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Temeraire stared at Maximus, who certainly could not get any redder than he already was but had a rather defiantly sheepish cast to his posture. His massive dragging tail twitched back and forth in a show of tension utterly uncharacteristic of the Regal.

"It is just," said Maximus, with the air of working out an incontrovertible argument, "You did not ever say that she was quite so lovely, Temeraire."

Lily, behind Temeraire, made a noise like a hundred million kettles boiling over. He did not quite dare turn around.

Maximus had returned to the not-inconsequential task of pretending he was not peering at Lien, which since he was bigger than the windbreak separating her from her guards, was also not a little ridiculous. Temeraire felt utterly undone, and wanted very much to have any of the captains here, perhaps Catherine the most because Lily was beginning to make his hide crawl.

"Do you think," said Maximus, dreamily, "she would like a nice fresh cow?"

 

.0.

 

Lien's ruff was flat across her neck, and she picked her food not merely in disdain, as she had pointedly been doing for all this time (which Temeraire thought was very insulting to poor Gong Su, who had been trying so hard and nearly killing himself to cook for Lung Tien Lien), but with a certain amount of absent befuddlement.

"I did not quite know," she said, very quietly, in Chinese, so that only Temeraire could hear her, and perhaps she did not know or think that he could. "I had seen the Grand Chevaliers, but these English dragons-" She stopped, and nosed at the cow which Maximus had timidly laid at the corner of her clearing. It had been obvious from the start that she had no actual idea what to do with it. "He is so very big," she said, Temeraire felt so very terrible that he had to stop listening, now.

 

.0.


"Prisoners do not get pavilions," had said Admiral Roland, "Not even imperial or celestial prisoners of war," and everyone had nodded their heads at this wisely and pretended that Lien's Divine Wind rattle did not shake them to their spines, except for Temeraire, who thought rather that Lien had never before in her life slept on the ground, or had been asked to eat raw meat, and provided Gong Su's services because she was, after all, his cousin, and his first cousin, even if she was a lying murdering country-stealing nasty little snake.

Nevertheless, when Lien condescended to mention to Maximus the harshness of the sunlight in his country, the Regal Copper immediately fell to providing shade with an attentiveness they all had no doubt Lien found most gratifying.

Perscitia, whom Temeraire consulted in haste as both the smartest dragon he knew and also a female, and also because he could not leave his post and she occasionally came to him to show off and discuss her burgeoning role as a mediator, said, "Well, she certainly seems to be enjoying herself, lolling about like that."

"What do you mean?" said Temeraire, and Perscitia had given a prim little sniff.

"Well, look at her," she said. "Practically spread out under him, isn't she?"

Temeraire made a choking, gurgling sound that might have been a hastily strangled bad word Iskierka had told him about.

Perscitia was laughing at him, in what Temeraire was sure was a completely undeserved manner. "You were always a popular choice in the breeding-grounds," she said, which was fine talk for someone who had never bred even once, and never even been asked to, even if Majestatis had rather a speculative gleam in his eye nowadays not that Temeraire would know anything about that except that the couriers never stopped gossiping, and Perscita was quite admired now, being obstinate and inventive and all. She had even been loosed on ministers and lords, by a Wellington who was pleased enough to simply have someone else to aim her at. "Surely you understand?"

"The breeding-grounds are entirely different," insisted Temeraire when he once again trusted himself to speak. "And she is a prisoner; she should not be having eggs while she is a prisoner."

"I do not think," observed Perscitia, with one of those very uncomfortable flashes of insight that were the foundation of her admitted brilliance, "That this has very much to do with eggs."

 

.0.

 

Iskierka naturally thought that it was all hilarious. Her continuous stream of steam only heightened the effect when she twisted herself all around to relieve her feelings.

"I do not see what is so very amusing at all," said Temeraire. "Maximus is making a complete cake of himself, and Lien is- is-" He stopped and did not say that Lien rather appeared to be pleased if astounded at the Regal's attentions.

"I do not see what is so very aggravating," she said. Temeraire had for once come into her pavilion to confide in her, and she spread herself out rudely, coils looping around him and making him feel over-warm. "Unless of course you wanted to mate with her yourself."

