At a first glance, Temeraire was sure that he had misunderstood the directions one of the blue dragons at the palace had very kindly given him, but then the owner of the shop came out, bowing deeply and welcoming him in a way that made it clear that he had found the right shop after all.
"My shop is unworthy of receiving one so honorable and noble as you are," she announced.
"Your shop looks very nice?" Temeraire offered a bit hesitantly. He wondered if perhaps coming here had been a mistake after all. Of course, he had very much liked the idea of being able to give Laurence the kind of pleasure a dragon could not ordinarily give their captain, because their sizes and bodies were so very different.
Still, it would be a pity if his coming here would be taken as some sort of failing or, worse, further proof that he had been miseducated in Britain, and that he and Laurence ought to be parted - which Temeraire would never allow to happen, it went without saying, so he supposed that it did not matter after all.
The shop owner bowed again. "You are kind to say so, Lung Tien Xiang."
"Not at all, not at all," Temeraire said, casting about for more compliments but coming up empty. "After all, I am sure that nobody with any sense would think otherwise, and so you see that I was not being kind at all but merely being truthful, which is something all people should strive to be - or so my captain has repeatedly stated," he added, pleased to have found a way to work Laurence into the conversation.
The shop owner smiled and bowed again. Temeraire wondered when she would stop doing so. He did not so much mind people wishing to appear respectful; it was a fine thing to be respected, of course: even Laurence had said so more than once, condemning or approving of certain behavior based on what he referred to as 'respectability', even if Temeraire did not always at all see why one thing would be considered respectable and another would not be.
Still, he did not know how he would be able to have a proper conversation with someone who kept bowing to him.
"Your captain sounds like a very fine person," the shop owner said, with a slight emphasis on the last word Temeraire found puzzling until he recalled his reason for having come here.
"Oh!" he said, feeling a bit embarrassed. "Yes. Laurence is a very fine person, indeed, and I would not trade him for anything." His captain's gender thus conveyed, he eyed the shop owner suspiciously, wondering if she would turn out to be one of those persons who seemed to think Laurence not good enough to be his captain.
The shop owner did not bow again, instead making a gesture which summoned a girl, bearing a large tub of tea. "I would be honored if you were to accept some refreshments, poor as they may be."
"I am sure it will be delicious," Temeraire said politely. "Thank you. But can we then talk about why I have come here, after? I do not mean to be rude, it is only that I do not yet know how things are done in China. Which is a very nice place, and I am quite glad that I got a chance to visit here."
The shop owner bowed. "One such as you could never give offense to one so lowly as me. Allow me a few moments to prepare, so that I may properly record your wishes."
The tea had been quite nice, and the shop owner had re-appeared just as Temeraire had finished the last of it, which seemed very lucky, as Temeraire would not have liked to wait even longer.
"So. You wish to have an item made for your captain's pleasure," the shop owner said. She had seated herself comfortably, with only a minimal of bowing.
"Yes, that is it exactly," Temeraire said. "Of course, it is very nice when he strokes my tendrils, and he assures me that he does not mind that I cannot do anything of the kind in return, and I am sure that this is true, because Laurence is very generous and honorable and not mean-spirited at all, and anyone saying so is either a liar or does not know him at all, and whichever it is makes not the least bit of difference to me, for I think it is as bad to lie deliberately as it is to lie because you do not know any better and haven't bothered to learn better."
The shop owner remained quiet for a bit, and Temeraire realized that he had perhaps spoken a bit more strongly than had been entirely proper. After all, she had never spoken out against Laurence, or insulted him by referring to him as a 'barbarian', or suggested he ought to part from Temeraire at once.
"But then, I am sure that you would never speak ill of Laurence in any way," he said. "You must be quite smart, to have come up with the idea of this shop, and no one with any intelligence would think any less of Laurence for looking different and coming from another country."
"My great-great-great-great-great grandmother, in fact," the shop owner said. "If you will permit me to skip a great many greats." She smiled, and Temeraire settled down, pleased to have been proven right.
"Was she a soldier, too?" he queried, curious. "Did she have many adventures and obstacles to overcome? Was there some evil rival who tried to blacken her reputation and burn down her shop?"
"If she did, I do not know of it," the shop owner said. "I prefer to think she lived a long and happy life."
Temeraire wanted to point out that 'a long and happy life' did not make for a very interesting story, but he reminded himself that he had not come here for stories in the first place, so he had no cause for complaint. "Well, I am sure Laurence and I will live long and happy lives, too, and have many adventures also," he said instead, trying not to sound too critical of the shop owner's ancestor, for not having left her descendants with any good stories to tell.
"And for one of these adventures, you would like to use a product from my humble shop," the shop owner said. "We will be deeply honored to create this item for you."
Temeraire did not think that giving Laurence the same sort of pleasure Laurence could give Temeraire could be considered an 'adventure', but perhaps it was only that the word had a slightly different meaning in Chinese, and besides, he did not want to appear quarrelsome.
"You would like for the item to be modeled upon yourself, I assume? To scale?" the shop owner asked.
"Oh!" Temeraire said, as he understood her meaning. "Yes! That would be ideal. Is that going to be very difficult and take a lot of time?" It would be a pity if he and Laurence were to leave before the item was ready, even if Temeraire supposed it might be delivered to them later.
Still, to be able to give it to Laurence himself, and soon, would be a very grand thing.
"For one such as you, we will work our hardest," the shop owner said. "Now, if you will permit me, I shall take some measurements, and we will be able to start immediately. Would this be agreeable?"
