“Laurence,” said Temeraire, one evening, “I have been thinking; I should like to go into town next week.”
“Into town?” said Laurence, looking up from their book a little surprised. “Whatever for?”
“Oh, no reason,” said Temeraire, “only it has been some time since we have lived near the sea, and I should very much like to see it again.”
He tried to inject some wistfulness into his voice, and succeeded perhaps a little too well, for Laurence put the book aside at once.
“I must beg your pardon, my dear,” said Laurence. “It was not my intention to keep you here for so long, without any company but my own.”
“Why, I certainly did not mean to complain,” said Temeraire, alarmed, for Laurence had begun to look concerned. “I have not been bored, at all; on the contrary there has been a great deal to do as regards our constituency, as I am sure you know, particularly with the by-election next month. Besides which, I find Tharkay’s estate very nice, and I quite like that we have stayed for so long—”
“Yes, well,” said Laurence hastily: a little too hastily, Temeraire thought. “I have been thinking: there are some errands I must see to as well, and I had rather accomplish them in person than wait for the post. We shall go next week.”
“I am glad to hear it,” said Temeraire, with no small measure of guilt: he had not meant to dissemble, at all, but of course he could not have told Laurence his real motive for wishing to travel into the city.
He shook his wings out and settled back down as Laurence began to read again. It was a very enjoyable book so far; he thought the plot riveting, if a little far-fetched, but of course one could not expect a well-bred lady to know very much about dragons, even now. Perhaps once they had finished, he might dictate a letter to the author, and offer some improvements for her next novel; Emma was a little flighty even for a dragon, unless Miss Austen’s only experience of them had been Turkish ferals.
They set out early the next Sunday, while it was still dark. Temeraire flew about Tharkay’s estate with Laurence quite often, of course, but that was not the same; they both of them knew every hill and valley of the Peaks by now, and they rarely needed to consult a map or a compass to find their way back. He had not realised how much he missed this: winging his steady way across what seemed to him the whole of England, with Laurence’s steady voice in his ear, directing him a few points northwest or south as needed.
An hour’s steady flight brought them to a tributary of the River Mersey; after that it was only another hour before the river widened suddenly, a broad band of silver-blue in the pale winter morning, and all the port of Liverpool was spread out before them.
“You were right, Temeraire,” said Laurence, as they landed just outside the city proper. “It is very pleasant in Derbyshire, but now and again I find myself missing the sea.”
His shoulders had relaxed, and with his neck-cloth and leather riding-coat undone he looked quite at ease. Temeraire nudged him with his snout, feeling the last vestiges of guilt slip away; surely it could not have been as bad as all that to lie, just a little, when Laurence looked so soothed by their trip.
For a while Temeraire indulged himself in splashing about, enjoying the feel of the cold water on his scales, while Laurence watched from the shore. Derbyshire had been good for Laurence. It was not nearly so exciting as the untamed land they had left behind in New South Wales, nor so fine as a pavilion in China; but now and again when they sat under the tree and discussed a book they had read, or watched a storm roll in over the distant hills, something like peace would come over Laurence’s face; and that, Temeraire thought, could not be traded for anything.
But right now he did not particularly wish Laurence to spend the day watching him. “Laurence,” he said, “did you not have errands to attend to? I should like to stay here for a little while, and there is no need for you to wait for me.”
Was it suspicion that flickered across Laurence’s face, for just a moment? —but no, his captain only looked puzzled. “Are you quite certain, my dear?” he said, and again Temeraire felt that flicker of unease, at having deceived him. “I may be a while.”
“I am perfectly certain,” said Temeraire, endeavouring to sound earnest. “I may fly a loop or two of the city, to dry off, when you are not here; but if you like, you may come back when you are finished, and I will meet you here presently.”
He waited in the shallows until he was quite certain Laurence had gone; then he slipped under the water and made his way toward the nearest pier.
There was some commotion when Temeraire poked his head out of the water by the Old Dock. He had not visited Liverpool often enough to become a common sight; but after a moment someone recognised him as a war hero, and then he could hardly see past the pier for the crowds, which he found deeply satisfying. He indulged several curious young ladies, who wished to pet his nose, and a Chinese family who produced a squashy, red-faced infant for him to bless; then he managed to quiet them all long enough to ask them if they knew if an American clipper had made port recently, and where.
