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Stitched in White

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Your absence has gone through me

Like thread through a needle.

Everything I do is stitched with its color.

 

-William Stanley Merwin


 

 

Alora Settles at the age of 12, after Laurence has crammed his few belongings into the space shared with a dozen midshipman. Laurence is not an officer – not yet – but the captain has promised to give him rank if he can prove himself. And Laurence has never wanted anything so badly in his life.

The ship sways and creaks beneath his feet; the ceiling of their berth is so low that Laurence's head scrapes the water-swollen wood, though he's only half-grown. Alora dances across his shoulders as an excited squirrel, a stark contrast with Laurence's intense focus while Midshipman Becken demonstrates how he can tie a thief knot to secure his bag.

Another boy lends Laurence his seamanship manual - interesting - and then they have a meal of weevil-filled biscuits - revolting. They tell Laurence to sleep, because the ship departs in the morning and there will be plenty of work; but Laurence is too restless.

He decides to walk the deck instead. He loves how the prim and well-appointed officers on the deck patrol past him without a second glance. Like he's supposed to be here - like he belongs.

Alora's eyes gleam in the moonlight. She darts forward to skitter across the ship's railing and sits on her hind legs, staring out at the quiet shore of Portsmouth.

“Those other boys were nice,” she tells him, tail twitching. “But I think the captain expects us to leave.”

Laurence agrees. “Working in the navy is hard, my dear. He thinks we don't understand.”

“Well, we probably don't,” Allora points out.

This is true. It also doesn't matter. In the distance Laurence can see candles in the windows of houses; he can hear the distant trill of a bell announcing the hour, dogs barking.

It's a mundane scene – the dirty harbor, the little boats circling their ships like fireflies in the distance. Sometimes Laurence loves England so much that his heart hurts and there is no reason but this – the scent of salt in the air, and sweet-cut grasses, and the quiet lassitude of a clear August night.

He can't fathom that anyone would want to hurt his country, so he will serve her as a shield from the sea. And maybe if he does this right he will be best rewarded in obscurity – in a nation that continues to exist, and thrive, and raise happy citizens.

He cannot frame these thoughts. So he tells Alora all he can manage.

“What the captain does not understand,” he explains, “Is that I would do anything for my country.” He says this with the unshakable only a 12-year-old can profess. “Anything, Alora dearest.”

But when Laurence turns he only sees Alora's tail as she dives from the railing. Laurence hastens to look over the side, but instead of a drowned squirrel he finds something beautiful. A white-gray swan, still dusky with her youthful feathers but elegant enough to hint at a beautiful future.

Because Alora will be like this forever. Laurence smiles, startled to find tears obscuring his vision.

And he knows that joining the navy was the right choice.


 

Later, years in the future, someone will ask Laurence: why the navy? Why not the army or the Corps?

For the army he has a simple answer. Laurence wanted to protect, not attack. And it seemed to him, in the naivete of youth, that the navy's primary duty was to make an impenetrable wall around the isle of Britain. And that was a worthy cause.

But why not the Corps, this other speaker may ask him. Why not be a shield from the air instead of the sea?

Then Laurence will feign deafness. He will give no answer. Because by the point this question is asked his reasons will not have changed, but they will be outdated.

Laurence-the-child had a nightmare he shared with most men and women who have heard of dragons, and one day, that nightmare came true.


 

If asked Captain Laurence would not be able to explain the feeling that rises within him as he watches Mr. Carver's miserable attempts to entice the dragon hatchling. The boy's daemon – a tiny frog only four months Settled – has hidden himself on the other side of the deck, scrunched under a pile of rope. It's a testament to the boy's fears.

Not that the black dragon seems frightening. It stumbles over its own wings trying to sniff at Lieutenant Riley's terrier-daemon, who hastily jumps away.

Laurence keeps a hand on Alora's white neck, arched proud and tall as she observes the proceedings. When the dragon pauses in front of her – still not speaking, and quite probably feral – she rustles her wings and hisses.

The dragon jumps. Then he says, “That is quite rude,” and bats at her chest.

The dragon's feet are delicate, each talon smaller than a finger and still wet with egg-mucous. He puts no force behind the touch. But Laurence never sees the dragon and swan connect; he is too occupied with the wrenching pain in his chest. He falls on his side, convulsing.

