Tragedy has struck His Majesty’s Aerial Corps, whose magnificent fleet of fighting dragons and their human captains valiantly defend England’s shores against the encroaching armies of Napoleon Bonaparte. An epidemic of unknown origin and no known cure is decimating the noble dragons’ ranks–forcing the hopelessly stricken into quarantine. Now only Temeraire and a pack of newly recruited dragons remain uninfected–and stand as the only means of an airborne defense against France’s ever bolder sorties.
Bonaparte’s dragons are already harrowing Britain’s ships at sea. Only one recourse remains: Temeraire and his captain, Will Laurence, must take wing to Africa, whose shores may hold the cure to the mysterious and deadly contagion. On this mission there is no time to waste, and no telling what lies in store beyond the horizon or for those left behind to wait, hope, and hold the line.
“In Novik’s earlier fantasies (His Majesty’s Dragon, etc.), readers soared to Europe and Asia on the wings of an intriguing premise: How would the Napoleonic Wars have played out if dragons not only existed, but participated in the war effort? The fourth part of Novik’s engrossing answer sweeps readers off to Africa, where the cure to the disease that has decimated England’s dragon forces may be found. The African adventures of British captain Will Laurence, his dragon Temeraire and their bedraggled band of aerial corps make up the book’s latter half, which showcases Novik’s knack for weaving dragons and dragon lore into a vivid, well-researched historical tapestry. In Africa’s wild interior, dragons shepherd and feed from elephant caravans while protecting the native villagers. This protection includes waging war against England’s slave-seeking colonists, a clash that Laurence and his band may not escape unscathed. Novik fills the conflict’s lead-up with lengthy meditations on dragon civil rights and England’s abolition movement, making for a fitful, pedantic first half. But most will find the richness of Novik’s developing world—and characters—to be worthy compensation for the slow start.” — Publishers Weekly
“Send up another, damn you, send them all up, at once if you have to,” Laurence said savagely to poor Calloway, who did not deserve to be sworn at: the gunner was firing off the flares so quickly his hands were scorched black, skin cracking and peeling to bright red where some powder had spilled onto his fingers; he was not stopping to wipe them clean before setting each flare to the match.
One of the little French dragons darted in again, slashing at Temeraire’s side, and five men fell screaming as a piece of the makeshift carrying-harness unraveled. They vanished at once beyond the lantern-light and were swallowed up in the dark; the long twisted rope of striped silk, a pillaged curtain, unfurled gently in the wind and went billowing down after them, threads trailing from the torn edges. A moan went through the other Prussian soldiers still clinging desperately on to the harness, and after it followed a low angry muttering in German.
Any gratitude the soldiers might have felt for their rescue from the siege of Danzig had since been exhausted: three days flying through icy rain, no food but what they had crammed into their pockets in those final desperate moments, no rest but a few hours snatched along a cold and marshy stretch of the Dutch coast, and now this French patrol harrying them all this last endless night. Men so terrified might do anything in a panic; many of them had still their small-arms and swords, and there were more than a hundred of them crammed aboard, to the less than thirty of Temeraire’s own crew.
Laurence swept the sky again with his glass, straining for a glimpse of wings, an answering signal. They were in sight of shore, the night was clear: through his glass he saw the gleam of lights dotting the small harbors all along the Scottish coast, and below heard the steadily increasing roar of the surf. Their flares ought to have been plain to see all the way to Edinburgh; yet no reinforcements had come, not a single courier-beast even to investigate.
“Sir, that’s the last of them,” Calloway said, coughing through the grey smoke that wreathed his head, the flare whistling high and away. The powder flash went off silently above their heads, casting the white scudding clouds into brilliant relief, reflecting from dragon scales in every direction: Temeraire all in black, the rest in gaudy colors muddied to shades of grey by the lurid blue light. The night was full of their wings: a dozen dragons turning their heads around to look back, their gleaming pupils narrowing; more coming on, all of them laden down with men, and the handful of small French patrol-dragons darting among them.
All seen in the flash of a moment, then the thunderclap crack and rumble sounded, only a little delayed, and the flare dying away drifted into blackness again. Laurence counted ten, and ten again; still there was no answer from the shore.
Emboldened, the French dragon came in once more. Temeraire aimed a swipe which would have knocked the little Pou-de-Ciel flat, but his attempt was very slow, for fear of dislodging any more of his passengers; their small enemy evaded with contemptuous ease and circled away to wait for his next chance.
