By the three-hundred-sixty-sixth consecutive day of being grounded, Berkley was just about ready to explode.
He had woken up at his customary just-before-dawn hour and gone downstairs for breakfast. It was a longer trip; his quarters were in an allegedly better spot now, but he rather missed the close access to the feeding pens, and the dragons that would sometimes fly over and congregate in view of his tiny window.
As he ate his breakfast, seeing some of his old crew mates eating at ferocious speed – in fact, the dining room was not much for dining, and more for hasty ingestion – he felt envious.
No justifiable reason to be envious, he thought as he stabbed a piece of bacon, perhaps more forcefully than he had intended. After all, there was an egg waiting for him in the baths, and he was one of the most coveted lieutenants-soon-to-be-captain. If he didn’t die of old age, that was, or sheer ennui in the weeks waiting for the egg to hatch. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Hamilton and Scott rise from their places and exit hastily; the sun was beginning to fill the room with light, and most of the dragons would already be awake by now.
He wished he’d stayed in bed, but a few decades of training didn’t leave that easily or quickly. In fact, if he could, he would remove those pesky habits that hadn’t left. He had spent all last morning mending harnesses, sitting inconspicuously out by the training grounds so he could see the dragons flying by. There were several Yellow Reapers in the covert at present, who had been training for several months, but hadn’t even begun real formation work; one Pascal’s Blue, old enough to be a fine enough flier, but inexperienced and still liable to flinch at sudden cannon-fire, though he had seen them trying to break him of it; and a Winchester and Greyling who had been off-duty for a brief day.
He wandered down to the hot steam baths in spite of himself. Berkley had meant to go straight out to the courtyard, but found himself heading inexorably down. The stairs were slippery grey stone, and even this far up, never dry. Pushing aside the heavy wooden door, he slipped quietly inside.
There they were. Most of them were gleaming with water; here and there the steam rose thickly enough to almost obscure the eggs further back. His eyes slid across: one reddish egg, larger than the rest – that was his. Reaching over, a little cautiously, because he wasn’t sure if he should handle them, he touched the eggshell. Still soft. He went out again, ashamed.
The Admiralty was well and truly nervous now, he thought glumly. Christmas season was a round of parties the aviators had been half-heartedly invited to; though, to be truthful, he could not recall a party where the aviators had been greeted enthusiastically. In response, Berkley always wore his aviator’s coat. It made the aristocratic guests about look suspiciously at him, and he guessed the uniform reminded them of the revolution.
He stood now in a small knot of fellow aviators, feeling out of place. After all, he belonged to neither the captains, who were congregated about the large windows, looking out on to the expanse of darkened field; nor the awkward midwingmen. The aviators hadn’t gone far from the covert.
He was startled to be approached by one of the well-dressed men who had been talking and moving about comfortably. “Berkley, is it?”
Unsure of what to say, or indeed who this was, he nodded and took the proffered hand reluctantly. “Yes. I'm sorry, have we met?”
The other man blinked at the brusqueness, but said easily, “Lenton.” Then, as an afterthought, as though Berkley hadn’t just realized who this was and stood up straighter, “Admiral Lenton.”
“Sorry, sir,” said Berkley, cursing himself. Of all the people to have greeted like this, and the egg not even hard yet! He tried inconspicuously to adjust his uniform, which now felt hopelessly ragged and unkempt. Hearing his voice run on, as it only did when he was nervous, he stopped. “Is there something I can help you with?” Belatedly, he realized he should have added a ‘sir’ to the end of that, but it would be glaringly obvious now.
“No, not at all. Obversaria wanted to see how the Loch Laggan covert was coming along, and the Admiralty is itching for a report.” Berkley rather felt as though this sort of information wasn’t for him, but he kept quiet. “How are you?”
Personal question, thought Berkley, but he answered anyway. “I’m fine, sir.”
“And how is your training coming along?”
“Quite well, sir. I’m grounded right now.” At that remark, Lenton’s face lit up, making him suddenly less intimidating and far younger.
“Ah, the Regal Copper egg! Excellent record of service, Captain,” and for the first time, Berkley felt as though that title actually fit.
By the sixth year of being grounded, the hatching of an egg was a distant imagining. Berkley made his trip down to the baths every day, before duties – the staff and crew had become accustomed to his silent round – and the other eggs he had seen there, when he first went to see the new egg, had all hatched. Two mid-weights, and even a Longwing, had already been assigned. His egg hadn’t hardened at all; if he ignored the other eggs in the baths, he could imagine himself back five years.
He hadn’t spoken to anyone that day, either. With the distance that had grown because of his rank, and then his brooding – his mother had always said he brooded too much – he hardly knew any of his old acquaintances anymore. Many of the young cadets he had shepherded, like Dunne, were no longer cadets and had passed out of his guidance, although he noted with some amusement Martin was as freckled as ever. He listened to the ground crew as they worked, but knew them not at all.
And now the pressure was mounting on them all. The first two coalition had already collapsed – this new one was no better – and Napoleon showed no signs of stopping. Even the House of Lords were relenting about the military; revolution was less on their minds, and the wildfire as Napoleon took down each country, systematically, was ever more pressing.
The call finally came while he was asleep. Tolly burst into his room without knocking – he had never done that, Berkley thought in confusion – and shook Berkley awake.
