- Dover Covert, 1806 -
“You may take your socks down now,” Temeraire said to his runners, peering in through a window, “They look entirely dry to me.”
He could see how they had come to be there – everyone’s feet had gotten wet in the half-melted snow when they had taken his harness off after patrol – but he did not think Laurence and the other captains would appreciate the sight of all the junior officer’s worn-out stockings strung up along the fireplace in the officer’s mess.
“No, they need to stay up until tomorrow,” Dyer explained, raising his head from where he was polishing Temeraire’s talons. “So that St Nicholas can fill them with presents for us.”
“Oh, will he?” Temeraire asked, pricking up his ruff and regarding the stockings with renewed interest. “That is very kind of him. But how does he get in?”
Emily screwed up her eyes. “Not at all, because he does not exist. It’s a silly nursery story,” she said, glowering at Dyer, “It‘s just the captains putting things in for us when nobody’s watching, and then they pretend it’s been St Nick’s doing.”
“What kind of things?” Temeraire inquired. “Treasure?” He could not imagine very much would fit inside the socks.
“Nuts and raisins and sometimes some gingerbread, too,” Emily enumerated.
“I had an orange once,” Dyer added, reverently.
“Oh!” Temeraire said, “Now I understand why Laurence has gone to the town! But, Roland, tell me - does Laurence expect me to give him a present, too?”
He surveyed the fireplace again. One of the stockings had EMILY stitched onto it in wonky letters, as if any such label were needed – her contribution was easily recognizable by virtue of being the scruffiest of them all. The others were mostly unlabelled, but looked altogether too old and laddered to belong to Laurence.
“I think it’s only for children,” Dyer said.
Emily boxed him in the ribs. “We’re not children!” And, frowning at the cleaning rag, she asked: “Do you think there’ll be any chance of firecrackers?”
“Doubt it, we’ve used all the ones from China, and powder‘s been rationed now,” Dyer said, ducking away from her.
“But we could find paper for twists and ask Calloway to make us some,” Emily said, a mischievous gleam in her eyes, “Temeraire, is there anything else you need us for?”
He shook his head. His talons were presentable. “No, you may go.”
They gathered up their buckets and rags and dashed away, chattering excitedly. Temeraire cast another glance at the stockings and then padded away back to his clearing, deep in thought.
“It seems the ordinary way is to give presents,” he informed Iskierka, unfortunately the only dragon available to hear him out. “It would be a nice gesture to show our captains how much we esteem them.”
He would have preferred to discuss the subject with any of the more experienced dragons, but of course, Maximus, Lily, Excidium and his other friends could not come out of the quarantine grounds.
“But how are we to get presents?” the small Kazilik asked, yawning wide, “You yourself keep going on about how we haven’t got any capital.”
“Ssh, keep your voice down!” Temeraire hushed. Only a few of the herdsmen were within earshot, but he would have hated for the element of surprise to be spoiled. “We don’t,” he admitted, in a whisper, “But I will think of something.”
He folded up his talons and rested his head upon them, a position he found conducive to thought. He could pawn his breastplate, of course, but that seemed a very extreme step to take. Perhaps Emily did not need her garnet necklace anymore, when it might catch on the harness straps and hamper her? But no, taking other people’s presents was out of the question, Laurence would disapprove.
“Well, you may stop thinking now, because I have an idea,” Iskierka interrupted him.
“Indeed?” Temeraire huffed.
“Yes,” she said, “We shall fetch a few boats from the harbour and ask the fishermen to pay us to give them back. Simple.”
“No, we shan’t,” Temeraire said, flatly, “The fishermen will just come complaining to Granby and Laurence, and then we will be in deep trouble without any presents to show for it.”
“Fine, a French patrol, then” she conceded. “If we take prisoners-“
“No! That will take too long,” Temeraire said, “And in any case, I’ve heard talk of a ceasefire for Christmas.”
“How dull,” Iskierka sighed. “I don’t think I like this Christmas thing.”
“It is not like anyone gives a care,” Temeraire growled. “Now, I have made up my mind. I will go and see whether there is any work I can do. Then I will get paid, and buy a present for Laurence. I am quite sure this is how it ought to be done, in the ordinary way.”