“Laurence,” Temeraire said, looking round, “where is everyone? Victoriatus is in Edinburgh; he at least ought to have come. After all, we helped him, when he was hurt; not that I need help, precisely, against these little dragons,” he added, straightening his neck with a crackle of popping joints, “but it is not very convenient to try and fight while we are carrying so many people.”
This was putting a braver face on the situation than it deserved: they could not very well defend themselves at all, and Temeraire was taking the worst of it, bleeding already from many small gashes along his side and flanks, which the crew could not bandage up, so cramped were they aboard.
“Only keep everyone moving towards the shore,” Laurence said; he had no better answer to give. “I cannot imagine the patrol will pursue us over land,” he added, but doubtfully; he would never have imagined a French patrol could come so near to shore as this, either, without challenge; and how he should manage to disembark a thousand frightened and exhausted men under bombardment he did not like to contemplate.
“I am trying; only they will keep stopping to fight,” Temeraire said, wearily, and turned back to his work. Arkady and his rough band of mountain ferals found the small, stinging attacks maddening, and they kept trying to turn around mid-air and go after the French patrol-dragons; in their contortions they were flinging off more of the hapless Prussian soldiers than the enemy could ever have accounted for. There was no malice in their carelessness: the wild dragons were unused to men except as the jealous guardians of flocks and herds, and they did not think of their passengers as anything more than an unusual burden; but with malice or none, the men were dying all the same. Temeraire could only prevent them by constant vigilance, and now he was hovering in place over the line of flight, cajoling and hissing by turns, encouraging the others to hurry onwards.
“No, no, Gherni,” Temeraire called out, and dashed forward to swat at the little blue and white feral: she had dropped onto the very back of a startled French Chasseur-Vocifère: a courier beast of scarcely four tons, who could not bear up under even her slight weight and was sinking in the air despite the frantic beating of its wings. Gherni had already fixed her teeth in the French dragon’s neck and was now worrying it back and forth with savage vigor; meanwhile the Prussians clinging to her harness were all but drumming their heels on the heads of the French crew, crammed so tightly not a shot from the French side could fail of killing one of them.
In his efforts to dislodge her, Temeraire was left open, and the Pou-de-Ciel seized the fresh opportunity; this time daring enough to make an attempt at Temeraire’s back. His claws struck so near that Laurence saw the traces of Temeraire’s blood shining black on the curved edges as the French dragon lifted away again; his hand tightened on his pistol, uselessly.
“Oh, let me, let me!” Iskierka was straining furiously against the restraints which kept her lashed down to Temeraire’s back. The infant Kazilik would soon enough be a force to reckon with; as yet, however, scarcely a month out of the shell, she was too young and unpracticed to be a serious danger to anyone besides herself. They had tried as best they could to secure her, with straps and chains and lecturing, but the last she roundly ignored, and though she had been but irregularly fed these last few days, she had added another five feet of length overnight: neither straps nor chains were proving of much use in restraining her.
“Will you hold still, for all love?” Granby said despairingly; he was throwing his own weight against the straps to try and pull her head down. Allen and Harley, the young lookouts stationed on Temeraire’s shoulders, had to go scrambling out of the way to avoid being kicked as Granby was dragged stumbling from side to side by her efforts. Laurence loosened his buckles and climbed to his feet, bracing his heels against the strong ridge of muscle at the base of Temeraire’s neck. He caught Granby by the harness-belt when Iskierka’s thrashing swung him by again, and managed to hold him steady, but all the leather was strung tight as violin-strings, trembling with the strain.
“But I can stop him!” she insisted, twisting her head sidelong as she tried to work free. Eager jets of flame were licking out of the sides of her jaws as she tried once again to lunge at the enemy dragon, but their Pou-de-Ciel attacker, small as he was, was still many times her size and too experienced to be frightened off by a little show of fire; he only jeered, backwinging to expose all of his speckled brown belly to her as a target in a gesture of insulting unconcern.
“Oh!” Iskierka coiled herself tightly with rage, the thin spiky protrusions all over her sinuous body jetting steam, and then with a mighty heave she reared herself up on her hindquarters. The straps jerked painfully out of Laurence’s grasp, and involuntarily he caught his hand back to his chest, the numb fingers curling over in reaction. Granby had been dragged into mid-air and was dangling from her thick neck-band, vainly, while she let loose a torrent of flame: thin and yellow-white, so hot the air about it seemed to twist and shrivel away, it made a fierce banner against the night sky.
