Born into an Aerial Corps family of fame and notoriety, William Tenzing Laurence, youngest son of the fabled Admiral Laurence of Temeraire whom every child in England knew about, had grown up in the conscience of being a vast disappointment.
His family called him Little Will, only superficially to avoid confusion with his father’s name, whom even his mother Jane addressed as Laurence – William being reserved for when she was either exceptionally happy, or furious – but rather because only the shortest and littlest of names seemed to do justice to as slight a child as him.
From the cradle, he was small and sickly, and did not eat or grow well, to the extent that strangers commonly assumed he was Horatio’s younger brother by a year at least, rather than his twin. Horatio was everything Little Will was not – he was strong, brave and stubborn where Will was quiet, withdrawn and shy.
The only thing the brothers had in common was their unconditional love of dragons, and of Temeraire in particular, who clearly was the finest beast in all of England. They could spend countless hours clambering about his back acting out aerial battles, and sometimes their father and Mr Tharkay could be persuaded to join in. On those joyful occasions, Horatio always wanted to be captain, which Little Will gladly let him, himself preferring the role of cook. Laurence and Tharkay stood in as signal-ensigns, runners, riflemen, lieutenants, or enemy boarding party, as required. If the twins couldn’t sleep, they would evade their nurse and sneak out, blankets and all, to Temeraire’s pavilion. They knew no greater happiness than being tucked under the canopy of the great Celestial’s wing, snuggled against the smooth scales while listening to Temeraire’s stories of exploration and adventure. Little Will was fascinated by all stories concerning foreign lands, while Horatio mainly wanted to hear about battle. Whenever Temeraire had to leave the Peaks again to resume his seat in parliament, the boys counted the days to his return.
Horatio couldn’t wait to join an aerial crew himself. Their father, although not generally opposed to the notion of him being given to the Corps, did not want to part with him until he was at least ten years old. However, it turned out he had little choice in the matter. Jane and Excidium paid them a short visit one summer day, on their way to Edinburgh, but scarce half an hour after they had left again for the second leg of their journey, the great Longwing could be seen beating back towards their valley, and landing outside Castleton Hall.
Jane disembarked, dragging a resentful Horatio behind her.
“Mother, please!“ Horatio wailed.
“It’s Admiral Roland to you, Master Laurence,” she snapped, an angry furrow across her forehead as she marched him back to the front door, under the stares of her dragon and crew.
“Look what starts he is getting himself into!” she told Laurence, “He hid in the belly-netting.”
“But I want to go flying!” Horatio shouted, tears streaming down his face, “I don’t want to be shut up in the library memorizing stupid books. Will can do that, he likes it, but it’s killing me!”
Laurence sighed, and sent Horatio to bed without dinner, a fairly lenient punishment. The next day, he wrote a letter to Admiral Granby of Iskierka, to ask whether he might be persuaded to take Horatio as a runner. Two months later, Granby and Iskierka came to collect him. Horatio strutted about in his runners’ uniform and walked up to the steaming monster without the least hesitation, while Little Will had to muster all his strength not to hide behind his nurse’s skirts, and when Horatio turned to wave his goodbye, it was Will who was crying. Temeraire nudged him consolingly. “Don’t worry,” he whispered, perfectly audible across the yard, “He won’t like it much. He’ll be back in no time, I’m sure.”
For the first time Will knew, Temeraire was proven wrong, for Horatio did not come back. He sent letters, in his wonky writing littered with spelling mistakes, noting the places they’d visited, the things he’d learned, and the first man he'd killed, when they sunk a pirate ship near Gibraltar and its aerial support of brigand ferals laid them a trap. Little Will, alone and wretched, sought consolation in the library. At seven years old, he had read several encyclopaedias and all the dragon books he could lay his hands on, and was starting on Chinese and Hindi under the tutelage of his godfather, Mr Tharkay. When Temeraire and Laurence returned for Christmas, Temeraire was delighted to find he and Little Will could now talk Mandarin to one another. He started to teach him Chinese characters, scratched out in the snow, Auspicious Holidays, and Hello Ho-ra-tsio, in case Iskierka and Horatio should happen to be pass by overhead, although his brother of course wouldn’t have been able to read any of it.
Laurence was worried. “It cannot be normal for a child his age,” he said to Tharkay, “to be burying himself behind books quite so much. He is all pale and skinny – oughtn’t he be running around and strengthening his body?”
When he and Temeraire departed for London again, after Boxing Day, he insisted Little Will accompany them. Will was excited to be travelling on Temeraire, yet sad to leave Tharkay’s library behind – his mother’s house in London, for all its grandeur, had no such thing. The day after their arrival, Laurence took him to the dockyards by the river. Little Will proudly walked by his father’s side, at times running a little to keep up, and looked around wide-eyed. The strangest goods were being unloaded from the holds of the ships arriving there, boxes of tea and porcelain from China, bundles of furs from the Americas, African ivory, marble, timber, bales of cotton, even a gaggle of monkeys and a live giraffe for some rakish gentleman’s menagerie. Little Will took it all in with his mouth half-open, holding on tight to his father’s hand so as to not get lost in the crowd. There were people of all colours and tongues, richly dressed to wretched, and on the river, a bustle of crafts, a few graceful clippers like oversized swans, and between them smaller rowing boats, barges and the new brutish steamboats choking black clouds into the air. Laurence pointed out a few ships to him, praising their speed or capacity, and went through the names of their different sails, terms as fantastic as studding sails and moonrakers.
