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Sharpe's Dragon, or, How Richard Sharpe was gazetted into the wrong service, Part Two

Chapter Text

That night Sharpe had dinner with the Aerial Corps. Sharpe refused to sit at the head of the table, embarrassed by the honour. Instead that place was taken by Laurence, and Sharpe sat at his right side, with Teresa on Sharpe’s right side, and Captain Harcourt and Captain Chenery opposite him. He was aware of Teresa’s knee pressed against his. Teresa had been fascinated to meet the female aviators, and Harcourt had seemingly been fascinated by her in return.

 As they ate, the dark glass of the window behind Laurence was occasionally filled by a glittering orange eye, that glanced this way and that inside the room, then withdrew into the night again. It was Lily, the Longwing and the mother of the egg that Moncey had carried. Every time the eye appeared Sharpe raised a glass to it in salute.

 “So, tell me, Sharpe,” Chenery asked him, as the fish was being cleared away. “Has that devil of yours told you how he brought down a Grand Chevalier?”

 “I really don’t know,” Sharpe said. “He mentioned it, but not the details.”

 “He’s the smallest dragon in Britain, you know,” Captain Harcourt said. “It’s the result of not having had enough to eat when he was a hatchling.”

 “I believe Gherni is the smallest, now,” Laurence said, raising his glass apologetically to her. “But not by much.” He returned his gaze to Sharpe. “He has quite a reputation. He’s been asked if he’d take a captain, but he’s always refused.”

 “Winchesters are so common, and they’re so small, that a lot of people don’t mind if one of them goes feral.” Chenery explained. “If they decide to do as they like, nobody much cares.”

 “They sound like the orphans of the air,” Sharpe said, and took a forkful of the newly arrived beef.

 “Moncey is a little bit special, though,” Laurence explained. “Even before the occupation, he never simply sat around in the breeding ground. He’s even turned up in as far afield as Egypt.”

 “Yes,” Harcourt said. “Everyone knows him, and he knows everyone.”

 “Exploring officer in his own right. A born spy,” someone further down the table agreed.

 “A hatched spy,” Laurence corrected. “And of course an unrepentant thief.”

 “I’m rather glad he’s a thief,” said Harcourt, and raised her glass. “Here’s to our new egg.”

 The table rose in a toast.

 Sharpe rose with them, and wondered where the egg was now.

 He had carried it against him one last time during the flight, but immediately on landing it had been whisked away, and he had seen it disappearing into the building, swept along by a gaggle of furiously talking surgeons. Sharpe’s shoulder had been examined and bound up in a sling by a doctor who smelled strongly of dragon. He had been forbidden strictly to fly with Moncey until all the stiffness had gone out of it, then that doctor too had hurried off to go see the egg. Before Sharpe could follow the man he had been dragged away again by Ensign Roland to Moncey’s side. Hogan had arrived with Elsie and Captain Hollin, he wanted to speak to both of them, and then there was no time to ask after the egg.

 Moncey lay curled up in the snow. His wings still trembled occasionally, and his face seemed thinner than usual, as if he had flown through his own flesh like a cavalry horse. He had, Sharpe learned, landed in such a state of exhaustion that he could barely bring his message out, shuddering with cold. He had gobbled down over half his own body weight in beef and then fallen into a deep sleep for the rest of the day and night. Now he still seemed weak, but he was awake and able to speak to Hogan.

 Hogan had brought with him a map of Ciudad Rodrigo and a bombardment of questions. The endless probing questions for Sharpe, Moncey, and Teresa, took up all the rest of the day. Moncey’s sharper eyes had seen things in their short trip over the city that Sharpe had not, and he had recognised individual dragons. Teresa knew what had been happening around the city, but not what was happening in it. Sharpe gave his experiences, and then gave them again, and again, and again, each time in deeper detail, until he was sure that every breath he had taken in Ciudad had been accounted for. Every scrap of information would be incorporated into Hogan’s intelligence picture of the city – he could almost see the puzzle being built behind the Irishman’s bright eyes.