But the French dragon had cleverly put himself before the wind, coming strong and from the east; now he folded his wings and dropped away, and the blistering flames were blown back against Temeraire’s flank. Temeraire, still scolding Gherni back into the line of flight, uttered a startled cry and jerked away while sparks scattered over the glossy blackness of his hide, perilously close to the carrying-harness of silk and linen and rope.
“Verfluchtes Untier! Wir werden noch alle verbrennen,” one of the Prussian officers yelled hoarsely, pointing at Iskierka, and fumbled with shaking hand in his bandoleer for a cartridge.
“Enough there; put up that pistol,” Laurence roared at him through the speaking-trumpet; Lieutenant Ferris and a couple of the topmen hurriedly unlatched their harness-straps and let themselves down to wrestle it out of the officer’s hands. They could only reach the fellow by clambering over the other Prussian soldiers, however, and though too afraid to let go of the harness, the men were obstructing their passage in every other way, thrusting out elbows and hips with abrupt jerks, full of resentment and hostility.
Lieutenant Riggs was giving orders, distantly, towards the rear; “Fire!” he shouted, clear over the increasing rumble among the Prussians; the handful of rifles spoke with bright powder-bursts, sulfurous and bitter. The French dragon made a little shriek and wheeled away, flying a little awkward: blood streaked in rivulets from a rent in its wing, where a bullet had by lucky chance struck one of the thinner patches around the joint and penetrated the tough, resilient hide.
The respite came a little late; some of the men were already clawing their way up towards Temeraire’s back, snatching at the greater security of the leather harness to which the aviators were hooked by their carabiner straps. But the harness could not take all their weight, not so many of them; if the buckles stretched open, or some straps gave way, and the whole began to slide, it would entangle Temeraire’s wings and send them all plummeting into the ocean together.
Laurence loaded his pistols fresh and thrust them into his waistband, loosened his sword, and stood up again. He had willingly risked all their lives to bring these men out of a trap, and he meant to see them safely ashore if he could; but he would not see Temeraire endangered by their hysteric fear.
“Allen, Harley,” he said to the boys, “do you run across to the riflemen and tell Mr. Riggs: if we cannot stop them, they are to cut the carrying-harness loose, all of it; and be sure you keep latched on as you go. Perhaps you had better stay here with her, John,” he added, when Granby made to come away with him: Iskierka had quieted for the moment, her enemy having quit the field, but she still coiled and recoiled herself in sulky restlessness, muttering in disappointment.
“Oh, certainly! I should like to see myself do any such thing,” Granby said, taking out his sword; he had foregone pistols since becoming Iskierka’s captain, to avoid the risk of handling open powder around her.
Laurence was too unsure of his ground to pursue an argument; Granby was not properly his subordinate any longer, and the more experienced aviator of the two of them, counting years aloft. Granby took the lead as they crossed Temeraire’s back, moving with the sureness only a boy trained up from the age of seven could have aloft; at each step Laurence handed forward his own lead-strap and let Granby lock it on to the harness for him, which he could do one-handed, that they might go more quickly.
Ferris and the topmen were still struggling with the Prussian officer in the midst of a thickening clot of men; they were disappearing from view under the violent press of bodies, only Martin’s yellow hair visible. The soldiers were near full riot, men beating and kicking at one another, thinking of nothing but an impossible escape; the knots of the carrying-harness were tightening, giving up more slack, so all the loops and bands of it hung loose and swinging with the thrashing, struggling men.
Laurence came on one of the soldiers, a young man, eyes wide and staring in his wind-reddened face and his thick mustache wet-tipped with sweat, trying to work his arm beneath the main harness, blindly, though the buckle was already straining open, and he would in a moment have slid wholly free.
“Get back to your place!” Laurence shouted, pointing to the nearest open loop of the carrying-harness, and thrust the man’s hand away from the harness. Then his ears were ringing, a thick ripe smell of sour cherries in his nostrils as his knees folded beneath him. He put a hand to his forehead slowly, stupidly; it was wet. His own harness-straps were holding him, painfully tight against his ribs with all his weight pulling against them. The Prussian had struck him with a bottle; it had shattered, and the liquor was dripping down the side of his face.
Instinct rescued him; he put up his arm to take the next blow and pushed the broken glass back at the man’s face; the soldier said something in German and let go the bottle. They wrestled together a few moments more; then Laurence caught the man’s belt and heaved him up and away from Temeraire’s side. The soldier’s arms were spread wide, grasping at nothing; Laurence, watching, abruptly recalled himself, and at once he lunged out, reaching to his full length; but too late, and he came thumping heavily back against Temeraire’s side with empty hands; the soldier was already gone from sight.