“When we have time, we will fly to Plymouth and see some of the Navy ships there – I’ve read that the Téméraire is expected back in harbour very soon,” he said, and Little Will nodded eagerly. He would quite like to see Temeraire’s namesake, and it would be nice to have something a little more interesting to write about to Horatio. His father smiled at him, quite misinterpreting his enthusiasm. “Perhaps when you are a little older, you would like to go to sea, too?”
The smile died on Little Will’s face. He tried to say something, but he could feel a lump in his throat, and tears rising in his eyes. His father patted his back, and said they ought to go home, smiling as he spoke, but the disappointment was plain in his eyes. “My, my, William, you cannot always be crying – you are growing too old for it,” he murmured before he hailed a carriage to take them back, but this was the last straw for Little Will. He burst out crying, angry with himself for having ruined the wonderful day with his father. He sure wouldn’t be taken out again any time soon.
Back at their town house, he wanted to run straight to Temeraire. But when he entered the yard, he nearly stumbled on a spiky serpentine tail, and the next moment, Horatio come rushing from a side-corridor where he had hidden to lay ambush, with a war-howl, and knocked him over.
Will hastily wiped the tears from his eyes as he hugged his brother. “Horatio! I’ve missed you so very much!”
Horatio grinned, freeing himself from Will’s grip with the air of someone far above such childish displays of affection. He had grown half a foot since they had last met, and his face was sun-burnt, already losing its childlike roundness. His fair hair had grown long, and after extracting a promise from Will not to tell anyone, he proudly revealed a small tattoo on his left ankle, hidden under his stocking, of a dragon breathing fire, which he had acquired in Malaga while out on ground-leave with Iskierka’s midwingmen.
Will gasped. “But Horatio! That’s a Kazilik! Surely Temeraire won’t like it, if he sees it?”
Horatio folded his arms. “Well, he needn’t see it…. Tell me, what have you been up to, little brother?”
“Nothing much,” Will admitted.
Creeping up to the sitting room that night to fetch a book he had forgotten on the setee, he chanced upon his father and Admiral Granby in conversation.
“And there is no way I can convince you to let me have Horatio for Iskierka?” the Admiral was asking, “I have to confess myself very impressed with him. He is fearless as anything, and already showing great promise. The one time I’ve had to discipline him, he had pushed in a fellow’s nose for ridiculing his name… and Iskierka even listens to him, occasionally, would you credit it?”
Laurence sighed. “I would with all my heart, John, but what am I to do? Can you imagine his brother taking on Temeraire? I love them both dearly, but there is no denying that Will is no fit for the service. My mother thinks we ought to send him to boarding school… I’ve never liked the thought of it, and Temeraire is outright opposed, but I am running out of other ideas.”
Will shrunk into the darkness, clutching his book. Each word cut him. His father thought him a coward.
He was enrolled at a school in Bedfordshire later that year, and was secretly glad of it, for a month before he left, his mother retired from the service, handing Excidium’s command to her eldest daughter Emily. When she joined them in the East Wing of Castelton Hall, she brought with her a stormy little girl called Isabella, Emily’s daughter. Will had always been a little scared of his mother. Admiral Roland hadn’t ever done anything deliberately cruel to him, but she seemed to look straight through him most of the time, as if so quiet and weak a son wasn’t worthy of her attention.
At his new school, he was dreadfully homesick for the first few weeks, missing his father and Mr Tharkay and most of all Temeraire. Afterwards, things improved. He was allowed to read as much as he liked, and his neat writing, impeccable spelling, and arithmetic earned him praise instead of worried glances. While Horatio circled the globe on Iskierka and made lieutenant at the age of seventeen, Will ran out of books to read in the school library and went on to Oxford University, to the consternation of his father and mild amusement of his mother.
He had hoped he might study to become a dragon-surgeon and redeem himself a little in the eyes of his family, but while he enjoyed the theoretical lectures, he was so violently sick at the sight of his first dissection that he quickly abandoned that plan. He tried Divinity but found it useless, and dabbled in Orientalism. However, the lectures were dry and stuffy compared to discussing the Analects with a Celestial. He finally stumbled into a lecture on comparative anatomy and taxonomy which instantly hooked him when the lecturer brought out the massive skull of a Parnassian, next to a fragile lizard’s skull, and invited them to think about how the two of them might be connected. The scientist’s name was Sir Richard Owen, and he was a distinguished expert in the field of draconology. Will listened to all his lectures enraptured, a wholly new way of looking at his favourite subject suddenly opening before him. By the end of Michaelmas term he had finished all of Owen’s books that could be found in his college’s library. He finally plucked up the courage to go to see his hero, to inquire whether he might be able to assist him in his work.