“In the ordinary way,” Iskierka mimicked him, “And you are quite sure you know how these things work?”
“Of course. I’m older than you.”
“Well, in that case, I’m coming along!” Iskierka piped and clambered onto Temeraire’s back without waiting for permission. “I’ll find work, too, and then I can get my Granby an even bigger present!”
“You’re getting too big to be carried about,” Temeraire grumbled.
“Stay down and don’t stir,” Temeraire admonished her when they had landed on the cliffs overlooking the harbour. Dusk was settling rapidly, but he could hear saws and hammers at work and there was a crowd of rather miserable and drenched-looking men hauling a damaged frigate into one of the docks, their voices ringing hoarsely across the crash of the waves. It did not look like they were getting leave for Christmas.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” Temeraire said, poking his head over the cliff. “My name is Temeraire and I have come looking for work. Can you tell me where I can find your commanding officer? I might be able to give you a hand -“
“You may stop talking,” Iskierka yawned, “They’re all running away.”
This was unfortunately true. The hawsers lay slack in the water, the men fleeing in a wild panic despite their foreman’s shouting and cracking whip, while the frigate slowly, majestically, slid back towards the sea.
“No, no, wait! Permit me to explain-” Temeraire exclaimed, and jumped down from the cliff to snatch up the ropes from the icy water. With a few determined tugs and wing-strokes, he had dragged the ship into the dock. He draped the hawsers neatly across her deck and sat down next to his handiwork, vaguely hoping that someone might come out to speak to him. But an eerie silence had descended.
“We could take the ship,” Iskierka called down, “It doesn’t seem like they want it any more.”
“No, we cannot. It will hardly fit into a stocking, and in any case, it’s broken, so I don’t see what Laurence should want with it,” Temeraire said, nosing at a few cannon-holes in the barnacled hull. He fluttered back up to the cliff. “I will be wanted somewhere else, I am sure.”
There was a dairy farm a short distance away, and his spirits rose again. “We might clear away some of the snow from the pastures so the cows can come out to graze!” he said, a notion even Iskierka approved, at the mention of cows, but the milkmaids shrilled and ran away in a panic as soon as they approached. He did not fare any better at the nearby limestone quarry. His roar brought down a portion of hill bigger than what the blasters could have achieved in days, but nobody came to even speak to him, let alone offer payment.
“I can’t see you are getting anywhere, in your ordinary way” Iskierka commented from his back, “Perhaps you will permit me?”
And before he could protest, she had jumped off and flapped away – to Temeraire’s horror, straight in the direction of Dover town.
Temeraire did not have much experience of English towns, and Dover was a good deal more awkward than Edinburgh had been. The streets and houses were extremely narrow, forcing him to hop awkwardly from one yard to another, craning his head about to find the next spot large enough to accommodate one of his feet. Fortunately by this time it had grown entirely dark and the streets lay mostly deserted, windows shuttered against the cold.
Iskierka was small enough to sidle along the main street and peer at the shop windows. She suddenly blew an excited gust of flame to light up one of the displays. “Temeraire!” she shouted, “There are piles and piles of jewellery here! We only need to break a window-“
Temeraire bent across the house, picked her up by the scruff of the neck and shook her. “No! Iskierka, that is Stealing!” he scolded, a little muffled, “Behave, or I will take you back instantly!”
She hissed at him and, when he set her down, scuttled away quicker than Temeraire could follow. He squinted into the dark streets and listened hard for the sound of breaking glass, but could hear none.
Another gust of flame a few hundred yards ahead put him back on her track. When he had finally, painstakingly, made his way in the direction of the commotion, Iskierka was sitting outside a public house in the market square blowing rings of fire into the air while a small group of soundly drunk men cheered and clapped and threw her coins.
“Iskierka!” he called sharply, “Stop it! You cannot go around breathing fire like this! One of the roofs might catch, or else they will notice at the covert and come to fetch us back!”
He was not sure whether it had been the stern tone of his voice, or the fact that he had not entirely managed to avoid crushing a few of the steps surrounding the well in the middle of the market-square, in his hurry to catch her up, but one of the men screamed, another hurled a half-filled tankard at him, they all bounded away, and the door of the public-house slammed shut with a resounding thud.
