Three and forty generations ago, our land enjoyed an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity. The Emperor at that time was a man of great learning and wisdom. The northern tribes having been subdued during his father's reign, he wisely devoted his time to securing the borders of his kingdom.
It happened one summer that he visited a remote province, far north of the capital, with an inhospitable climate in almost all seasons. The people of this mountainous territory were nomadic and did not possess the refinements that delight the hearts of civilised people. However, they were of a warm nature and their enthusiastic welcome, simple as it was, filled the Emperor's heart with contentment.
He was greeted by the assembled chieftains of the tribes of those parts and seated in the all-chieftain's place in the gathering tent. The young boys of the tribes performed a dance in his honour, as was customary in those days. They stamped and whirled in vigorous movements and one boy in particular caught the Emperor's eye.
This boy had but fourteen summers and he was the son of a minor tribe leader. His limbs were smooth and well-formed and his eyes bright. Although there was nothing to distinguish him from his peers, the Emperor continued to find his eyes being drawn to the boy over the course of the visit. When he and his retinue returned to the capital, the boy came with them.
The boy was a sincere child and did his best to serve the Emperor faithfully, but he often found himself longing for his home. At these times his only consolation was to slip away to the apartments where the Imperial dragons were housed and observe them covertly as they went about their daily routines. Dragons were not often seen in his homeland, and the beautiful and terrible forms of the Celestials were a wonder to him.
On one particular day he sensed a great excitement in the dragon quarters. When he asked the reason for the bustle, he was told that the egg of a Celestial was cracking open. Enchanted by the thought of witnessing the birth, he begged to be allowed to watch, but was sternly rebuked by the dragon handlers. Busy as they were with the impending birth, they did not think to explain why it was so important that none but the selected prince see the dragonet at the time of its hatching.
Dejected, but still determined, the boy climbed the roof of the building in which the incubating eggs were housed, and secured a position near a small window. He cracked open the window, clouded with steam, to peer into the chamber where the egg was beginning to hatch.
The egg began to rock steadily in its red silk cradle, cracks multiplying upon its surface, as the prince chosen to be its companion held his breath. Presently, the shell burst asunder to reveal the black form of the new-born Celestial. The dragonet shook his wings out and hopped out of the cradle, moving a little unsteadily toward the prince and casting his eyes about the chamber. The Emperor's boy, incautious with delight at the birth, moved to change his vantage point and caught the eye of the dragonet. A glance passed between the two, broken when the boy, alarmed lest his presence be detected, turned away from the window and ran back to his quarters.
The prince then began his ceremonial welcome of the dragonet and requested his Companionship. The dragonet sat back on its haunches and flicked its tongue out in confusion. The prince, for all he was using the correct forms of address and holding out a silk harness in the most proper fashion, simply did not seem like the correct choice of Companion. Finally, the dragonet, embarrassed but adamant, declined to take the prince as his Companion. When questioned by the royal handlers, the dragonet refused to give any reason for his decision, only saying that it did not feel correct.
The news spread quickly through the shocked palace. The dragonet, it should be mentioned, was the result of the mating of two especially distinguished dragons. The sire was a noted poet, while the dam had distinguished herself not only as a scholar, but as a general in the Southern Wars. His refusal to take a Companion was taken as nothing short of a calamity.
The boy, hearing this news, grew pale with dismay. Fearing that his part in the whole disaster would be discovered, he began to avoid the dragon enclosures. The dragonet, for his part, could not forget the boy he had seen so briefly and looked anxiously at each new face he came across. Alas! that a single glance could do such damage!
Despite the boy's efforts to remain unseen by the dragonet, he could not evade his destiny forever. At the lavish feasts held to celebrate the New Year, the Celestial finally caught sight of the boy who had haunted him. Having discovered his name, he sent a letter to the boy immediately upon his return to his apartments.
The boy fretted for a long time over the letter. Truth be told, he too had not been able to forget his glimpse of the dragonet. He replied to the Celestial and agreed to a secret assignation.
When they met by night in a secluded garden of the palace, neither could deny the bond between them. Meeting each other, they were conscious of a profound feeling of peace and comfort. Such is the nature of the link between dragon and Companion. In secret, they made their vows to each other and determined to meet as often as possible. Young as they were, they knew already that they had no hope of being allowed to remain together were their bond to be discovered.
As the months passed, the dragonet grew closer to his adult weight and the clamouring for him to take a Companion increased. The boy, for his part, grew pale and distrait, unhappy at the deception he was practicing. Finally, driven to desperation, the two decided to flee the palace.
They managed to travel as far as a border fort before they were discovered and brought back in disgrace. In front of the court, the boy had no option but to confess the whole. For the crime of perverting a Celestial's bond, he was sentenced to death. He was put to death three days later and the dragon, restrained and unable to go to his Companion, screamed horribly. Soon after the boy's death, the Celestial committed suicide.
The Emperor, grieved by the tragedy, ordered that the Celestial be buried near the boy and a marker put up to commemorate their bond.
As Laurence finished reading the story, he heard a stifled noise above him.
"Temeraire?" he said. "Is something the matter?"
Another odd noise.
Now somewhat alarmed, Laurence tugged gently at Temeraire's jaw until the great muzzle was lowered to his eye level. "Do you not feel well, my dear?" he said, observing his dragon's mournful features with concern.
"Oh, no, Laurence, indeed I am quite well. It is only that the story was so sad," came the choked reply. "Do you...do you think it is a true story?"
Laurence hesitated. The story appeared to be of a more recent vintage than the other legends in the book and he himself was feeling quite affected by it.
"I do not know," he said gently, "but even if it were, I wish you would not distress yourself so. If it happened at all, it was a long time ago, and it may only be a legend."
He stroked Temeraire's muzzle as the dragon nuzzled closer to him.
One hour later, Temeraire was still disinclined to let him go to his quarters and Laurence resigned himself to spending the rest of his night outside.
"I think we should return to Newton tomorrow night."