“William Laurence junior, eh?” the professor said abrasively as he gathered up his papers after the lecture, “Well, we’ve all heard of your father, the first to bring a Chinese Celestial to these shores, although I must say he has been quite unwilling to let his dragon be subjected to any form of proper scientific examination, which is a shame.”
Will blushed. He had always shied away from taking advantage of his father’s fame which was a double-edged sword at best, earning him the icy contempt of fellow students from conservative-voting families and the awestruck whispers of those from more liberal-leaning backgrounds, everyone with an idea of him already formed in their heads before they had even met him. But if it should help him get a foot in the door with Professor Owen, so be it. “Perhaps I might speak to father, and Temeraire,” he volunteered.
The draconologist looked at him over the rim of his glasses. “You might indeed.” He sat down. “I have a few theories on the development of dragons’ speech – the throat of a lizard being entirely unsuited to the production of speech, and the voice-box of a dragon so very different from that of humans – which would greatly benefit from some close observations made in a Celestial, the most articulate of all dragon breeds, while at the same time capable of the Divine Wind… which is again entirely uncharted sea, scientifically speaking. It is a shame we have no hope of the beast dying in either of our lifetimes, so someone else will have the pleasure of his dissection.”
“Begging your pardon?” Will stammered, but Owen continued to tidy away his papers unperturbed, and he realized the last remark had been meant in earnest.
This was his welcome to the world of draconology, a strange cloistered field almost entirely steeped in theory and comparative anatomy of skulls and bones stored in the vaults of the zoology museum. Will had found his calling. He spent hours sorting scales and teeth in the zoology archive, days closeted in the university library combing through medieval bestiaries and books-of-hours for descriptions of dragon hunts and hoards. When the first snow dusted the college greens, Little Will was figuring out a way of dissolving dragon coprolites in sulphuric acid to study the bone fragments contained therein, to disprove the notion that the first dragons of the British Isles had been man-eating beasts. His fellow students thought him mildly insane.
“Hey, Laurence,” one of his fellow undergraduates shouted one evening, in the common room, and threw a cricket ball at him which narrowly missed his head, “Perhaps you’d like to invite your dragon friends to join us, and take a diploma?
“Sure. Temeraire is better read than all of you taken together,” Will thought, without looking up from the box of North American fossils he had received in the post from one of Professor Owen’s correspondents, “Excidium could teach you all a lesson in military history. And Perscitia could head the school of mathematics without even trying very hard, if they let her.”
Crashing laughter broke out around him, and he suddenly realized that he had spoken the last words aloud. The student at the head of the group shook himself laughing.
“Hear, hear! Mr Laurence is as mad as his father – crazy about dragons. I bet he’d take them to bed, if only he could!”
Before Will could think, his hand had closed around a fossilized claw from his box and hurled it at the speaker. The young man went down with a scream, blood trickling between his fingers. His had to be sown up with two stitches and Will got a dressing-down from the Dean, although afterward he was sorry only to have damaged a perfectly good specimen. He had earned his peace. However, returning to the dusty catacombs of the museum to place the chipped fossil amongst the collection, and facing the empty eye-sockets staring at him from the dragon skulls, he couldn’t help feeling downcast. His fellow students’ prejudice accurately reflected the whole university’s attitude to dragons: Living dragons, even the littlest couriers, were banned from within a mile of the city’s spires. It was an antiquated rule, a precaution against fire dating from the days before the last native feral fire-breathers had been hunted to extinction in the fourteenth century, but, as Will had quickly grasped, once a rule in Oxford, always a rule in Oxford.
He would dearly have liked to show Temeraire around, as he knew Temeraire would have shared his delight in the glorious libraries. Instead, when his father and Temeraire came to visit, they had to meet awkwardly at an inn outside the city’s precincts. Laurence, resentful at the treatment of his dragon, refused to accompany Will to dinner at his college. Will retorted that maybe he should make a speech in Parliament about that stupid rule, instead of taking it out on him. They parted with dark clouds between them. Will did take a detailed set of measurements of Temeraire’s jaws, neck, and pharynx for Professor Owen, though, braving his fear to climb into the dragon’s open mouth while his father looked on with a furrowed brow. Before Laurence left, he stiffly informed his younger son that Horatio had acquitted himself admirably during some recent skirmishes in Québéc, and come up near the top of the post-list despite his young age so that consequently, he intended to hand over Temeraire’s captaincy as soon as Iskierka returned to England.
Will nodded, hoping that his face betrayed none of his feelings. He had never entertained any serious hope of inheriting Temeraire, and knew Horatio to be better suited to the task in every way imaginable, but the thought of Temeraire returning to active service under his brother’s command was still a blow. It meant his most beloved dragon should be away from England for months, if not years on end, exposed to danger and battle, while all he could do was sit and wait for news. Something about Laurence’s gait as he walked back to Temeraire and climbed aboard, shoulders uncharacteristically hunched, told him his father shared this sentiment, but the quarrel was too fresh between them for any conciliatory words. Will raised his hand to wave as Temeraire went aloft, and watched as the dark shadow disappeared into the evening sky.