“A clipper, sir?” said the infant’s father, who had the look of a sailor about him. “One came in on Friday. You might try Prince’s Dock; all the other Yanks are berthed there.”
He must have been a Liverpudlian born and bred, for he only tugged his forelock respectfully instead of kowtowing when Temeraire thanked him; and when prompted he readily offered up the name of a talented seamstress on Duke Street whose business might benefit from a Celestial’s patronage.
John Wampanoag was sunning himself on the quarterdeck of the Lacewing when Temeraire descended on Prince’s Dock. He was as delighted as he was surprised to renew their acquaintance: all the more so when Temeraire explained his reason for visiting.
“Tell you the truth, I hadn’t the faintest you had retired to Derbyshire, or else I would have dropped by to see the place,” he said, and signalled to a hand for tea and cakes.
The little dragon had done tolerably well for himself in the years since the war; he was still as whippet-thin as ever, but he had exchanged his old brown waistcoat for one of fine purple silk, shot through with lovely golden thread, and there seemed to be twice as many gold chains pinned across it as there had been before. He caught Temeraire eyeing them and made a pleased sound.
“I was right, you know, all those years ago: the rage is silk, or it will be in ten years,” he said, indicating the bolts his men were unloading with a flick of his tail. “I have gone in with a Lyonnaise supplier; with the cotton supply out of sorts at the moment your Lancashire mills will need to learn to spin something else, or else fold entirely. But of course you won’t be wanting that: you’ll have had your fill of silk straight from the source.”
“Oh, yes,” said Temeraire. “Laurence has several robes from the Emperor’s court already; I was rather thinking of something more modern. It has been so very long since he bought himself anything fine. He says he sees no need for it, now that he is no longer an admiral, but he is after all still a prince; sometimes I think he forgets.”
Wampanoag tilted his head. “Muslin isn’t out of style yet: I came into a few bolts on my last trip to Bombay, though it cost me a pretty penny, I can tell you! That’s the trouble with East Indiamen; they’re awful chiselers, if they think they can get away with it.”
Curiously enough, he did not sound distressed in the slightest; if anything he sounded almost pleased to have been cheated, as if he had found a new challenge to puzzle over. Temeraire supposed it had something to do with being of an entrepreneurial mind.
“Or perhaps a coat,” Wampanoag continued, warming now to his subject. “That’s what the fellows in London are wearing, nowadays: wool coats with the shoulders puffed out, like legs of mutton. I daresay it would make a body feel uncommon smart, with brocade all along the cuffs.”
“Only the cuffs?” said Temeraire doubtfully. “I would very much like to see him wear something befitting his station, for the by-election; I do not think that only the cuffs would suit.”
Temeraire had quite forgotten how considering Wampanoag’s gaze could be, when it was turned on one. “I suppose you might add some braid, too, if you like, along the collar: I ain’t a seamstress, but it seems to me you could arrange it so it looked a bit military, and that would remind all your constituents he’d been in the wars, and so on.”
“And a cloak also, I think,” said Temeraire. “I heard tell of one in the Prince Regent’s collection, which the Prussians took from Napoleon: it was a wonderful red colour, with gold trim embroidered all along the edges, and the inside golden silk to match. Not that I should like to replicate anything of Napoleon’s,” he added hastily, “but it seems to me a waste not to appreciate beautiful things; they cannot help whom they happen to be made for.”
“Well now!” said Wampanoag, with a curious look in his eye. “You’ll have togged that captain of yours to the bricks, and no mistake; I only wish I were here to see him in it, when it’s finished.”
One month later the package came. It was a fine rare sunset, unshrouded by cloud or fog, and Temeraire was finishing off a particularly delicious roast cow by the main house when he spotted wings to the west.
The courier to whom the wings belonged was named Emmeline Lenape, lately of Philadelphia. She had the same sharp, lean greyhound build that Temeraire had learned to associate with American dragons, and bore a carefully wrapped oilcloth bundle which, to Temeraire’s annoyance, she refused to hand over, saying, “Only I have it here that it’s for a Mr William Laurence, and you certainly don’t look the part to me.”
