, so you would put a known traitor and his uncontrollable beast into the middle of our very lines," one member of the Navy Board said. "You may as well rig up a telegraph and signal all our plans to Bonaparte at once."
"Bonaparte can't damned well have an easier time of it than he has already, unless you run up a white flag instead," Jane snapped. "He has a hundred dragons more than he ought to, by any numbers. You gentlemen at the Admiralty swear up and down we should have heard if he'd stripped Prussia and Italy to the bone; so I suppose he is pulling them out of the trees; and as we can't do the same, we must have every last beast we can scrounge. Six beasts too injured to fight in the next month, four of our newest ferals slunk off, and you want to let a Celestial rot; pure idiocy."
"Why precisely are we listening to this haranguing fishwife?" someone said.
"To be precise," Jane said, "you aren't listening to me, and you had better start. Begging your pardon, Sanderson, you are a damned fine formation-leader; but you weren't the man for this."
"No, not at all, Roland," Sanderson said, dully, and patted the cloth to his forehead again.
"We are listening to her," another general said in back, impatient: a lean sharp-faced man with a decided aquiline nose, and the Order of the Bath, "because you could not scrape up a competent man for the job. We are not going to beat Bonaparte with yesterday's mess."
"Portland - " another began.
"Stop bleating the man's name like a talisman," the general said. "If it is not Nelson with you, it is Portland. Gibraltar is as bad as Denmark: neither of them is to be had in under a month. Until then, get out of her way."
"General Wellesley, you cannot seriously be lending your voice to the suggestion - " another minister said, gesturing to Laurence.
"Thank you; I am capable of deciding to what I will lend my voice, without consultation," Wellesley said. He raked Laurence up and down with a cold dismissive eye. "He's a sentimentalist, isn't he - surrendered himself? Damned romantic. What difference does it make? Hang him after."
Jane took him to her tent. "No, you had better stay, Frette," she said, speaking to her aide-de-camp, who had risen from a camp-table as she ducked inside. "I can better afford to be frank before a witness than make hay for any more rumors."
She poured herself a glass of wine, and drank it with her back to him. Laurence could not quarrel with her decision, but he wished that they had been alone; he himself felt it impossible to speak as he wished before anyone else. Then she put down the glass and sat down behind her desk. "Tomorrow you will go by courier to Pen Y Fan," she said, tiredly, without looking at him. "That is where they have been keeping Temeraire. Will you bring him back?"
"Yes, of course," Laurence said.
"They very likely will hang you after, unless you manage to do something heroic," Jane said.
"If I had wished to avoid justice, I might have stayed in France," Laurence said. "Jane - "
"Admiral Roland, if you please," she said, sharply. After a moment's silence, she added, "I cannot blame you, Laurence; Christ knows it was ugly. But if I am to do any good, I cannot be fighting their damned Lordships as well as Napoleon's dragons. Frette will take you to the officers' tent to eat, and find you somewhere to sleep. You will go tomorrow, and when you come back you will be flying in formation, under Admiral Sanderson. That will be all."
She gave a jerk of her head, and Frette clearing his throat held open the tent flap; Laurence could only bow, and withdraw too slowly, wishing he had not seen her drop her forehead to her clenched fist, and the grimness around her mouth.
There was a dreadful awkwardness when he came into the large mess tent in Frette's company. He saw none of his nearest acquaintance, and was glad to postpone that evil, but several remarks were made by captains little known to him, which he had to pretend not to hear, and worse than that was the discomfort and downcast faces of those who would not snub him, but still did not choose to meet his eyes.
He had been prepared for this much; he was not as well braced to have his hand seized, and aggressively pumped, by a gentleman he had only seen perhaps twice before, across the officers' common room at Dover. Captain Hesterfield loudly said, "May I shake your hand, sir?" too late for the request to be refused, and then nearly bodily dragged Laurence over to his table in the corner, and presented him to his companions.
There were six officers at the small and huddled table: two Prussians, one of whom, Von Pfeil, Laurence recognized from the siege of Danzig, and another who stood and shook his hand, and introduced himself as cousin to Captain Dyhern, with whom they had fought at the Battle of Jena. They were refugees from their own country, having chosen exile and service in Britain over accepting the parole which Napoleon had offered to Prussian officers.
