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Cast Adrift

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Laurence blinks open his eyes to a searing blue sky. Waves of salt-water lap at his toes, then recede. He struggles to his elbows – plucking up handfuls of damp sand and stones when he braces against the ground – and looks out onto the endless ocean, its blue waters broken only by a few bobbing spars of dark wood.

At once Laurence remembers. He jumps to his feet, then falls again, cursing, as his leg gives way beneath him. The Reliant - !

But there is no ship, and no one else on the shore. Laurence sags against the ground, panting for breath. His trousers are torn; when he pushes up one leg, he finds a long red gash crusted over with salt. It's a miracle nothing attacked him in the water; it is a miracle he somehow reached land.

And he is alone, somehow. He calls out for a minute, bellowing with all the strength nurtured in a man who regularly has to out-shout a gale; but no reply.

It was bad luck, all around; three hundred men lost, and not even a battle to account for it. The storm had raged for four days, leaving all everyone aboard wet, tired, and miserable. Laurence isn't even entirely sure where he is – somewhere near the Canary islands, he would assume, but the ship was blown so far off-course that it's impossible to be more precise. He struggles to remember how this happened, but can only recall that Midshipman Carver was posted on-watch when the storm began to lighten, to give the senior officers some much-needed rests in case the winds and downpour started up again. Perhaps the boy made a foolish order, and in his youth damned the whole crew. Or perhaps the ship was damaged in some invisible way, days earlier, and broke quietly in the night. Perhaps it was hit by a bizarre stroke of lightning.

Laurence may never know. A damn waste, though, all of it. Three hundred men...

But there is no use dwelling on such things, and Laurence determinedly ignores the swell of grief when he thinks of Tom Riley, the curt ship's surgeon, and all the other diverse personalities under his command. He does not even know they are dead, not with any certainty. And if he wastes any more time he may as well pitch himself right back in the ocean; his stomach already cramps with hunger.

So Laurence surveys the area, and with shock and relief eventually finds his dress-sword. Odd that it survived – in fact, perhaps it belonged to someone else. Not as useful as a proper blade, of course, but the edge is still sharp and serviceable enough. He also finds a compass – broken, so he tosses it back in the water – and, to his disgust, three neckcloths. Nothing else remains.

He ties one of the water-logged cloths around his injured leg and shoves the others into a pocket. His coat is heavy, and needs to be laid out to dry; but with hope there is some civilization nearby, and he can find a good place to rest. Maybe even a proper British colony, where he might appeal to the local authorities – though Laurence does not much anticipate explaining his current circumstances.

A bold crab attacks his foot when Laurence limps across the shore; he crushes it below one ruined boot and takes it along. He probably makes a very odd sight.

Small shrubs and bushes dot the edge of the beach, widening slowly into a proper forest of short trees. But this is harder to navigate than Laurence expected. Hacking at branches with his flimsy sword, stumbling over roots and sand, and lugging his own weight in drenched clothing soon wears at him. By the time Laurence spots the cave he is dizzy with hunger; he only peers inside long enough to see an empty patch of ground before he drops his sword, strips away his clothing, and turns around to collect firewood wearing no more than his under-things.

Starting a fire from scratch is a necessary task, and an ugly one; his swollen fingers are sore and abused by the time he has a small flame growing. Laurence lays out his clothes nearby as best as he can manage, sticks the crab on a stick, and lets it roast over the fire.

It will probably poison him, Laurence reflects. That would fit the rest of his luck today.

As the crab heats he retrieves a little more firewood, hoping he can keep the blaze going long enough to scare away animals through the lonely night. But when he returns with his last bundle of branches Laurence finds the crab gone, his clothes rumpled, and the dirt all around the fire scuffed with strange and inhuman marks.

Scraping. Inside the cave something moves.

Laurence grabs up his dress-sword and then, after a moment's consideration, his coat. He has a vague notion of tossing it over whatever animal is inside. It stole his dinner, but if Laurence is lucky the creature may be something larger that he can still eat.

If he is unlucky... well, that wouldn't surprise him after this day.

Laurence creeps forward as best he can, his damaged leg dragging behind. Gritting his teeth, he lowers his sword and uses it as a cane, the point sagging awkwardly into the ground with each step. With his other hand wrapped in his coat he steps to the mouth of the cave.

He stares.

A long black dragon, twice as tall as a carthorse, meets his gaze. It blinks wide blue eyes at him, then shakes itself like a dog, flicking more gods-be-damned water around the dry cavern floor. Laurence has never seen a dragon of such thin and graceful conformation, and wonders for a crazed moment if it is a sea-serpent.