“Ow, there was no call for that,” Temeraire said indignantly, shaking beer of his wing. It did not smell pleasant, and that when his runners had taken so much care about washing him.
“You’re just jealous, is what you are,” Iskierka said haughtily, raking up her coins, “Because I’ve already earned more than you.”
Temeraire snorted. “Jealous of you making yourself into a circus animal? Never! In any case, this will not buy you half an orange.”
Iskierka stalked away into one of the smaller streets. “Leave me alone, then. I can do better without you. You are scaring people away!”
“What nonsense,” Temeraire called after her, “Nobody needs to be scared of me. And I’m not leaving you to wander about on your own setting fire to things.”
Iskierka ignored him. Arching his neck over a roof, Temeraire watched disdainfully as she approached a group of maids chattering in the back yard of a splendid town house, the door to the scullery wide open and the clatter of pots and pans audible from within. He heard them shriek when they noticed her and turned away satisfied. Now who was scaring people, he thought as he settled himself and waited for her to come padding back with her tail between her legs.
But when he looked again, Iskierka sat on the ground under the kitchen window doing her best to make herself very small, and her eyes very big. And to Temeraire’s surprise and disgust, the servants had clustered around her to pet her, with a fat matronly woman asking her what she would say to some nice soup bones.
“Yes, please, on a silver plate, if you have one,” Iskierka piped, to which the maids laughed and pronounced her an adorable little dragon and a cute hungry thing.
“You’re not in the least adorable,” Temeraire muttered, “And this is quite below the dignity of any fighting dragon in His Majesty’s Corps.“
“Temeraire! What for heaven’s sake are you doing here?”, someone asked behind him, that moment.
Temeraire turned, accidentally knocking a few chimney pots askew, and awash with embarrassment saw Laurence standing in the next street. Laurence wore a cloak over his uniform, and next to him, a servant with two large baskets was stamping his feet and blowing on his cold hands.
“Laurence,” Temeraire said, a little faintly, “Oh, it is – nothing… I just went to… look for you!”
“Come on, dear, this is no way to be going about it,” Laurence said, smiling as he climbed into Temeraire’s claw. The servant handed up the baskets. “You will be scaring people out of their wits. Let us go back to the covert before anyone notices you.”
Temeraire threw a last harried glance in Iskierka’s direction – outrageously enough, a silver plate had appeared – but there was nothing to be done for it.
“Wretchedly awkward affair, this year,” Laurence said when he returned from dinner with the other captains, a bottle of brandy in one hand, a plate in the other and a book under his arm. “But I suppose no man can be blamed for not being cheerful, with the plague…” He broke off and sighed as he uncovered the plate. “I’ve brought you some Christmas pudding to try, if you like.”
Temeraire licked it up. It did not taste like much, and in any case he was not hungry - dinner had been uncommonly plentiful – but he felt even more wretched at Laurence bringing him things. “Laurence, I hope you will not be sad if you don’t get a present?”
Laurence looked up in surprise. “No, my dear, of course not. I do not want for anything, and your company and good health are enough of a present.”
“Oh,” Temeraire said. “Only, Iskierka…” He broke off and shook his head. “May we read a little?”
“Yes, my dear, I was just about to suggest it,” Laurence said, opening the book, “I thought I might read you the nativity story from the book of Luke.”
Temeraire would have preferred the Principia, but since he did not have a gift, he could hardly go complaining. In any case, Laurence seemed a little preoccupied and, as soon as he was done reading the short and rather nonsensical chapter, Granby appeared at the edge of the clearing.
“Laurence!” he called, “Do you know where Iskierka has got to?”
“No, sorry, John, I don’t. Temeraire, have you seen her?”
“Not at all,” Temeraire mumbled, and looked away.
“Oh, stuff it, I will send the runners to check on the feeding pens later – let her have her fill while she wants it. It’s Christmas after all,” Granby sighed, “Laurence, they’ve all left now – are you ready to do the honours?”