Another stranger, Captain Prewitt, had been called to England a few months before, out of desperation: his Winchester had escaped the epidemic, as they were ordinarily assigned to Halifax covert, whence he had been stationed on a lonely circuit out in Quebec to put him out of the way of anyone hearing his radical political views, as he freely acknowledged.
"Or perhaps my poetry," Prewitt said, laughing at himself, "but my pride can better stand condemnation of my politics than of my art, so I choose to take it so. And this is Captain Latour," a French Royalist turned British officer. Hesterfield and the two others, Reynolds and Gounod, were political sympathizers of Prewitt's, if a little quieter than he on the subject, and Laurence gradually realized they were not incidentally supporters of his act, but were divided from the rest of the company precisely by quarreling over it.
"Murder, murder most foul, there is no other word," Reynolds declared, covering Laurence's hand with his own, pinning it to the table by the wrist, and looking at him with the focused, too-earnest expression of the profoundly drunk. Laurence did not know what to say; he had agreed, and had laid down his life to prevent it, but he did not care to be congratulated for it, by a stranger.
"Treason is another word, if you like," another officer said, at the nearest populated table, making no pretenses about eavesdropping; a bottle of whiskey half-empty stood before him, and he was drinking alone.
"Hear, hear," another man said.
There were entirely too many bottles in the room, and too many angry and disappointed men. It was an invitation for a scene. Laurence disengaged his hand. He would heartily have liked to excuse himself and shift tables, but Frette had abandoned him to Prewitt and his willing company, and Laurence could not imagine imposing himself on anyone else in the room. "I beg you gentlemen not to speak of it," he said quietly, to the table: to no avail. Reynolds was already arguing with the whiskey-drinker, and their voices were penetrating.
Laurence set his jaw, and tried not to hear. "And I say," the whiskey-drinker was saying, "that he is a traitor who ought to be drug outside, strung up, and drawn and quartered after, and you with him, if you say otherwise - "
"Medieval sentiment - " They were both standing now, Reynolds shaking off Gounod's half-hearted restraining hand to get up. Their voices had risen enough to drown all nearby conversation.
Laurence rose, and catching Reynolds by the shoulder firmly, pressed him back towards his chair. "Sir, you do me no kindness by this; leave off," he said, low and sharply.
"That's right, let him teach you how to be a coward," the other man said.
Laurence stiffened. He could not resent insults which he had earned, he had sacrificed the right to defend himself against traitor - but coward was a slap he could not gladly swallow. Yet even if dueling were not forbidden aviators, he could not make challenge. He had caused enough harm; he could not - would not - do more. He closed his mouth on the bitterness in the back of his throat, and did not turn to look the man in the face, though he stood now so offensively close his liquored breath came hot and strongly over Laurence's shoulder.
"Call him a coward, when you would've sat and done nothing," Reynolds flung back, resisting the push. He shook off Laurence's hand, or tried. "I suppose your dragon would think a lot of your being happy to see ten thousand of them put down, poisoned or good as, like dogs - "
"At least one of 'em ought to be poisoned," the other man said, and Laurence let go of Reynolds and turned and knocked him down.
The man was drunk and unsteady, and going down pulled the table and the bottle over with him, cheap liquor bubbling out over the dirt as it rolled away. For a moment no-one spoke, and then chairs went back across the tent, eagerly, as if nothing more had been wanted than a pretext.
The quarrel at once devolved into a confused melee, with nothing so organized as sides; Laurence saw two men from the same table wrestling in a corner. But a few men singled him out, one a captain he knew by face from Dover, if not immediately by name; he had streaks of black dragon blood fresh on his clothing. Geoffrey Windle, Laurence remembered incongruously, as they grappled, and then Windle struck him full on the jaw.
The impact rocked him back on his heels: his teeth snapped together, jarring all up to his skull with the startling pain of a bitten cheek. Gripping a tent-pole for purchase, Laurence managed to seize a chair and pull it around between them as Windle lunged at him again; the man tripped over it and went into the pole with his full weight: considerable, as he had some three stone over Laurence. The canvas roof above sagged precipitously.