No one moves to help him. When the feeling ebbs to a dull ache Laurence struggles to his knees. All around the deck officers have gathered to watch the hatching; now they stare at him in white-faced silence. Poor Mr. Carver looks at something beside Laurence. He starts to retch.

“Oh, Laurence,” says a high voice. It's the dragon, who is no longer fully black; a perfect white ring encircles his throat like a necklace. The dragon looks at him with wide blue eyes, utterly unfamiliar except for a strange spark of recognition.

The dragon appears older, somehow. Older and a little sad.

Laurence looks around. But he knows, in his soul, that he will not find Alora.

“Laurence,” says the dragon again. “I am very sorry.”



Laurence names the dragon 'Temeraire.' He cannot bear to let it keep the name of his other half – the half of him that the dragon killed.


 

The dragon is at once very old and very young. He expresses delight and fascination with the glimmering waves that crash against the Reliant's hull, and he has questions about everything – the sails, the ropes, the stars in the sky.

But not about Laurence.

The dragon knows everything about him already. When Laurence explains that they must join the Corps he says they will probably be stationed at Dover or Gibraltar. “I remember Gibraltar,” says Temeraire, who hatched six days ago in the middle of the ocean. “You were sick with fever for a week, and I had to keep that awful cat from bothering you.”

Laurence is overwhelmed with a breathless fury. He wants to grab up Temeraire and fling him from the window, strangle him. Temeraire doesn't seem to realize. Whatever empathy and understanding affected him at the hatching, he seems not to realize what has changed.

That's the worst part.

Because sometimes – sometimes Laurence wants to believe that this is Alora. That she has just changed shape again, like when they were children. Temeraire is bright and enthusiastic and hard to hate for more than a moment. But Laurence hates him anyway, because the dragon is not Alora. Alora was a reflection of himself, laid bare; Temeraire is his own creature in every respect. As though someone read a record of all Alora's experiences, everything that should have been private, and thought it was enough to replace her.

And she can never, ever be replaced.


 

“Can it be undone?” asks Laurence of Admiral Portland. But the man shakes his head. Laurence can't help but be bitter. Portland's dragon flies circles above them, but the man has a tiny sparrow on his shoulder, too.

How could Laurence bond to a hatchling, he despairs, when so many aviators never manage it at all?


 

Laurence's father calls him it. Like he is a creature, or just a shadow of himself, bereft of soul and being. The guests at Wollaton Hall stare and whisper behind their hands. A young woman leaves the room, soon followed by others; Laurence sees someone cross themselves when they think he is not looking.

His mother cries and asks to see Temeraire. When they meet she will not speak to him; just stares, and stares, and then tells Laurence that he will be in her prayers.


 

Lieutenant Granby looks at Laurence with wary eyes, but no resentment. When he shows Laurence the dragon-eggs in the bathhouse he says “Hold this a moment,” and thrusts his daemon – Silma – straight into Laurence's surprised hands.

Laurence almost drops the bird. Silma is a curlew – a small, fat avian with an extended beak and spindly legs. He sits bored in Laurence's grip, complacent as a hen, as though through their touch Laurence can't feel Mr. Granby's faint fatigue, his curiosity, even a distant hunger. If Laurence tightened his fingers, he feels, the bird would burst into Dust. Granby would die.

Then the lieutenant finished fiddling with his jacket – is that why he handed his soul to a stranger? - and plucks Silma away.

“Well, come on then,” says John Granby, as though his isn't the first unrelated daemon Laurence has touched since he stumbled over a Frenchman's tomcat back in '01.

Laurence shakes his head, suppressing a wave of longing. Temeraire is elsewhere, perhaps a mile away; Laurence can barely feel him.

As he trails after Mr. Granby Laurence sees a labrador-daemon snoozing over the laps of two officers who sit side-by-side. He averts his eyes and hurries on.


 

“We have to get used to it,” Jane Roland tells him later. “All of us who really want to be captains.”

They're lying curled in Laurence's quarters, the air thick in the summer heat. Jane follows his gaze and looks over to where her bluejay, Cynder, sits watching them.