His head did not hurt over much, but Laurence felt queerly sick and weak. Temeraire had resumed flying towards the coast, having rounded up the rest of the ferals at last, and the force of the wind was increasing. Laurence clung to the harness a moment, until the fit passed and he was able to make his hands work properly again. There were already more men clawing up: Granby was trying to hold them back, but they were overbearing him by sheer weight of numbers, even though struggling as much against one another as him. One of the soldiers grappling for a hold on the harness climbed too far out of the press; he slipped, landed heavily on the men below him, and carried them all away; as a tangled, many-limbed mass they fell into the slack loops of the carrying-harness, and the muffled wet noises of their joints and bones cracking sounded together like a roast chicken being wrenched hungrily apart.
Granby was hanging from his harness-straps, trying to get his feet planted again; Laurence crab-walked over to him and gave him a steadying arm. Below he could just make out the washy seafoam, pale against the black water; Temeraire was flying lower and lower as they neared the coast.
“That damned Pou-de-Ciel is coming round again,” Granby panted, as he got back his footing; the French had somehow got a dressing over the gash in the dragon’s wing, even if the great white patch of it was awkwardly placed and far larger than the injury made necessary. The dragon looked a little uncomfortable in the air, but he was coming on gamely nonetheless; they had surely seen that Temeraire was vulnerable. If the Pou-de-Ciel were able to catch the harness and drag it loose, they might finish deliberately what the soldiers had begun in panic, and the chance of bringing down a heavy-weight, much less one as valuable as Temeraire, would surely tempt them to great risk.
“We will have to cut the soldiers loose,” Laurence said, low and wretched, and looked upwards, where the carrying-loops attached to the leather; but to send a hundred men and more to their deaths, scarce minutes from safety, he was not sure he could bear; or ever to meet General Kalkreuth again, having done it; some of the general’s own young aides were aboard Temeraire, and doing their best to keep the other men quiet.
Riggs and his riflemen were firing short, hurried volleys; the Pou-de-Ciel was keeping just out of range, waiting for the best moment to chance his attack. Then Iskierka sat up and blew out another stream of fire: Temeraire was flying ahead of the wind, so the flames were not turned against him, this time; but every man on his back had at once to throw himself flat to avoid the torrent, which burned out too quickly before it could reach the French dragon.
The Pou-de-Ciel at once darted in while the crew were so distracted; Iskierka was gathering herself for another blow, and the riflemen could not get up again. “Christ,” Granby said; but before he could reach her, a low rumble like fresh thunder sounded, and below them small round red mouths bloomed with smoke and powder-flashes: shore batteries, firing from the coast below. Illuminated in the yellow blaze of Iskierka’s fire, a twenty-four-pound ball of round-shot flew past them and took the Pou-de-Ciel full in the chest; he folded around it like paper as it drove through his ribs, and crumpled out of the air, falling to the rocks below: they were over the shore, they were over the land, and thick-fleeced sheep were fleeing before them across the snow-matted grass.
The townspeople of the little harbor of Dunbar were alternately terrified at the descent of a whole company of dragons onto their quiet hamlet, and elated by the success of their new shore-battery, put into place scarcely two months ago and never before tried. Half-a-dozen courier-beasts driven off and one Pou-de-Ciel slain, overnight became a Grand Chevalier and several Flammes-de-Gloire, all hideously killed; the town could talk of nothing else, and the local militia strutted through the streets to general satisfaction.
The townspeople grew less enthusiastic, however, after Arkady had eaten four of their sheep; the other ferals had made only slightly less extravagant depredations, and Temeraire himself had seized upon a couple of cows, shaggy yellow-haired Highland cattle, sadly reported afterwards to be prize-winning, and devoured them to the hooves and horns.
“They were very tasty,” Temeraire said, apologetically; and turned his head aside to spit out some of the hair.
Laurence was not inclined to stint the dragons in the least, after their long and arduous flight, and on this occasion was perfectly willing to sacrifice his ordinary respect for property to their comfort. Some of the farmers made noises about payment, but Laurence did not mean to try and feed the bottomless appetites of the ferals out of his own pocket. The Admiralty might reach into theirs, if they had nothing better to do than sit before the fire and whistle while a battle was carrying on outside their windows, and men dying for lack of a little assistance. “We will not be a charge upon you for long. As soon as we hear from Edinburgh, I expect we will be called to the covert there,” he said flatly, in reply to the protests. The horse-courier left at once.