Two more men came at Laurence, faces ugly with anger, and caught him by the arms together to rush him against the nearest table: drunk enough to be belligerent, not enough to be clumsy. He still had on his buckled shoes and his laddered stockings, and neither good purchase on the ground, nor the weight of his boots to kick out with. They pinned him down, and one had out a knife, a dull eating-knife, still slick with grease from his dinner. Laurence set his heel down against the surface of the table and heaved, managing to get his shoulders loose a moment, twisting away from the short furious stabbing of the blade, so it only tore into his ragged coat.
The tent-pole creaked and gave, and the canvas came pouring down upon them in a sudden catastrophic rush. His arms were free, only to be imprisoned worse in the smothering folds, so heavy he had an effort to lift it clear enough from his face to breathe. He rolled off the table, and then there were hands gripping his arm again, pulling at him. Laurence struck out blindly at the new attacker, and they went falling together, rolling along the dirt floor, until the other man managed to drag the edge of the canvas off their heads and get them into the open air; and it was Granby.
"Oh, Lord," Granby said: Laurence turned and saw half the tent crumpled in on a heaving mass beneath. Those sober enough to have avoided the fighting were carrying out the lanterns from the other side, and others dousing the collapsed canvas with water; some smoke trickled out from beneath.
"You'll do a damned sight more good to come out of the way; here," Granby said, when Laurence would have gone to help, and drew him along one of the camp paths, narrow and stumbling-dark, towards the dragon-clearings.
They walked in silence over the uneven ground. Laurence tried to slow his short, clenched breathing, without success. He felt inexpressibly naïve. He had not even thought to fear such a possibility, until he heard it in the mouth of a drunkard. But when they did hang him - knowing it would lose them Temeraire's use - what might not those same men do, who had meant to infect all the world's dragons with consumption and condemn them to an agonized death. Of course they would gladly see Temeraire dead, rather than of use to anyone they were disposed to see as an enemy - France or China or any other nation. They would not scruple at any sort of treachery necessary to achieve his destruction; to them Temeraire was only an inconvenient animal.
"I suppose," Granby said, abruptly, out of the dark, "that he insisted on it: your carrying the stuff to France, I mean."
"He did," Laurence said, after a moment, but he did not mean to hide behind Temeraire's wings. "I am ashamed to say, he was forced to, at first; I am ashamed of it. I would not have you believe I was taken against my will."
"No," Granby said, "no, I only meant, you shouldn't have thought of it at all, on your own."
The observation felt true, and uncomfortably so, though Laurence supposed Granby had meant it as consolation. A sudden sharp stab of feeling caught his breath: loneliness and something more, an inarticulate next cousin to homesickness. He wanted very badly to see Temeraire. Laurence had slept his last night beneath the sheltering wing nearly three months ago, in the northern mountains, treason already committed and a few hours snatched before they made the fatal flight across the Channel. Since then there had been only a succession of prisons, more or less brutal, for them both: and what had these months been for Temeraire, alone and friendless and unhappy, in the breeding grounds full of feral beasts and veterans, with likely no order or discipline to keep them from fighting.
They fell into silence again, passing the clearings one by one, the millhouse rumble of sleeping dragons to either side, their own dinners finished and their crews toiling on the harnesses with only a few lanterns, the faint clanking of the smiths' hammers tapping away and the acrid smoky stink of harness oil. They had a long walk out in the dark, after the last clearing, climbing a steep slope upwards to the crown of a hill, prominently placed overlooking all the camp, where Iskierka lay sleeping in a thick spiny coil, steam issuing with every breath, and the feral dragons scattered around her.
She cracked an eye open as they came in and inquired drowsily, "Is it a battle yet?"
"No, love, back to sleep," Granby said, and she sighed and shut her eye; but she had drawn the notice of the men: they looked up, and then they looked from Laurence to Granby, and then they looked back down again, saying nothing.
