“I am going into town today, Temeraire,” Laurence told his dragon. “To see whether I can find us some new books to read.”
At least a few of which, he was determined, would be neither in French nor about mathematics. He didn’t plan to deny Temeraire his interests, but sometimes he just wanted to read something he could enjoy himself as well.
“Are there any particular texts you would like me to look for?” he offered. “Something more about foreign dragon breeds, perhaps? Or maybe something historical? There are a great many historical battles that dragons played a part in.”
“Oh yes,” said Temeraire. “And could you ask them whether they have any Chinese literature? And perhaps something about Africa, and geology, too. I still don’t quite understand about diamonds and coal.”
“Well, the truth is,” Laurence admitted, “that I don’t fully understand it either.” His explanation had probably only confused Temeraire more.
“Yes, I know,” Temeraire nodded understandingly. “That is why I think we should get a book about it. And ... Oh Laurence, there are just too many things I want to know and we don’t know what books they have. I cannot tell you everything. No, I shall simply go with you. That shall be much better.”
“Go ... go with me?” Laurence stuttered, imagining the huge black dragon attempting to stroll down the main street of the quiet little town near the covert. “Temeraire, you can’t! You are much too big. You won’t fit. You’ll damage the houses and scare away the horses! And the people! They’ll be terrified.”
“Oh that will not be a problem,” Temeraire promised. “I’ll just go as a human. Look.”
And right before Laurence’s astonished eyes he began to shrink and change, and a moment later instead of a dragon there stood a tall man with skin even darker than that of Sipho or Demane and the straight black hair and slanted eyes of the Chinese.
Laurence gaped at him.
“You ... you can turn human?”
“Why, I am a dragon,” Temeraire stated in a tone of mild surprise. “Of course I can.”
“Shall we go then?” Temeraire pushed.
“You cannot possibly go into town naked!” Laurence exclaimed in horror. “In fact, you should not be naked at all!”
Temeraire looked down at himself in mild confusion. “Why ever not?”
“Why ... why ... It just isn’t done!”
“I could try to put on my harness,” Temeraire suggested doubtfully. “But I don’t think it would answer. It is rather large for a human.”
Laurence glanced at the heap of tangled leather strips and metal buckles that had crumpled behind Temeraire as the dragon had changed. He doubted that a single man could even lift it.
“No,” he agreed. “It wouldn’t at all. You will need proper human clothes.” He looked the tall shape up and down. “I could bring you some of my clothes, but I am not sure which might fit you. Most will probably be too short. It would be easier if you could come with me and try them on.”
“Oh yes!” Temeraire exclaimed delightedly. “I’ve always wanted to see your quarters!”
“Alright, come then,” Laurence invited him. “But be quiet. Nobody must see you like this.”
While it turned out that Temeraire was much better at sneaking around in his human form than as a dragon, it still proved to be not at all an easy matter to get into the covert buildings unseen. They had to duck around corners and trees several times to avoid meeting other aviators or servants and once they made it through the entrance there was the added difficulty of Temeraire’s curiosity.
“Oh, what’s behind this door?” the dragon asked for what had to be at least the tenth time, his hand already on the door handle.
“No, don’t!” Laurence hissed. “That’s the dining hall! There’ll be people in there.”
“Oh, is that where they feed you? Oh please, Laurence, let me take just a tiny little peek!”
“No, someone might see you, and you’re still naked,” Laurence reminded him. “We can come back when you’re dressed.”
They had almost reached the stairs to the upper levels where the risk of running into someone at this time of the day was much smaller when they once again heard footsteps coming towards them. Laurence hastily grabbed Temeraire’s arm and pulled him through the nearest door silently praying that whoever it was would walk past it.
Temeraire looked at their new surroundings curiously.
“It sure is moist in here,” he remarked. “Where are we, Laurence?”
Where were they? Laurence hadn’t really thought about that when he’d led them in here. He’d been entirely focussed on getting away before they were seen. He recognised the stairway easily enough, though.
“Oh no, this is the way to the baths! Someone could come in here to take a bath or visit the eggs at any moment.”
“Eggs?” Temeraire asked excitedly. “Oh, can we go see the eggs, please? I’ve never seen a human egg before!”
“They aren’t human eggs, Temeraire,” Laurence explained hastily. “They are dragon eggs. It is nice and warm there, you see. That is good for them.”