The townspeople were more welcoming to the Prussians, most of them young soldiers pale and wretched after the flight. General Kalkreuth himself had been among these final refugees; he had to be let down from Arkady’s back in a sling, his face white and sickly under his beard. The local medical man looked doubtful, but cupped a basin full of blood, and had him carried away to the nearest farmhouse to be kept warm and dosed with brandy and hot water.
Other men were less fortunate. The harnesses, cut away, came down in filthy and tangled heaps weighted by corpses already turning greenish: some killed by the French attacks, others smothered by their own fellows in the panic, or dead of thirst or plain terror. They buried sixty-three men out of a thousand that afternoon, some of them nameless, in a long and shallow grave laboriously pick-axed out of the frozen ground. The survivors were a ragged crew, clothes and uniforms inadequately brushed, faces still dirty, attending silently. Even the ferals, though they did not understand the language, perceived the ceremony, and sat on their haunches respectfully to watch from a distance.
Word came back from Edinburgh only a few hours later, but with orders so queer as to be incomprehensible. They began reasonably enough: the Prussians to be left behind in Dunbar and quartered on the town; and the dragons, as expected, summoned to the city. But there was no invitation to General Kalkreuth or his officers to come along; to the contrary, Laurence was strictly adjured to bring no Prussian officers with him. As for the dragons, they were not permitted to come into the large and comfortable covert itself at all, not even Temeraire: instead Laurence was ordered to leave them sleeping in the streets about the castle, and to report to the admiral in command in the morning.
He stifled his first reaction, and spoke mildly of the arrangements to Major Seiberling, now the senior Prussian; implying as best he could without any outright falsehood that the Admiralty meant to wait until General Kalkreuth was recovered for an official welcome.
“Oh; must we fly again?” Temeraire said; he heaved himself wearily back onto his feet, and went around the drowsing ferals to nudge them awake: they had all crumpled into somnolence after their dinners.
Their flight was slow and the days were grown short; it lacked only a week to Christmas, Laurence realized abruptly. The sky was fully dark by the time they reached the Edinburgh; but the castle shone out for them like a beacon with its windows and walls bright with torches, on its high rocky hill above the shadowed expanse of the covert, with the narrow buildings of the old medieval part of the city crammed together close around it.
Temeraire hovered doubtfully above the cramped and winding streets; there were many spires and pointed roofs to contend with, and not very much room between them, giving the city the appearance of a spear-pit. “I do not see how I am to land,” he said uncertainly. “I am sure to break one of those buildings; why have they built these streets so small? It was much more convenient in Peking.”
“If you cannot do it without hurting yourself, we will go away again, and orders be damned,” Laurence said; his patience was grown very thin.
But in the end Temeraire managed to let himself down into the old cathedral square without bringing down more than a few lumps of ornamental masonry; the ferals, being all of them considerably smaller, had less difficulty. They were a little anxious at being removed from the fields full of sheep and cattle, however, and suspicious of their new surroundings; Arkady bent low and put his eye to an open window to peer inside at the empty rooms, making skeptical inquires of Temeraire as he did so.
“That is where people sleep, is it not, Laurence? Like a pavilion,” Temeraire said, trying cautiously to rearrange his tail into a more comfortable position. “And sometimes where they sell jewels and other pleasant things. But where are all the people?”
Laurence was quite sure all the people had fled; the wealthiest tradesman in the city would be sleeping in a gutter tonight, if it were the only bed he could find in the new part of town, safely far away from the pack of dragons who had invaded his streets.
The dragons eventually disposed of themselves in some reasonable comfort; the ferals, used to sleeping in rough-hewn caves, were even pleased with the soft and rounded cobblestones. “I do not mind sleeping in the street, Laurence, truly; it is quite dry, and I am sure it will be very interesting to look at, in the morning,” Temeraire said, consolingly, even with his head lodged in one alleyway and his tail in another.
But Laurence minded for him; it was not the sort of welcome which he felt they might justly have looked for, a long year away from home, having been sent halfway round the world and back. It was one thing to find themselves in rough quarters while on campaign, where no man could expect better, and might be glad for a cow-byre to lay his head in. To be deposited like baggage on the cold unhealthy stones, stained years-dark with street refuse, was something other; the dragons might at least have been granted use of the open farmland outside the city.