"Perhaps I had best not stay," Laurence said. He knew some of the faces: men from his own crew, some of his former officers; he was glad they had found places here.
"Stuff," Granby said. "I am not so damned craven, and anyway," he added, more despondently, when he had led Laurence into his own tent, pitched in the comfortable current of heat which Iskierka gave steadily off, "I cannot be much farther in the soup than I am already, after yesterday. She's spoilt, there is no other word for it. Wouldn't keep in formation, wouldn't obey signals - took the ferals with her - " He shrugged, and taking up his own private bottle from the floor poured them each a glass, which he drank with an unaccustomed enthusiasm.
"It's not so bad, on patrol," Granby said, wiping his mouth after. "She doesn't need any coaxing to look out the enemy, and she'll take directions to make it easier; I hardly notice anymore. But in a fleet action - I don't mean she was useless," he added, with a defensive note. "Did for a first-rate and three frigates, all herself and those fellows, and chased a dozen French beasts. But she hasn't a shred of discipline. Pretended not to hear me, left the right wing of the Corps wide open, and two beasts badly hurt for it. I ought to be broken for it, if they could afford to give her up."
He was pacing the small confines of the tent, still holding the empty glass, and talking swiftly, almost nervously; more to be saying something, filling the air between them, than the particular words. "This is the sort of thing that rots the Corps," he said. "I never thought I would be - a bad officer, someone who ruins his dragon, some other kind of fool, kept on because his beast won't serve otherwise - the Army, the Navy, they sneer at us for that, as much for anything else, and there at least they are right to sneer. So our admirals have to dance to the Navy's tune, and meanwhile the youngsters see it, too, and you can't ask them to be better, when they see a fellow let off anything, anything at all - "
He pulled himself up abruptly, realizing too late that his words were applicable to more of his audience than himself, and looked at Laurence miserably.
"You are not wrong," Laurence said. He had assumed as much himself, after all, in his Navy days: had thought the Corps full of wild, devil-may-care libertines, disregarding law and authority as far as they dared, barely kept in check - to be used for their control over the beasts, and not respected.
"But if we have more liberty than we ought," Laurence said, after a moment, struggling through, "it is because they have not enough: the dragons. They have no stake in victory but our happiness; their daily bread any nation would give them just to have peace and quiet. We are given license so long as we do what we ought not: so long as we use their affections to keep them obedient and quiet, to ends which serve them not at all - or which harm."
"How else do you make them care?" Granby said. "If we left off, the French would only run right over us, and take our eggs themselves."
"They care in China," Laurence said, "and in Africa, and care all the more, that their rational sense is not imposed on, and their hearts put into opposition with their minds. If they cannot be woken to a natural affection for their country, such as we feel, it is our fault and not theirs."
Laurence slept the night in Granby's tent, atop a blanket; he would not take Granby's cot. It was odd to sleep hot and wake in a midsummer sweat, then step out and see the camp below dusted overnight with snow, soiled grey tents for the moment clean white, and the ground already churning into muddy slush.
"You are back," Iskierka said, looking at Laurence: she was wide awake, picking over the charred remnants of her breakfast, and watching the sluggish camp with a disgruntled eye. "Where is Temeraire? He has let you get into a wretched state," she added, with rather a smug air. Laurence could not argue: he was a pitiful sight indeed, in raggedy coat and his shoes beginning to open at the seams; and the less said of his stockings, the better. "Granby," she said, looking over his shoulder, "you may lend Laurence your fourth-best coat, and then you may tell Temeraire," she added to Laurence, "that I am very sorry he cannot give you nicer things."
However, Granby was wearing his fourth-best coat, as the other three were so adorned with gold braid and jewels, the fruits of Iskierka's determined prize-hunting, as to be wholly unsuitable for actual fighting. It would not in any case have been a very successful loan, as Laurence had some four inches in the shoulders which Granby had instead in height; but Granby sent word out, and shortly a young runner came back, carrying a folded coat, and a spare pair of boots.
"Why, Sipho," Laurence said. "I am glad to find you well; and your brother, I hope?" He had worried what might have become of the two boys, brought from Africa, who had so helped them there; he had made them his own runners briefly by way of providing for them, but he had too shortly thereafter put himself in no position to be of assistance to anyone.