"Very much so," Temeraire declared, pleased. "Only - you do not need to also measure Laurence, do you?" That would surely spoil the surprise. In addition, Temeraire had found Laurence strangely reluctant to discuss anything to do with an activity that must surely be made the more enjoyable by talking about it both aforehand and afterwards, to better one's understanding and learn where one might improve.
"Not at all." The shop owner smiled. "It is true not all human bodies are alike, but the variety is far less than that between dragons, and so knowing that your captain is male will suffice. Perhaps you would like to see a few pieces we keep around to show first-time customers such as your honored self?"
"Oh! Yes, that would be splendid," Temeraire said.
A fresh tub of tea having been provided, Temeraire reflected on how smoothly things had gone. He did not want to think ill of Britain, of course, but he thought that even Laurence might concede how well things were arranged in China for humans and dragons alike.
The shop owner again appeared just as he had licked the last of the tea from the tub. Temeraire supposed she must be used to dragons and so have a fair notion of how long it would take them to finish their tea. She carried a tray with various items, which Temeraire lowered his head to study with interest.
"These all do look rather small," he noted, trying not to sound as if he was criticizing. He felt a bit disappointed even so. Naturally, humans were much smaller than dragons, and Temeraire knew that this meant it was only logical that what they used for their pleasure would be smaller as well.
Still, he would not want Laurence to feel as if Temeraire had been unwilling to spend only enough money to buy him something small. That would not do at all.
"These are of a size comfortable for most humans," the shop owner said, bowing with the tray still in her hands. "Unless you wish for your captain to be hurt a little, or experience some measure of discomfort - ?" Her voice trailed off as if this were a question.
Temeraire could not say he thought much of any dragon that would wish for their captain to be hurt rather than pleased, although he supposed that in some cases, a captain might quite deserve it. Still, he did not see why a dragon wanting their captain to get hurt would need to buy anything special to do so.
"No, no, of course I only want Laurence to be happy," he said quickly. "It is only - "
"You are no ordinary dragon, nor is your captain like any other human," the shop owner said.
"Yes." Temeraire nodded, happy to have her grasp the problem so quickly. "And Laurence is quite tall, really," he went on, anxious to make himself understood. "I am sure that these are all very fine for most people, but I would not want Laurence to think I had been penny-pinching."
The shop owner frowned at the English word, though she nodded again. "We will strive to create something worthy of both you and your captain. This, I solemnly promise you."
"And anyway, I am sure it must be better to make something that is perhaps too big than something that is too small. After all, I am sure it must be much easier to make something smaller than it would be to make it bigger and besides, I know quite well that Laurence would not mind a bit of discomfort if only it gets much better later on, as it must, if I am with him." Temeraire felt that this was, perhaps, not entirely true, but he felt his other points had been well enough made to make up for it.
This time the shop owner bowed rather than nodding. "It will be as you wish."
"Few enough things have been recently," Temeraire muttered, less to the shop owner than to himself.
"If I may bring up one last detail?"
"Oh! Yes! I am sure I have enough money to pay, though it may not be in anything like Chinese money," Temeraire said.
"It is not that." The shop owner hesitated. "Rather, it is that others might have an interest in profitting from the measurements I have just taken. As you know, to have the favor of one such as you is considered the greatest of good fortune."
Temeraire did not quite know what she meant. "I - that is very flattering, I am sure," he tried.
"It need not be said that it could never be held against you were you to wish to limit such good fortune only to your captain," the shop owner said. "Nevertheless, I would do my other customers a disservice were I not to mention the matter at all."
Temeraire blinked, still puzzled, before he realized what she meant. "You mean, you want me to give you permission to sell copies of my gift to Laurence to other people as well? I will not," he said firmly, "and I am sorry that you should feel a need to ask, because I think it a most shabby and shameful thing indeed, to act as if I could ever agree to such a thing." Temeraire felt all the more annoyed as she had seemed so nice and likeable until this point. "I hope that you will put the notion from your mind straight away."
The shop owner's bow was very deep this time - as well it should be, Temeraire thought darkly, his good mood all but spoilt. "Forgive me. It is only that it would mean a great deal to several of my customers. And of course, the copies would be smaller in size."
"That is only worse," Temeraire said. "To make people think I was any smaller than I was! If that is your idea of doing your customers a favor, I cannot say that I think much of it." He supposed he might consider it flattering that people would want to - that they would wish to pretend that they, and not Laurence, were who he had chosen to gift with his affections, and of course he would not need to do anything. The measurements had been taken; Laurence's gift would be made, and so Laurence alone would receive the gift the way Temeraire had intended it, with Temeraire there to see him put the gift to use, to witness the pleasure Laurence would take in it.
Viewed that way, perhaps it would be churlish to refuse, rather than logical. What did it matter if some people wished to own an item modeled after a Celestial? It would be like refusing to pose for a drawing, or to have his wings measured again only because someone else had already done so earlier.
Laurence, Temeraire thought uncomfortably, would have agreed straightaway, rather than make any sort of fuss or to-do. It would not to for Temeraire to do less, and so there was nothing for it but to agree after all and hope the shop owner would not hold his first, impulsive refusal against him.
"So," Temeraire said, opting to pretend as if it had only been the proposed size he had objected to, "if you were to make these additional items, you had best make them exactly like Laurence's - though I suppose I do not mind if you make them a little less prettier. Not smaller, though, that is pure silliness, as I am sure you must see."
"Ah." The shop owner's expression slowly brightened. "Thank you. You are most kind, and most generous."
"Yes," Temeraire said. "Well. I will not take up any more of your time, if that really was all?"
The shop owner bowed.
Temeraire left, content and full of anticipation for the completion of his order. Laurence, he was sure, would be very happy when Temeraire would present him with his gift.