Laurence climbed down from Temeraire’s forearm. “Will you excuse me a short while?”
“Oh,” Temeraire said, “I suppose you must go playing St Nicholas now.”
Laurence laughed. “So you‘ve heard of this?” But his face instantly grew serious again. “The other captains and crews have gone to the quarantine grounds to celebrate with the beasts there, seeing as for a good number of them, it may be the last Christmas they'll see... so the task falls to me and Granby this year.” After a short hesitation, he pulled out two small, supple pairs of flying gloves. “I wondered about these for Roland and Dyer. What do you think?”
Temeraire nodded. “I am sure they will like them. And I perfectly understand, Laurence. – Oh, did you get any oranges?” he called after them, but received no reply.
He huddled himself down, thinking of all the aviators whose dragons were sick and coughing in the quarantine grounds, and rather hoped Laurence had.
If only he could give his captain something in return. He grimly thought it was an entirely unfair arrangement, with everything belonging to someone and needing to be bought with money, and yet no opportunity for even a large and useful dragon like himself to earn a single penny.
Everything, except - the beaches!
Temeraire's head came up sharply. He distinctly remembered Laurence telling him that things washed up on the beaches belonged to the party owning the land. The cliffs bordering the quarantine-grounds were the Corps’ property, so surely nobody could object if he went looking for treasure there – it was not like anyone ever did. He scrambled to his feet and set off instantly, giddy with excitement and vaguely hoping for a shipwreck.
The moon lit up the surf and water glinted on the pebbles. Temeraire walked the beach slowly and deliberately, his eyes fixed to the ground. To his slight regret, there were no signs of a wreckage, but it still did not take him long to assemble a handsome collection. There were Mermaid‘s purses, several lovely pieces of smooth bottle glass, interesting rocks, some with holes going the entire way through them, petrified snails, and attractively shaped pieces of driftwood. He also picked up a long piece of bladderwrack that looked a lot like the garlands that had been put up in the hall, only more shiny and handsome in the moonlight. The crowning glory was a beautiful white disc larger than Laurence’s palm with a geometric pattern, smooth and freezing cold. He was not entirely sure what it was, but it looked almost like crystal, and was very pretty in any case, so he flicked it into his other talon.
Back at the covert, he almost collided with Iskierka outside the hall and quickly covered his bounty with a wing. “I see you’re back,” he said and cast a look in the direction of the town – no flames, that was good. Perhaps Laurence would not find out he had left her there, after all. “So, what have you got?”
“I’m not showing you,” she said, jealously mantling in turn. “How are we to proceed from here?”
Temeraire went over to the runner’s dormitory and tapped a cautious talon on the window.
“Roland!” he hissed, and, when Emily sat up sleepily wiping her eyes, “Can you go to Laurence’s room and fetch me his stockings? And perhaps some of Granby’s, too?”
“What?” she said, “Whatever do you want those for?”
“You will see,” he said simply.
She sighed and swung her legs out of bed. “How many do you want?”
“All the ones you can find.”
Temeraire awoke to the bellow of Laurence’s voice. “Roland, Dyer!” he was shouting, “Where are my stockings?”
“Why, are they not in the drawer where they always are, Sir?” he heard Emily reply, faintly. “Oh... Perhaps I could… ask Captain Berkeley whether he has any… to spare?”
Temeraire rose, stretched himself and padded closer to the covert, full of happy anticipation. Iskierka was already sitting by the window straining to peer inside – she was still too small to reach up to the first floor – and hissed a little when Temeraire nudged her aside, although on account of it being Christmas, he permitted her to scale his back again.
Laurence looked blank rather than pleased when he appeared in the doorway to the officer’s mess and saw the fine display of ten pairs of stockings bulging with all the lovely things Temeraire had found on the beach, some of them entirely too heavy to be hung up and therefore neatly aligned on the floor, with the bladderwrack draped above the chimney, only a little less shiny now that it had dried. Granby was there, too, barefoot and in a dressing gown.
“Laurence!” Granby groaned, shaking three silver teaspoons out of his stocking before pulling it on, “I don’t know who of us has been served the worse hand, but at least you shan’t be running about town today trying to find out how many of the polite households have been robbed by your dragon.”