And it was no conscious malice: only the common unthinking assumption by which men treated dragons as inconvenient if elevated livestock, to be managed and herded without consideration for their own sentiments; an assumption so engrained that Laurence had recognized it as outrageous only when forced to do so by the marked contrast with the conditions he had observed in China, where dragons were received as full members of society.
“Well,” Temeraire said reasonably, while Laurence laid out his own bedroll inside the house beside his head, with the windows open so they might continue to speak, “we knew how matters were here, Laurence, so we cannot be very surprised. Besides, I did not come to make myself more comfortable, or I might have stayed in China; we must improve the circumstances of all our friends. Not,” he added, “that I would not like my own pavilion; but I would rather have liberty. Dyer, will you pray get that bit of gristle out from between my teeth? I cannot reach forward to put my claw upon it.”
Dyer startled up from his half-doze upon Temeraire’s back, and fetching a small pick from their baggage, scrambled obediently into Temeraire’s opened jaws to scrape away.
“You would have more luck in achieving the latter, if there were more men ready to grant you the former,” Laurence said. “I do not mean to counsel you to despair; we must not, indeed. But I had hoped to find on our arrival more respect than when we left, not less; which must have been a material advantage to our cause.”
Temeraire waited until Dyer had climbed out again to answer. “I am sure we must be listened to on the merits,” he said, a large assumption, which Laurence was not at all sanguine enough to share, “and all the more, when I have seen Maximus and Lily, and they are ranged with me. And perhaps also Excidium, for he has been in so many battles: no one could help but be impressed with him. I am sure they will see all the wisdom of my arguments; they will not be so stupid as Eroica and the others were,” Temeraire added, with shades of resentment. The Prussian dragons had at first rather disdained his attempts at convincing them of the merits of greater liberty and education, being as fond of their tradition of rigorous military order as ever were their handlers, and preferring instead to ridicule as effete the habits of thought which Temeraire had acquired in China.
“I hope you will forgive me for bluntness; but I am afraid even if you had the hearts and minds of every dragon in Britain aligned with your own, it would make very little difference: as a party you have not very much influence in Parliament,” Laurence said.
“Perhaps we do not, but I imagine if we were to go to Parliament, we would be attended to,” Temeraire said, an image most convincing, if not likely to produce the sort of attention which Temeraire desired.
He said as much, and added, “We must find some better means of drawing sympathy to your cause, from those who have the influence to foster political change. I am only sorry I cannot apply to my father for advice, as relations stand between us.”
“Well, I am not sorry, at all,” Temeraire said, putting back his ruff. “I am sure he would not have helped us; and we can do perfectly well without him.” Aside from his loyalty, which would have resented coldness to Laurence on any grounds, he not unnaturally viewed Lord Allendale’s objections to the Aerial Corps as objections to his own person; and despite their never having met, he felt violently as a matter of course towards anyone whose sentiments would have seen Laurence separated from him.
“My father has been engaged with politics half his life,” Laurence said: with the effort towards abolition in particular, a movement met with as much scorn, at its inception, as Laurence anticipated for Temeraire’s own. “I assure you his advice would be of the greatest value; and I do mean to effect a repair, if I can, which would allow our consulting him.”
“I would as soon have kept it, myself,” Temeraire muttered, meaning the elegant red vase which Laurence had purchased in China as a conciliatory gift. It had since traveled with them five thousand miles and more, and Temeraire had grown inclined to be as possessive of it as any of his own treasures; he now sighed to see it finally sent away, with Laurence’s brief and apologetic note.
But Laurence was all too conscious of the difficulties which faced them; and of his own inadequacy to forward so vast and complicated a cause. He had been still a boy when Wilberforce had come to their house, the guest of one of his father’s political friends, newly inspired with fervor against the slave trade and beginning the parliamentary campaign to abolish it. Twenty years ago now, and despite the most heroic efforts by men of ability and wealth and power greater than his own, in those twenty years surely a million souls or more had yet been carried away from their native shores into bondage.
Temeraire had been hatched in the year five; for all his intelligence, he could not yet truly grasp the weary slow struggle which should be required to bring men to a political position, however moral and just, however necessary, in any way contrary to their immediate self-interest. Laurence bade him goodnight without further disheartening advice; but as he closed the windows, which began to rattle gently from the sleeping dragon’s breath, the distance to the covert beyond the castle walls seemed to him less easily bridged than all the long miles which had brought them home from China.