“Oh,” Temeraire made a little disappointedly. “But can we go and see them anyway? I’d like to know what happens to our eggs after we make them.”
“There are most likely people in the baths,” Laurence told him again. “You can’t just walk past them naked.” Then he realised what he was saying. “Actually, you can go through the baths naked. And we can tie linens around you on the way back. Walking around wrapped in linens isn’t entirely proper either, but it is much better than walking around naked.”
Once they were down the stairs Laurence breathed a little more easily. Nobody would be surprised to find a naked man here. He stripped quickly slightly discomforted by the intensity in Temeraire’s eyes as he watched him. Of course, he reminded himself, Temeraire was curious about the human clothing and how it went on. He’d have to dress himself soon, after all. It was only natural that he’d take an interest.
“This feels quite pleasant,” Temeraire observed as they entered the steamy baths. “But it is hard to see in here. I wish I could get a proper look at the room.”
Laurence was about to explain why that was not possible, but was distracted by a giggle from just a little ahead of them.
A few steps further and they could see the source. Two boys of maybe sixteen or seventeen years sitting so closely together that it looked as if ... No, their limbs really were entwined, their lips meeting in a kiss ... And yes, they were definitely both boys. There could be no mistake there.
“Laurence, what ...”
“Not now, Temeraire,” Laurence hissed hastily grabbing the dragon’s arm again and pulling him along. “Let’s give the boys some privacy. You wanted to see the eggs, didn’t you?”
“But why should they mind me being naked?” Temeraire asked confused. “They are naked themselves and you said it was alright in here.”
“It has nothing to do with you being naked, dear,” Laurence reassured him. “They just don’t want to be watched doing ... what they are doing.” Good God!
“And what is it that they are doing?” Temeraire asked. “It looked interesting.”
“I ... Temeraire ... It ... They ... We can’t talk about this in here. I shall explain later. Tonight. When we are alone in your clearing.”
He hoped that after all the new things Temeraire was sure to see and do that day he would soon forget his curiosity about the boys’ sinful and highly illegal actions.
But no such luck.
“So what were those boys doing in the baths?” the dragon asked as he was fiddling with the still unfamiliar buttons of the shirt Laurence had given him, trying to take it off in preparation for his transformation back into his natural shape.
Laurence blushed and stuttered, but there was no escape. Temeraire would have an answer, and if Laurence didn’t give it to him, he would ask somebody else. Laurence shuddered to think what might happen if Temeraire in his innocent curiosity described what he’d seen to Emily, or, even worse, Jane! The Rolands might be alarmingly frank about these things when they happened as nature had intended them to, but surely they would be shocked and appalled at such deviations. And what if Jane thought Temeraire was describing something he had seen his captain do?
No, Laurence knew, he himself, with his experience of long voyages on ships full of excitable boys and without the female crewmembers the aviators were so used to, was the person best suited to answer this question, despite the fact that even when he had been an excitable young midshipman himself he had never done more than turn a very embarrassed blind eye to his shipmates’ secret doings.
“It is ... something like making eggs,” he finally managed.
“But weren’t they both male?” Temeraire asked. He’d managed to get off the shirt now and turned his attention to his trousers. “I didn’t think two males could make an egg.”
“They cannot,” Laurence confirmed. “There can never be an egg without a female involved in the act. But the act itself can be performed by two males as well. It is of course highly ...”
“Oh, how does one do that? Would you teach me? Wait, I think I remember. They were doing it like this.” And before Laurence could gather his thoughts and say anything to forestall him Temeraire was pressing his lips against Laurence’s mouth and then their whole bodies were pressing eagerly against each other.
No! a desperate, frightened voice somewhere in the back of Laurence’s mind was screaming. This is wrong! This is unnatural! Illegal! It’s not fair towards Jane! But his body wasn’t listening.
Laurence woke to find that he was lying on Temeraire’s foreleg, protectively sheltered by a huge black wing. He patted the black scales on the dragon’s leg lovingly. It had only been a dream. Temeraire was still a dragon and they hadn’t ... hadn’t ... It had all been in his own imagination.
But how had his imagination come up with something like that? Surely he wasn’t ... wasn’t ... It was Jane whose touch he craved, not ... not ... Of course it was Jane.