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First Crossing

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“No, you cannot hatch now, I have told you!” her father hissed. The dragonet trilled defiantly and continued shoving at her confines. She was hungry and sore and her tail itched, and something was happening, she could hear it, a kind of thumping and shouting. And she was so hungry. “We have not reached land yet! There is not enough food for you here, and besides, there is—”

“Come now, Temeraire, you are being unfair,” a warm voice laughed, and it was Captain Laurence, who had read her stories about stars and battles and maths. Her father had told her all about Laurence, the best man in the world, except possibly Granby, whom her mother had said was much finer in every way. The dragonet had no way of knowing for sure, yet. She was tired of having the world narrated for her; she wanted to see for herself.

She strained more eagerly and her shell began crackling around her. Then the first faint lines of light appeared and she had to pause a moment to admire the color it brought to her world. She suspected her scales were very handsome. She wanted to shake the rest of the shell free so she could be sure, so that she could be petted and admired. And fed.

“You hatched aboard a ship yourself, Temeraire,” Laurence said, close by and still laughing, and then the world was lifting and turning and she was being carried out into the open, some place bright with sunlight. She put her tongue to one of the cracks in the shell and tasted salt and, what was it? Was it spices? Her father was always talking of spices, of the flavors of food. Maybe it was spices. Laurence was still speaking, but she was too impatient to mark him. “And Iskierka hatched upon a battlefield. Clearly your egg will not wait for a convenient time, either; I am not much surprised, myself. Make haste, Mr. Dorset, let us bring the egg further out on deck. And have the men halt the proceedings; we will celebrate this crossing of the Equator in a much more auspicious fashion than usual, I think.”

And then there was a hand on her shell and she wormed her way around until she was able to tap against it with a talon. The hand patted back, and Laurence said quietly, “Do not worry, there is plenty of food waiting for you as soon as you arrive, dearest,” and she trilled happily and redoubled her efforts.

Then there was a second hand, and it was her Granby, she knew it. She butted her head against his hand and was pleased at the laugh this produced, and the web of cracks.

“Nearly there, darling,” Granby said, and then she threw herself impatiently against the walls of her egg once more and nearly tipped over, hissing in exasperation. There were people all around, talking excitedly, and there was a rush of heat and steam that meant her mother was close. Rich, pleasant smells were leaking in through the cracks in the shell and she just knew they meant food was close. Out, out, out, she wanted out. She gave a mighty heave of her wings and tossed her head. It hurt, briefly, but then the world emerged around her, enormous and bright.

“Oh!” she said, delighted, because that was the sky, and there was the sea below it, and above her were billowing white sails, which she had heard rustling so many nights as her egg had been nestled between her parents. She stretched her cramped limbs and shook the remaining bits of shell from her wings and basked in the sun and salt breeze. “Oh, it is lovely, here.”

“Lord, look at you!” Granby said, and she craned to see him for the first time. He was small and not at all as she had pictured; he had no scales at all. But bits and pieces of him glittered pleasingly in the sun, and she liked the familiar sound of his voice, and how he stroked her neck with his soft hands. She preened and leaned into his touch. “I have never seen a color like it.”

“It is not all that nice a color,” her mother said, grumbling, and the air filled with steam. The dragonet stiffened indignantly. She turned to find two large dragons looming over her, their heads blocking out the sun, and the dragonet felt very small, suddenly. But her size did not signify, as she was still an infant and would yet grow and perhaps be much larger than either of them, she reminded herself.

“I am a very nice color,” the dragonet protested, bristling all her spines. “I am—” she broke off. She was not at all sure what color she was, actually. She did not have the darkness of her father or the brightness of her mother.

“I should say aubergine,” a cool voice said, and she cheered immediately.

“Yes, like Tharkay says, I am aubergine, and aubergine is very nice, it is not?” She nudged her head against Tharkay’s thigh and he obliged her by kneeling down and stroking her neck.

“Very nice indeed; you are quite handsome,” and oh, it was Laurence! She went to him at once, weaving through the crowd of knees until she found him, and he smiled down at her. Even if he did not glitter so much as Granby did, she thought him quite lovely, for a human; his hair was like sunlight and his eyes were like the sea, and she felt very secure and safe with his hand upon her head. And then suddenly he was gone and she was tumbled back with a squawk, sending smoke rings rippling out into the air. The surrounding aviators and naval men began coughing and waving their hands in front of them.