 Hogan had sucked his teeth and shaken his head at hearing of the news of Captain Chadbourne and Tabellarius’s capture. “That’s too bad. He was a good courier.” Hogan had not stayed for dinner. Instead he had flown back to Freineda immediately. As soon as he left, Moncey put his head down on his foreleg and went back to sleep. Sharpe patted his side and left him to it. He also felt tired, and his body ached, but he didn’t feel quite as exhausted as that.

 After dinner, Laurence drew Sharpe aside. “Would you like to see something interesting?”

 “Very much,” Sharpe said. He had eaten rather a lot, and the warmth of the wine in his belly was making him feel easy-going. He restrained a burp.

 “Come with me, then.”

 The Aerial captain led him through the building and into the kitchen. At the back of the kitchen was a low door, with a half-flight of steps that took them into a narrow space, set just below ground level. “This was the wine cellar,” Laurence explained. “We use it because it’s easier to keep eggs warm in an insulated space.”

 Sharpe shuffled under the doorway. The space was cramped, and hot. The centre of the room held a small stove, with a metal chimney leading through a makeshift hole in the roof. There was the smell of steam from the bowls of water bubbling away on the stove top. Sharpe felt sweat bloom under his winter clothes immediately. There was a man there on the other side of the room, blocking their view, leaning over a table at the far wall. He turned around, underlit by the red light of the stove like a stage demon, his face shiny with sweat.

 “Captain Sharpe, may I introduce Mr Keynes,” said Lawrence. “He is the senior dragon surgeon here.”

 Keynes edged around the hot stove, and held his sticky hand out for Sharpe to shake it. “Your servant, sir,” he said, and then turned back to the table. “You’ve come to see the eggs, I take it?”

 Laurence moved to the back of the room, perched on the steps. “There’s not space for three, Captain Sharpe. You go have a look.”

 Sharpe edged carefully around the other side of the stove, holding his face out of the steam. The narrowness of the room meant that he and the surgeon stood hip to hip, and now he could see what it was on the table that the man was leaning over. “Eggs!” he said.

 There were four, lying glistening and well-padded in piles of damp sawdust. Two were much smaller, but the other two were immediately familiar. He pointed to the one he had carried. “I know you,” he said, affectionately.

 “I think by this time it knows you too.” Keynes picked up something from the table – a wooden tube with an opening in one end, and a wide bell-shaped mouth on the other. “I was examining it, and I noticed something you might like to know.” He held it out. “Put the small end in your ear.”

 Sharpe took the tube and set the end into his ear. Keynes pressed Sharpe into a leaning position over the table, and laid the metal endpiece gently against the side of the egg. “Listen,” he whispered.

 Sharpe listened. He could hear the pot bubbling on the stove, and the crunch as a log collapsed in the fire. He could hear Keynes’ slightly wheezing breath. “I hear nothing,” he said softly.

 Keynes breathed, “Hmm,” and moved the endpiece to another section of shell. “Now?”

 For a moment there was nothing, then he heard it. A soft boom, regular and slow. It sounded like the echo of a very large cannon resounding off a very distant mountain. He laughed, softly, and listened some more. “That’s the dragon’s heartbeat,” he said, delighted.

 “It is,” said Keynes, equally pleased. “It tells us the creature is just six or so months away from hatching. If you listen for a bit longer you might even hear it moving around in there, bumping on the inside of the shell.”

 He listened, but he heard only the heartbeat, thumping away. “I was worried it might not survive being shaken up, while I carried it,” he said.

 “At this age, it might a bit annoyed, but it would be formed enough that a few bumps won’t hurt it. If it were feral, its mother would be rolling it back and forth constantly.”

 Sharpe looked up at Keynes, still listening to that distant pulse. “I talked to it, while I was carrying it,” he said. “Do you think … would it have been able to hear me?”