“What is it?”
“The egg’s hardened.” He disappeared through the door and down the stairs with a clatter, knowing Berkley wouldn’t go back to sleep now. Tolly was right; at the mention of egg, Berkley had become wholly alert. He tore down the stairs after Tolly.
“Breaking your neck on the stairs won’t help, Berkley!” shouted one voice; it seemed the whole floor had been woken up. Heads were emerging from formerly closed doors, following his progress down the admittedly narrow stairs.
He shed his clothes as swiftly as he could, hoping they didn’t tear but not caring much if they did, and arrived in the steam of the baths.
Someone must have moved the egg out into the open so that the emerging dragonet wouldn’t hurt the others, he thought blankly. It was cracking, that was for sure; he was vaguely aware of a dozen men standing on the outside of the room, but his attention was focused entirely on the egg.
It split slowly. One dark orange wingtip poked out, the filmy membrane of the eggshell breaking under the point. There was a faint scrabbling sound, and then another claw emerged. Berkley leaned forward and held the egg carefully, amazed at its lightness. The wing emerged, then the slime-slicked head, and then the whole dragonet, eggshell clinging in small pieces. Berkley picked off the larger parts: the scales were still like rough skin, and probably just as delicate.
One of the leather workers – Wright, perhaps – approached cautiously. The dragonet was big, but it was thin. Male, too, Berkley realized, and was about to speak when it stretched its jaws wide, as though to taste the air, and then dropped down again. It nosed about, not bothering to move past Berkley’s outstretched palms, but looking as though it were searching for food.
Berkley tried to clear his throat. Six years waiting, and now he lost his voice? He coughed harshly, and then asked, “Would you like a name?” The dragonet paused and looked up. Then it said, quite clearly, “Yes.”
At least no one had been wandering in here and swearing their mouths off recently, thought Berkley wildly. Last time he had been here, for another hatching, the dragonet had said “Fuck yes,” to the question of a name, stunning the new captain.
“Your name is Maximus,” he said formally. “May I give you a harness?” The dragonet assented. He slipped the small harness around the dragonet, feeling the bones just under the skin protruding. A hand nudged his shoulder: someone else, he didn’t bother to see who, was offering him a bucket of meat. Berkley put the dragonet down on one of the wooden benches carefully, then plunged a hand inside to offer Maximus the meat.
It was snatched out of his hands before he could even ask if Maximus wanted it. It was the same for the next chunk of meat, the food disappearing at enormous speed, without speech; the hatchling was, like all the others Berkley had seen, ravenous. Maximus had eaten almost all of what had been in the bucket – something like his own weight in meat – and was sprawled out, asleep, wings dark orange against the black wood.
Berkley spent almost every day in the courtyard with Maximus, getting up before dawn and going to sleep well after sunset. Maximus was anxious to try out his wings, but it was clearly impossible until he had grown some more; with that kind of rapid muscle growth, there was no energy to spare for flying.
Only a week, and he was already the size of a large horse. Berkley wondered how he had possibly thought Maximus fragile. Maximus wasn’t nearly the size of what he would be – half-ton now, perhaps, forty or fifty tons by the end of his growing – and stumbled into trees and rocks frequently enough that Berkley ordered the path to the feeding grounds cleared of debris.
“Is it time to eat?” asked Maximus, hopefully. His wings, still almost translucent, were half-open, as though to catch the wind.
Berkley raised an eyebrow. It wasn’t as though Celeritas or any of the herders were stinting with food; on the contrary, Berkley had been told several times, emphatically, that he ought to feed Maximus as often as he liked, and more than that. A dragon – any dragon, these days – would be enormously useful in the skirmishing over the Channel.
“Very well, you can have something. I’ll open the pen for you – don’t knock anything over!” This last was too late. The tree branches of a nearby fir were lying on the ground, needles scattered, but Maximus already almost at the feeding pens.
“There’s no need to be in such a hurry,” said Berkley to Maximus. He was eating at a frantic pace, quicker than usual, although Berkley couldn’t blame him: Celeritas had told him that Maximus would be ready to go aloft any day now, and big enough for Berkley to go along.
“To where?” said Berkley, watching as Maximus gave his claws a cursory lick.
“Flying, of course,” said Maximus. His voice had acquired a quiet rumble at the edges, and though he was only a week and three days old – Berkley had kept count – seemed a great deal older.
“Are you sure you can?” asked Berkley, hoping it was yes, but nonetheless prepared to wait. Maximus moved to lift him, but Berkley, thinking of both the clumsiness and the size of the claws, said hurriedly: “Don’t worry, I’ll climb up myself.”
Maximus hardly waited until he was seated properly, and clinched properly into place, before fanning his wings out and launching. A short laugh tore itself out of Berkley: he was flying. For the first time in what felt like forever, he was flying. As they lifted higher, he could see the whole landscape spread out, and leaned down to speak to Maximus. Before he could, Maximus tucked his wings and dropped, then opened them again to soar back upwards; the winds were strong today. Berkley, heart thumping, laid a hand on Maximus’ head. Maximus understood, and beat higher up into the sky, then went diving downwards again. Laying his head on Maximus’ scaly neck, Berkley wanted to shout with exhilaration. At last.