“Laurence is my captain,” Temeraire growled, and the dock vibrated unpleasantly beneath the dragonet’s feet. Her father was holding Laurence to his chest and acting as though he might leap off into the air at any second. The dragonet righted herself, deeply offended.

“I would not steal your captain,” she said indignantly, and began stretching her wings. She was too small, but perhaps he would listen to her if she flew, and if she could just—her mother had said she should spit fire, if she practiced, and so she leapt into the air, wobbling a bit, and drew breath to try.

“Oh, mercy,” Granby said, and pulled her down into his arms with a practiced air. “You do remind me of your mother. Do leave off trying to breathe fire for now, won’t you? Aren’t you hungry? See, here comes Gong Su with your dinner.”

“Yes, only Temeraire called me a thief, and I am not!” she seethed, but she could smell the meat again and it was beginning to draw her attention away from the insult.

“Very special dish,” the new man said, “Only prepared for aubergine dragons.” And he was bowing to her and offering a platter of lightly seared meat and fishes and other things she could not quite identify, but it all smelled of what must be spices, sweet and tingling on her tongue. She left off trying to lunge for Temeraire and craned her head towards the platter. Granby put her down with a laugh. Iskierka plucked him from the circle of onlookers immediately thereafter, which was just as insulting, but the dragonet was too busy tasting all the offerings Gong Su had laid down and making noises of appreciation to take offense at present.

“I am sorry,” Temeraire said gruffly, having apparently just received a blistering lecture from Laurence. “I know you did not mean to try to steal my captain.”

I did not act so foolishly,” Iskierka proclaimed smugly, still coiled around Granby and preening. The dragonet decided it best to ignore them, as it was obvious both her parents were very silly, and she was lucky not to have inherited such a trait. Besides, the dinner was rather taking up most of her attention. She wished to finish it all, but she was distressingly growing quite full already, and there were still several haunches of meat left.

“I do not yet wish to choose a captain,” she pronounced after she had given the platter a last, despairing lick and thanked Gong Su. She startled herself by yawning hugely midsentence, and with great effort managed to stumble a few steps over and curl up at Tharkay’s feet. Tharkay smiled down at her and asked after her comfort; would she not prefer a hammock out of the way, or a pillow?

She nuzzled his leg sleepily and then laid her head upon his boot, sighing happily. “If I do choose a captain, it will be Tharkay.”

“Oh?” Tharkay inquired, and his voice sounded quite odd. The dragonet pried her eyes back open and peered up at him quizzically. “But I—do not find I have the disposition to be a captain.”

“That is alright,” she assured him, closing her eyes again. “I am fond of your disposition, and anyway, you do not yet have a dragon to look after you, and Granby says you do go on running off on your own and require a keeper.” She yawned again and so missed hearing exactly whatever Tharkay had hissed at Granby.  After a moment of muffled shouting back and forth, Tharkay sighed and took the bucket of water and rags that Riley was offering and began wiping the dragonet down. She drowsily cautioned him to be careful of her horns and spines, as she was sure they were quite sharp.

“Oh, I will be extremely cautious not to do myself injury, I assure you,” Tharkay said, and she rumbled happily as he removed the fish scales from between her talons.

“You do not yet have a name,” Laurence said, having apparently been let loose again now that the dragonet was not longer such a threat, and then when this statement produced a low rumbling noise from behind them, snapped, “Oh, Temeraire, you do yourself no credit acting this way. You tried years for your egg; you might show a bit more pride at your accomplishment. She is a splendid dragonet.”

“She is quite splendid, isn’t she,” Temeraire admitted grumpily, and put his head down to nose at his daughter. She trilled sleepily at him as he nuzzled her. Perhaps she would forgive him after all. “I quite like that you have my eyes and wingspots,” he said quietly. “Still, you do need a name. Have you thought of one yet? I told you to be thinking of one.”

The dragonet ducked her head beneath her wing in embarrassment, and Tharkay patted her reassuringly.

“There is no need to rush,” he told her. “I will help you think of one later, if you need help.”

“That would be lovely,” she sighed, and settled down to sleep at last.