The Edinburgh streets were quiet in the morning, unnaturally so, and deserted but for the dragons sleeping in stretched ranks over the old grey cobbles. Temeraire’s great bulk was heaped awkwardly before the smoke-stained cathedral and his tail running down into an alleyway scarcely wide enough to hold it. The sky was clear and cold and very blue, only a handful of terraced clouds running out to sea, a faint suggestion of pink and orange early light on the stones.
Tharkay was awake, the only soul stirring when Laurence came out; he was sitting crouched against the cold in one of the other narrow doorways to an elegant home, the heavy door standing open behind him looking into the entry hall, tapestried and deserted. He had a cup of tea, steaming in the air. “May I offer you one?” he inquired. “I am sure the owners would not begrudge it.”
“No; I must go up,” Laurence said; he had been woken by a runner from the castle, summoning him to a meeting at once. Another piece of discourtesy, when they had only arrived so late; and to make matters worse, the boy had been unable to tell him of any provisions made for the feeding of the hungry dragons. What the ferals should say when they awoke, Laurence did not like to think.
“You need not worry; I am sure they will fend for themselves,” Tharkay said, not a cheering prospect, and offered Laurence his own cup for consolation; Laurence sighed and drained it, grateful for the strong, hot brew. He gave Tharkay back the cup, and hesitated; the other man was looking across the cathedral square with a peculiar expression; his mouth twisted at one corner.
“Are you well?” Laurence asked; conscious he had thought not enough about his men, in his anxiety over Temeraire; and Tharkay he had less right to take for granted.
“Oh, very; I am quite at home,” Tharkay said. “It is some time since I was last in Britain, but I was tolerably familiar with the Court of Session, then,” nodding across the square at Parliament House, where the court met: Scotland’s highest civil court, and a notorious pit of broken hopes, endless dragging suits and wrangling over technicalities and estates; presently deserted by all its solicitors, judges, and suitors alike, and only a scattering of harried papers blown up against Temeraire’s side like white patches, relics of old settlements. Tharkay’s father had been a man of property, Laurence knew; Tharkay had none; the son of a Nepalese woman perhaps would have been at some disadvantage, in the British courts, Laurence supposed, and any irregularity in his claims easily exploited.
At least he did not look at all enthusiastic to be home; if home he considered it, and Laurence said, “I hope,” tentatively, and tried awkwardly to suggest that Tharkay might consider extending his contract, when they had settled such delicate matters as payment for those services already rendered: Tharkay had been paid for guiding them along the old silk trading routes from China, but since then he had recruited the ferals to their cause, which demanded a bounty beyond Laurence’s private means. And his services could by no means be easily dispensed with now, not until the ferals were settled somehow into the Corps, Tharkay being, apart from Temeraire, almost the only one who could manage more than a few words of their odd, inflected language. “I would gladly speak to Admiral Lenton at Dover, if you would not object,” Laurence added; he did not at all mean to discuss any such irregular question with whichever notable was commanding here, after the treatment which they had so far received.
Tharkay only shrugged, noncommittal, and said, “Your messenger grows anxious,” nodding to where the young runner was fidgeting unhappily at the corner of the square, waiting for Laurence to come along.
The boy took him the short distance up the hill to the castle gates; from there Laurence was escorted to the admiral’s office by an officious red-coated Marine, their path winding around to the headquarters building through the medieval stone courtyards, empty and free from hurry in the early-morning dimness. The doors were opened, and he went in stiffly, straight-shouldered; his face had set into disapproving lines, cold and rigid. “Sir,” he said, eyes fixed at a point upon the wall; and only then glanced down, and said, surprised, “Admiral Lenton?”
“Laurence; yes. Sit, sit down.” Lenton dismissed the guard, and the door closed upon them and the musty, book-lined room; the Admiral’s desk was nearly clear, but for a single small map, a handful of papers. Lenton sat for a moment silently. “It is damned good to see you,” he said at last. “Very good to see you indeed. Very good.”
Laurence was very much shocked at his appearance. In the year since their last meeting, Lenton seemed to have aged ten: hair gone entirely white, and a vague, rheumy look in his eyes; his jowls hung slack. “I hope I find you well, sir,” Laurence said, deeply sorry, no longer wondering why Lenton had been transferred north to Edinburgh, the quieter post; he wondered only what illness might have so ravaged him, and who had been made commander at Dover in his place.
“Oh…” Lenton waved his hand, fell silent. “I suppose you have not been told anything,” he said, after a moment. “No, that is right; we agreed we could not risk word getting out.”