“Excidium has had captains before us,” Jane says. “And Cynder here hasn't bonded with her yet. But he will.”

She says it with a smile. Laurence looks away.


 

When the crew boards Temeraire Laurence can feel them tugging at his ribs, clawing over his spine. They jostle his lungs when they shift position, and the riflemen brush loose dust away from the pebbling scales above his hips.

When they're aloft Temeraire cranes his neck, only perceiving something wrong after half an hour of silence. “Laurence?” he questions.

Laurence wonders if, when someone touches him, Temeraire can feel it too.

He never asks.


 

“It's easier for the dragons, you know,” Jane says. “To bond with our children, after...”

Laurence looks over at Emily Roland across the room. He wonders: when a child is born, do they steal part of their parents too?


 

Some people think it's like living forever, his mother writes in a letter. She's trying to console him, trying to make him forget the other things people say of dragon-bonded. But the image only haunts Laurence. How can he live when half of him is gone?

Jeremy Rankin, sniffing haughtily over the breakfast table, explains that bonding with a dragon is a purely practical matter. Laurence will be aware of Temeraire in a way other captains never manage.

When Laurence dares voice the question to Temeraire himself – why does this happen, and why do aviators spend their lives seeking a bond – the dragon is puzzled.

“Why, because I am yours and you are mine,” says Temeraire, as though this justifies everything. “You can keep company with yourself, like Silma does with Granby; but I hardly see the point. What we have is much better. I am sure you see that by now, Laurence.”


 

He loves Temeraire.

Laurence discovers this in the spaces between 17th-century poetry, the swinging drop before the next wing-beat. He learns this when Temeraire asks him the names of the stars, and pronounces them bad, and invents new ones.

When Temeraire is scratched by Victoriatus – a mistake, an accident – Laurence aches not because of their bond, but because he cares for the dragon as a friend, as a child, as a partner.


 

Some aviators whisper about the pair of them. It's unnatural – and blessed – that he bonded with Temeraire so soon and so easily. It's the dream of every aviator to achieve perfect unity with their dragon, perfect understanding.

In an argument, Temeraire suggests to Laurence that maybe the House of Lords should be dismantled, and wouldn't it be better if this old King George retired and let the country vote in a new leader?

Laurence thinks that maybe bonding is so rare because aviators have developed an entirely wrong impression of the whole thing.


 

When Temeraire lectures to the cadets Laurence remembers Alora herding the midshipmen's daemons into the water for swimming-lessons. Recalls all the young officers bending over their calculus while trying not to steal glances over the side.

Temeraire is a good swimmer. But he weighs too much in the water, and he swims nothing like a swan.


 

Levitas dies and Rankin does not. Laurence wonders what it means for a dragon to be partnered but unbonded, held but not known.

It looks immeasurably lonely.


 

“It's an abomination,” says Granby.

His lieutenant usually isn't one for such strong expressions. “We have our orders,” Laurence returns.

“But he is your daemon,” Granby bristles. The lieutenant absently strokes the bird cradled in his arms, adding, “The two of you saved the country in the Battle of Dover, and this is how you're repaid?”

“The Chinese cannot stay forever,” says Berkley, joining them. He thrusts his fat rooster-daemon into Laurence's arms as though this can console him.

It does help.

“You know Lenton will fight for you,” says Harcourt, reaching over to squeeze his arm. She has no daemon to offer; but across the field Lily's eyes rise over the trees, luminous and golden.

So Laurence knows she speaks the truth.


 

“They still intend to take him,” Hammond warns when they come up the deck of the Allegiance. “The Chinese will not suffer a Celestial to be partnered with some English nobody, much less bonded. They will do all they can to persuade and seduce him – and I hope,” Hammond adds, with new anxiety, “I mean – do you believe there is any risk of it? The slightest chance of their success?”

Laurence tilts back his head to watch Temeraire circle the ship above. His wheeling flight resembles a raptor more than a swan. For a moment Laurence feels a pang of grief, quickly quenched.

Temeraire cranes his neck to peer down at them. The hurt subsides into a rush of sudden, fierce affection.

“No,” he tells Hammond. “No, there is no chance of that.”

For all the uncertainty in their future, there is this: Temeraire is with him.

And Laurence is not afraid.