"Yes, sir," Sipho said in English as perfect as Laurence had ever heard in his life, though less than a year before the child had never heard a word of it. "He is with Arkady, and Captain Berkley says, you are welcome to these, and to come and say hello to Maximus would you, if you are not too damned stiff-necked; he said to say just that," he added earnestly.
"You aren't the only one who owes them," Berkley said, in his blunt way, when Laurence had come and thanked him for assuming the responsibility. "You needn't worry about them being cast off anyway: we need them. They can jaw with those damned ferals, better than any man jack of us; that older boy talks their jabber quicker than he does English. You can worry about their getting knocked on the head instead. I had a fight on my hands to make the Admiralty let me keep this one grounded for now: they would have put him up as an ensign, if you like; not nine years of age. Demane they would have no matter what I said, but that is just as well. Fights," he added succinctly, "so he may as well do it against the Frogs, where it don't get him in hot water."
Maximus was much recovered, from the last Laurence had seen him: three months of steady feeding on shore had brought him nearly up to his former fighting weight, and he put his head down and said in a conspiratorial whisper, "Tell Temeraire that Lily and I have not forgotten our promise, and we are ready to fight with him whenever he should ask; we will not let them hang you, at all."
Laurence stared up at the immense Regal Copper. All his crew looked deeply distressed, as well they might, the outlaw remark being perfectly audible several clearings over. Berkley only snorted. "There has been plenty of talk like that, and louder," he said. "I expect that is why you have been kept stuffed between decks in a ship instead of a decent prison on land. No, don't beg my pardon. It was sure as sixpence you and that mad beast of yours would make a spectacle of yourselves soon or late. Bring him back, do for a dozen Frogs, and save us all the bother of the execution."
With this sanguine if unlikely recommendation, Laurence reported to the courier-clearing with his orders, looking a little less shabby: Berkley was a thickset man, but if the borrowed coat was too large at least it could be got on, and with a little padding of straw at the toes, the boots were entirely serviceable. His repaired appearance got him no better treatment, however. There were a dozen beasts waiting for messages and orders, but when Laurence had presented himself, the courier-master said, "If you will be so good as to wait," and left him outside the clearing. Laurence was near enough to see the master talking with his officers; none of the courier-captains looked very inclined to take him up. He was left standing an hour, while four messages came in and were sent out, before another Winchester landed bringing fresh orders from the Admiralty, and at last the courier-master came and said, "Very well; we have a man to take you."
"Morning, sir," the captain said, touching his hat, as Laurence came over: Hollin, his former ground-crew master. "Elsie, will you give the captain a leg up? There is a strap there, sir, handy for you."
"Thank you, Hollin," Laurence said, grateful for the steady matter-of-factness, and climbed up to her back. "We are for Pen Y Fan."
"Right you are, sir, we know the way," Hollin said. "Do you need a bite to sup, Elsie, before we go?"
"No," she said, raising her head dripping from the water-trough. "They always have lovely cows there, I will wait."
They did not speak very much during the flight. Winchesters were so small and quick one felt always on the point of flying off on one's own, the force of the wind steadily testing the limits of the carabiner straps, and Laurence's hands, already blistered, grew bruised where he held on to the leather harness. They raced past blurring fields of brown stalks and snow, the thin cold air chapping at their faces and leaking down into the neck of Laurence's coat, through the threadbare shirt and piercing to the skin. He did not mind in the least, except to wish they might go quicker still; he resented now every mile remaining.
Goodrich Castle swelled up before them, on its hill, and Hollin put out the signal-flags as they flashed by: courier, with orders, and the fort's signal-gun fired in acknowledgment, already falling behind them.
The mountains were growing nearer, and nearer, and as the sun began to set Elsie came over the final sharp ridge and over the broad packed-earth feeding grounds, stained dark with much blood, and the cliffs full of dragon-holes. She landed. The cattle pen was empty, its wide door standing open. There were no lights and no sound. There was not a dragon anywhere to be seen.
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