 “Oh, at this stage certainly. Every word.”

 “It’s good that you spoke to it,” Laurence interrupted from the front of the room. Sharpe turned to look at him, without taking his ear from the tube. “The sooner we start it learning English, the better. It’s heard only French and Spanish, up until now.” The Aerial Captain was leaning back against the wall halfway up the steps, with his arms crossed across his chest and one heel crossed over the other ankle. “Would you like to know what kind of egg it is?” he asked, smiling.

 “It’s a heavy-weight,” Sharpe guessed.

 “Oh, it is. But we have heavy-weights of our own, so that’s not why we’re all so happy about it.”

 Sharpe could see a grin beginning to grow on Laurence’s face. Keynes was grinning too.

 “What is it then, sir?” he asked.

 “It’s a Flamme de Gloire.”

 “A Flamme – A firebreather, sir?”

 “Yes, a firebreather. We have exactly one firebreather at the moment, and you’ve met her. We haven’t had a Flamme de Gloire for hundreds of years. So, Sharpe – congratulations! You’ve brought us a dragon that’s just as valuable, in its own way, as the Longwing.” Laurence grinned at him.

 Sharpe looked down at the egg. “I’m glad I didn’t drop you, after all, little egg,” he said.

 “Tell him the rest of it,” Keynes urged.

 Laurence cleared his throat. “You may know there’s a certain amount of prize money, for getting hold of an egg that can be harnessed.”

 “Moncey mentioned it, sir. Although that’s not why we went there.”

 “Well, you might not get anything monetary for retrieving the Longwing egg, but this one is a different story. The Admiralty set a reward, back in the time of Charles the Second, for a Flamme de Gloire egg – a bit more than the usual. We looked it up, as soon as we were sure what the egg was.” Laurence cleared his throat again. “It’s fifty thousand pounds.”

 Sharpe felt his breath whoosh out of his lungs. “Fifty – thousand – pounds? Fifty?”

 Laurence frowned at him. “I do hope you’ll share that with Moncey.”

 “Fif- yes, sir. Fifty thousand pounds?” Half of fifty thousand was twenty five thousand quid. He could buy his captaincy with that!

 “Yes, I thought you’d be pleased. It would be more, actually, but it was fixed in the same way as Naval pay.”

 “I knew there was a bounty, but I thought it was a few hundred quid, like for cavalry horses,” Sharpe said, grinning. He could buy a dozen captaincies, with twenty five thousand pounds. He could buy his captaincy, and fix his daughter up with an inheritance from twenty five thousand pounds.

 Laurence shook his head. “It’s not as much as you’d get for capturing a ship of war. Dragons take a bit longer than ships before we can put them into service. But still, it’s a good sum.”

 “I can buy my captaincy, with that,” Sharpe said. “I’m still waiting – well, I suppose you’ve heard, everyone else has. But there’s a commission for sale in the South Essex, that nobody’s picked up in two years. I can buy that one instead.”

 He would buy his commission. He had fought and earned his captaincy the hard way, and everyone knew it, but he would buy it again, and once he had that no London clerk would be able to write his command away. Fifty thousand pounds! He and Moncey were rich.

 “Come,” Laurence said. “We’re going to look at the stars this evening. The ensigns need practise, and it’s good to keep one’s navigation skills fresh.”

 Sharpe clapped Keynes on the shoulder in farewell, and followed Laurence out. Outside in the night, the sky was clear and the stars were bright. The officers of the Aerial Corps lay leaning backward against the dragon’s sides as if they were grandstands, with their telescopes aimed at the sky. Laurence was surrounded by his junior officers, teaching them, with Temeraire interjecting explanations when the youngsters faltered. The dragon had the gift of easy explanation, Sharpe noted. He leaned against Temeraire’s warm shoulder, with his own telescope aimed at the sky, trying to follow the lesson, but they were so far beyond his level of comprehension that in spite of his interest in stars he lost track and gave up. He stood for a moment, picking out constellations he recognised, and then went in search of Moncey.