“That is stuff and nonsense,” said Temeraire, indignant, “as if it were not obvious that he is my captain.”
“The devil should I know that for,” said Emmeline, “as if I ought to be able to look at a dragon and know who his rider is! No, that won’t do: look here—” and she produced a sheaf of papers from her bag— “this right here says I’m to have the package signed for, and I shan’t leave until it’s done,” which prompted an argument so loud it fetched all of Tharkay’s staff and eventually Tharkay himself, who sauntered out to take a look at what was going on.
“Tharkay,” said Temeraire, exasperated, “tell her that I am perfectly qualified to sign for Laurence, and to give him his present.”
Tharkay smiled, in his odd way. “As much as I should like to oblige you, Temeraire, how do you expect to hold the pen?”
“What pen?” said Laurence, peering out the door; and with his appearance Emmeline was at last sent away satisfied, to Temeraire’s immense relief.
But then there remained the matter of the package; and after Tharkay’s staff had dispersed Laurence turned to Temeraire, and said, “Well then, my dear, what is this all about?”
Temeraire hesitated. He had wanted to take the package away first, and ensure that both Wampanoag and the seamstress had followed his exact specifications; but there was nothing to be done for it, Laurence and Tharkay were both waiting expectantly, and so he heaved a great sigh and began to undo the oilcloth.
“I had intended it to be a surprise,” he said, as the waning light caught the gleam of gold braid and brass buttons, “and for you to wear it when we are campaigning for the by-election; but of course I do not mind if you see it now.”
“The by-election—” began Laurence, and went abruptly silent as the oilcloth fell away.
The jacket was aviator green, made of the most lovely crushed velvet, the shoulders so puffed up they looked precisely like legs of mutton, just as Wampanoag had described. All along the cuffs and collar flowed Celestials in gold and silver embroidery, their bodies intertwined, their ruffs winking with sapphires. The frogging across the chest was equally sublime; the fasteners had been fashioned into dragons’ heads, each of which appeared to be holding a pearl in its jaws. As Laurence wordlessly lifted the jacket from its wrapping, the cloak spooled out beneath it, resplendent in crimson and gold.
“There,” said Temeraire, satisfied, “is that not the finest work you have ever seen?”
“I am—quite staggered, my dear,” said Laurence, his voice fairly choked with emotion. Tharkay made a queer sound, and turned abruptly to face the nearest window.
“Oh, pray do not weep, Laurence,” said Temeraire, at once concerned that Laurence might be overcome with joy; dimly he remembered Gentius saying his old captain liked to weep, sometimes, but this did not seem the same sort of situation, at all.
Laurence raised his head. “I am not weeping, my dear, do not fret,” he said, but his expression was entirely unreadable. Tharkay was still gazing at the window so fervently that Temeraire bent himself to see what he was looking at, but heavy curtains obscured the whole, and there was certainly nothing interesting inside that Temeraire could see.
“I thought at first of arraying you in all your court robes,” said Temeraire, “but as these are English dragons whose votes we are courting, it would not do to seem too much a foreign agent: so I asked John Wampanoag what sorts of fashions the men in London were wearing, these days, and added some suggestions of my own.”
One corner of Tharkay’s mouth was beginning to twitch.
“Thank you, Temeraire,” said Laurence. “You have certainly put a great deal of thought into this. But—” and here he seemed to be at a loss for words, which Temeraire thought perfectly natural, in the face of such finery— “will it not seem ostentatious to appear in this when the dragons in our constituency have so little?”
Temeraire flicked his ruff. “Of course not: that is rather the point, to remind them of what they are due, so that they might invest their effort into bettering their own situations.”
“Temeraire is right, you know,” said Tharkay, shakily, “there is not a dragon in Derbyshire who would not be convinced by the sight of you in all your glory; and now you must excuse me, as I have remembered a very pressing errand that must be seen to,” and vanished indoors with all haste.
Temeraire and Laurence watched him go.
“That was very odd,” said Temeraire, after a moment. “Do you think perhaps Tharkay did not like my idea?”
“I think he likes it entirely too much for his own good,” said Laurence, “the bastard.” But this last part was delivered sotto voce: and so Temeraire did not hear it.