“Good heavens,” Laurence said, “You mean to say-“
He walked across and picked up one of the heavier stockings. Temeraire at the window held his breath in anticipation as Laurence gingerly extracted a magnificent piece of flint, which had unfortunately become a little tangled on the stocking’s threads and left something of a hole. The junior officers were now filtering into the room, in groups of twos and threes, laughing and chattering, but they stopped dead and stared when they saw the fireplace.
Granby waved the spoons at Iskierka. “You thieving magpie, where did you get these from?”
“I have not been thieving at all,” she said, a little wounded, “They gave them to me and did not ask for them back, so I daresay I was in the right to keep them. I have more spoons and two nice plates besides, only you don’t have enough stockings for us to put them in – these are all the ones we could find.”
“John, do you mean to say you have only two pairs of stockings in the world?” Laurence asked, quietly.
“Three,” Granby said defensively.
Laurence raised an eyebrow. He had unhooked another one of his stockings from the mantlepiece and turned it inside out – to Temeraire’s dismay, the lovely shiny disc he had found the previous night was barely recognizable. It had melted into a strange gelatinous mess.
“Oh, it is a jellyfish!” Tmeraire said, a little faintly, when recognition dawned, “I am sorry about that one, Laurence – it sure looked quite solid when I found it.”
“And whose blasted idea was all this?” Granby asked, glaring at them.
“Temeraire’s,” Iskierka said.
“No, that is not true,” Temeraire defended himself, “Not the spoons, anyways. I only told her it is not nice that you and Laurence should not have any presents. We wanted to buy you something, in the ordinary way, but nobody would pay us to work for them.”
“I see,” Laurence said, turning over a handful of sea glass.
“I have made a mull of things, haven’t I?” Temeraire asked, unhappily, “You don't look pleased at all. Are you angry with me, Laurence?”
But Laurence appeared to be stifling a laugh, and quickly walked over to him. “No, I am not angry. These… stones are… singularly handsome, and so well chosen. But thanks to your generosity, I find myself in need of new stockings.” He held up the sad example in his hand.
“If I got paid, and had capital, I could buy you some,” Temeraire grumbled.
“There will be no end of this now, Will,” Granby sighed, “Anyways, I am off to the town before the constabulary come knocking on our door. Iskierka, where is the rest of your loot?”
“We will speak of this another time, my dear,” Laurence said to Temeraire and quickly reached down to pull up one of Berkeley’s stockings. They did not fit him very well. “But I think we should agree to refrain from any more presents. I should have to find you something in return, and being under such an obligation year in, year out can hardly be comfortable.”
“I don’t want any presents for myself,” Temeraire said, “I only want my friends to be healthy again.”
Laurence nodded. “We all wish for nothing more," he said, quietly, "So you see, some of the most important things cannot be bought, not for any capital in the world.”
He stroked Temeraire’s nose and then drew away.
The younger aviators had now dared to come closer to retrieve their own stockings, and there was a general air of joyous celebration as they emptied them: Nuts, boiled sweets, dark red apples and a whole ripe orange to be found in each of them. The young runners and ensigns also had a few tin soldiers each. The miniature dragons were crudely made and of no recognizable breed, but put together, the children could field a respectable army, and since nobody called for drills, they instantly set about doing so on the floor. In a corner, Roland and Dyer were gleefully pulling on their flying gloves. “Thank you, Captain!” they sang out when Laurence walked past.
“Thank St Nicholas, not me,” Laurence said as he made his way through the happy melee to catch up Granby. “John,” Temeraire heard him say, “I must insist on buying you a fourth pair of stockings.”
“I will get capital,” Iskierka whispered, peering over Temeraire’s shoulder, “There must be a way. And then I will get Granby the very best silk stockings, and a new coat.”
“Laurence does not care about these things,” Temeraire told her, haughtily, but his shoulders drooped a little. Laurence might be right that health or happiness could not be bought, but certainly stockings could be, and things to fill them, and judging from the scene in front of his eyes, this seemed a considerable step on the road towards happiness. Next year, he told himself.
By next year, he would have worked something out.