 Moncey was awake. Laculla had arrived, and now lay sprawled alongside her smaller mate. “Grew tired of astronomy, old boy?” Moncey asked as he approached. He had retrieved his scythe from Elsie, and now he turned the handle lazily between his talons so that the blade revolved, this way and back. Teresa leaned against his shoulder. Her eyes and teeth gleamed in the dark as she smiled. Sharpe moved to stand beside her.

 “I only wish I knew half of what they were talking about,” he said. “Did you hear about the prize money?”

 “I heard. Fifty thousand. Twenty five thousand each.” The dragon yawned. “I think a nice London house and a coach-and-four will set me up nicely. Or, I’ll just spend it all on cows. Don’t know yet.  What do you think?" he asked Laculla, "Do you see me joining the haut ton?

 “I’m going to buy a captaincy,” Sharpe told him, and took up his position against Moncey’s shoulder alongside Teresa. The dragon folded his wing down over them both. “And I have a daughter now.” He wrapped his good arm around Teresa. “I’m going to give the rest of it to her.”

 “You are a rich man, now, Richard,” Teresa told him. “You can use the money to start a family.”

 “I have a family,” he told her. “Most of it is next to me.”

 Moncey huffed in laughter. “I trust you aren’t referring to me. Mind you, I think we’ll have to put something aside for Elsie. We did fly off and lose her harness.”

 “Is she upset?”

 “Not at all, actually. Captain Hollin used to be a harness-maker. He can whip her up a new one in no time even nicer than the old one, but the material will still cost money.”

 “Aye. We’ll go half and half,” Sharpe agreed.

 “By the way, here is another harness for you.” Moncey gestured with his nose to his forelegs. Sharpe walked forward in the dark. The Winchester had a bundle of leatherwork draped over one forearm.

 “Where did you get it?” Sharpe asked. The harness clinked softly as he picked it up.

 “Nicked it, of course.”

 “You are a thief!” Teresa said, startled, and laughed.

 “But of course I am a thief, dear lady,” Moncey said, and bowed his head exaggeratedly to her on his long neck. “Sheep, secrets and dragon’s eggs. I think it’s why I get along so well with our friend Richard here.”

 “I’ve never stolen a sheep in my life!” Sharpe protested. He stepped out from Moncey’s side, and said, “And where’s my bloody deer, you bugger?”

 “Ah, the deer ,” Moncey said, and his eyelids slid down in a serene blink. “The deer.  Well, now, you see, you shouldn’t have left it lying around if you didn’t want somebody to steal it. Actually, I do know what I will do with the money,” he continued, over Sharpe’s spluttering. “I will add it to all the rest of the money I have piling up, and when the war is over, Laculla and I are going to fly around the world.”

 Laculla on his other side made a noise of agreement.

 Sharpe whistled softly.  "Around the world?" 

 Moncey glanced down at him. “You have made India sound very interesting, old frog, and I have heard so much from Temeraire about China that I have to see it for myself. Go on the Grand Tour, as it were.  As soon as the war is over, Laculla and I are saying ‘toodle-oo’ to Merry England.  I shall have to see if I can find some marbles to send back.  That seems to be the Done Thing for the rich.”

Sharpe became aware of Teresa’s hand slipping into his. She drew him away from Moncey, and around the dragon’s front. They went into the shadows between Moncey and his mate. There, snug in the hollow between the Winchester’s shoulder and his side, she pressed up against him and kissed him.

 Laculla moved in closer against Moncey, and brought her wing down over them.

 In the warm solid cavity between them, there was no sound but the slow thunder of dragon hearts. It was warm and dark and secret in here, with the Aerial Corps on either side, yards away but oblivious. Sharpe pressed Teresa against Moncey’s side, and there they made love.