"Do not be ridiculous," said Temeraire, nipping at a coil and watching her entire body shudder in surprise. "Celestials do not mate with one another, only with Imperials, usually. And she is my cousin, my first cousin. And besides," he added, "She is very unpleasant, and rude and sneaky and I do not like her at all, that is why I am worried about Maximus. I am sure she will be cruel to him, and then what can he do? She is too small, he will not fight her."

"I've always felt that the English breeds as a whole are rather heavy, lumbering creatures," said Iskierka, a wholly tactless remark she was able to make without fear of being overheard, as the rest of the dragons did not quite like to come near her, and risk her careless fire, no matter how impressive it was. “Besides, he will not fight with her if he wants to have eggs with her, that only stands to reason.”

"Iskierka!" said Temeraire, and paused; he himself would be considered rather overlong by the British standard, but that was not the same as Iskierka calling Maximus fat. "That is very rude."

She snorted at him, and moved about restlessly, her length dragged across his back, which Temeraire felt he bore with perfect stoicism.

"If he likes her," she said eventually, with what she clearly felt was a consoling air, "Then surely it is all his business, and we have no proper right to interfere."

Iskierka was a fine one to talk of propriety. They twitched their tails back and forth, thinking, and Temeraire was annoyed to discover that they got tangled up, which certainly he felt was more Iskierka's fault than his, seeing as how she was now arching slowly over his folded wings, as though she did not have enough space to keep her coils to herself.

"We must tell Berkley, I think," he said. "I am sure that Laurence will know what to do."

.0.

 

"Why the bleeding hell are you acting as a parasol for a prisoner of war, you bloody big lump?" bellowed Berkley the second he was in ear shot.

Maximus looked abashed, as well he might, and said, "Well. Lien is an albino, you see. So her eyes are very delicate and the surgeons said that she cannot take direct sunlight, so-"

"He has been very helpful," said Lien in musical English, her voice as sweet and low and gracious. Until this moment she had not condescended to speak any other language than Chinese, and Temeraire had been forced to translate for her. "Maximus has been of great comfort to me in my captivity. You are his companion?"

Berkley stared up at her. Lien managed to give the impression of being on the verge of offering her hand to be paid obeisance to despite being bigger than a house, and the effect on a blunt, uncomplicated aviator like Berkley was devastating.

“Well-“ he blustered. “I- you- that is-“ and made a hasty exit.

.0.

"Besotted, poor thing," opinioned Jane, when in increasing desperation Temeraire and Lily consulted Excidium on the matter and caught her on a visit. "Well, let them at it, a young male is due some mooning about at times, I dare say, and there are dragons enough to watch them, even if Maximus is seduced into letting her go free- which I think wholly unlikely- she can hardly leave."

"But what if she is cruel to poor Maximus," said Temeraire again, aware that he was bleating rather.

Jane patted him on the shoulder as she turned to leave. "Into every life some rain must fall," she told him. "And just think, if she does have an egg, what that would do for our bloodlines and our diplomatic relations to China. England would be well-served."

"Oh, England," said Temeraire, disgruntled, and left after she.

 

.0.

 

“It is very nice,” said Maximus. “But you must take an awful lot of washing, to stay white and clean all the time. Must be difficult,” he said. “During battles. Or after.

“All that blood,” he added, as if she might have mistaken his meaning. “And the gunpowder and suchlike.”

"Red is a lucky colour," said Lien, softly. "In China, it signifies good luck and good fortune."

"Ah," said Maximus happily.

"Yellow, as well," she said, and rather delicately nosed at his vivid markings, her tongue flicking out to touch them.

Maximus held himself very, very still; he rumbled deep in the massive chest, and Lien might have shivered herself: he was so very large, so very unlike the Chinese dragons, those of her kin and those of the Scarlet Flower, even though he shared their colouring.

"You have been very kind," she said, and this was true: the English dragon was very big and very blunt and not very bright, but he had been most attentive; it was entirely possible that he was just too stupid to know that she was unlucky or that she was above him in every level of intellect and breeding, or perhaps just too confident in his luck.

She would simply have to drive him away: it would not bode well for her standing amongst the French dragons if she was to be seen with an English dragon.

 

-tbc-