“No, sir,” Laurence said, anger kindling afresh. “I have heard nothing, and been told nothing; with our allies asking me daily for word of the Corps, until there was no more use in asking.”
He had given his own personal assurances to the Prussian commanders; he had sworn that the Aerial Corps would not fail them, that the promised company of dragons, which might have turned the tide against Napoleon, in this last disastrous campaign, would arrive at any moment. He and Temeraire had stayed and fought in their place when the dragons did not arrive, risking their own lives and those of his crew in an increasingly hopeless cause; but the dragons had never come.
Lenton did not immediately answer, but sat nodding to himself, murmuring. “Yes, that is right, of course.” He tapped a hand on the desk, looked at some papers without reading them, a portrait of distraction.
Laurence added more sharply, “Sir, I can hardly believe you would have lent yourself to so treacherous a course, and one so terribly shortsighted; Napoleon’s victory was by no means assured, if the twenty promised dragons had been sent.”
“What?” Lenton looked up. “Oh, Laurence, there was no question of that. No, none at all. I am sorry for the secrecy, but as for not sending the dragons, that called for no decision. There were no dragons to send.”
Victoriatus heaved his sides out and in, a gentle, measured pace. His nostrils were wide and red, a thick flaking crust around the rims, and a dried pink foam lingered about the corners of his mouth. His eyes were closed, but after every few breaths they would open a little, dull and unseeing with exhaustion; he gave a rasping, hollow cough that flecked the ground before him with blood; and subsided once again into the half-slumber that was all he could manage. His captain, Richard Clark, was lying on a cot beside him: unshaven, in filthy linen, an arm flung up to cover his eyes and the other hand resting on the dragon’s foreleg; he did not move, even when they approached.
After a few moments, Lenton touched Laurence on the arm. “Come, enough; let’s away.” He turned slowly aside, leaning heavily upon a cane, and took Laurence back up the green hill to the castle. The corridors, as they returned to his offices, seemed no longer peaceful but hushed, sunk in irreparable gloom.
Laurence refused a glass of wine, too numb to think of refreshment. “It is a sort of consumption,” Lenton said, looking out the windows that faced onto the covert yard; Victoriatus and twelve other great beasts lay screened from one another by the ancient windbreaks, piled branches and stones grown over with ivy.
“How widespread—?” Laurence asked.
“Everywhere,” Lenton said. “Dover, Portsmouth, Middlesbrough. The breeding grounds in Wales and Halifax; Gibraltar; everywhere the couriers went on their rounds; everywhere.” He turned away from the windows and took his chair again. “We were inexpressibly stupid; we thought it was only a cold, you see.”
“But we had word of that before we had even rounded the Cape of Good Hope, on our journey east,” Laurence said, appalled. “Has it lasted so long?”
“In Halifax it started in September of the year five,” Lenton said. “The surgeons think now it was the American dragon, that big Indian fellow: he was kept there, and then the first dragons to fall sick here were those who had shared the transport with him to Dover; then it began in Wales when he was sent to the breeding grounds there. He is perfectly hearty, not a cough or a sneeze; very nearly the only dragon left in England who is, except for a handful of hatchlings we have tucked away in Ireland.”
“You know we have brought you another twenty,” Laurence said, taking a brief refuge in making his report.
“Yes, these fellows from where, Turkestan?” Lenton said: willing to follow. “Did I understand your letter correctly; they were brigands?”
“I would rather say jealous of their territory,” Laurence said. “They are not very pretty, but there is no malice in them; though what use twenty dragons can be, to cover all England—” He stopped. “Lenton, surely something can be done—must be done,” he said.
Lenton only shook his head briefly. “The usual remedies did some good, at the beginning,” he said. “Quieted the coughing, and so forth. They could still fly, if they did not have much appetite; and colds are usually such trifling things with them. But it lingered on so long, and after a while the possets seemed to lose their effect—some began to grow worse—”
He stopped, and after a long moment added, with an effort, “Obversaria is dead.”
“Good God!” Laurence cried. “Sir, I am shocked to hear it—so deeply grieved.” It was a dreadful loss: she had been flying with Lenton some forty years, the flag-dragon at Dover for the last ten, and though relatively young had produced four eggs already; perhaps the finest flyer in all England, with few to even compete with her for the title.
“That was in, let me see; August,” Lenton said, as if he had not heard. “After Inlacrimas, but before Minacitus. It takes some of them worse than others. The very young hold up best, and the old ones linger; it is the ones between who have been dying. Dying first, anyway; I suppose they will all go in the end.”