And then the dragon asks, in perfectly intelligible French, “Bonjour! Je pensais que vous étiez un renard. Je suis désolé d'avoir mangé votre crabe, mais vous n'auriez pas dû le laisser."

Laurence gapes.

“Pouvez vous parler?” the dragon prods.

“ - I beg your pardon,” says Laurence at last, finding his tongue. “I do not speak French.”

“Pardon!” repeats the dragon, in – yes, definitely a French intonation. “Pardon, pardon!” It steps outside, nosing at him with a long, surprisingly warm snout.

Laurence supposes, rather gloomily, that being taken captive by French aviators is not the worst possible fate that could befall him. His leg trembles with the effort of remaining upright, so at last he enters the cave again.

The dragon edges in after him; its hide scrapes the wall and sends little pieces of stone and dirt tumbling back into the fire. The dragon squawks when it flares, flapping its wings and darting inside.

“You do not have to guard me quite that closely,” says Laurence tiredly, wondering where the thing's captain is. But the dragon only watches him, clearly not understanding the language, and so Laurence gives up.

He retrieves his dirty clothes and bunches them into a ball to use as a pillow.

Being a French captive is not a terrible fate. And if the dragon wants to eat him in his sleep, well, that may be even better.

When Laurence wakes again it is still dark, and the fire outside has dimmed to a dull pile of embers. He is also, unsurprisingly, starving – and the dragon clearly expects this.

“...thank you,” says Laurence at last, blinking down at the tooth-marked tunny lying in the dirt. The dragon croons, nudging it toward him and wriggling like an excited dog. The dragon has clearly made a meal of the fish already; only the front parts remain, including a gaping head and the flat, glass-like eyes.

But it is generous, and saves Laurence the trouble of scavenging on an empty stomach. He builds up the fire again and cleans the fish with his sword, awkwardly; the dragon watches this with a tilted head, sometimes asking questions in French, which Laurence cannot quite parse. He catches enough words to understand “What are you doing?” and “Aren't you hungry? You are supposed to eat it.”

Laurence has neglected his French sadly in the past years; he manages to remember the word for fire, but not for cooking, and anyway he has no notion if a dragon would understand what cooking is. So he finds himself narrating the process in English.

“I am not a dragon,” he tells the creature; and feels very foolish, doing so, when the beast tilts its head and blinks at him. “And unlike dragons, I cannot easily eat fish raw. This will not make a very nice meal, but certainly it is better than starving. I will give you a bit when its done; in any case I do not much care to eat the head.”

The poorly-cooked fish manages to be both greasy and dry; Laurence eats it without any pleasure. The dragon is much more excited about his own portion, and nudges Laurence so hard he almost falls over.

“Yes, yes, you are very welcome,” Laurence sighs. “You seem healthy enough, despite the situation. I suppose your captain has not been neglecting you, so there is no reason for...”

Laurence pauses. Looks around. He finds only the quiet woods, the crackling fire, and the energetic young dragon, now chewing contentedly on a fish-bone.

“...Where is your captain?” asks Laurence, quietly.

But the dragon, of course, does not answer.

Asking questions of the dragon yields no results. He must be a feral, Laurence thinks at first; but a feral would not speak perfect French, and anyway unharnessed dragons are not found on small, isolated islands in the middle of the ocean.

The dragon is clearly still growing, as evidenced by the fact that he adds four feet of length by the next day. Laurence's weakness and fatigue has mostly abated by then, and the dragon seems content to feed them both, so he decides to risk spending some time looking for civilization.

The dragon seems content to stay nearby, occasionally flying away in this direction or that but always returning. Sometimes he babbles excitedly to Laurence, far too fast for his poor understanding of the language. Laurence catches flower and color and odd little animal and strange noises and where are we going?, but it all blends together.

“I knew that dragons can talk,” he tells the dragon when it calms down and starts walking by his side. The creature straightens – evidently it at least knows when it's being addressed. “Yet I did not realize you would speak so fluently,” he continues. “It is truly unfortunate we cannot understand one another. My name is William Laurence, of His Majesty's Navy; I am hoping to find some officers of the Crown in this area. Do you know if anyone lives nearby?”

“Votre nom est Majesty?” asks the dragon.

“William Laurence,” he repeats, pressing a hand to his chest. The dragon looks from his hand to his face, puzzled. “Do you have a name, I wonder? Surely you must; but if you were hatched here...”

The dragon pauses to scrub its head against one broad leg, which is nearly the size as Laurence's torso. Despite the dragon's growth he's deceptively lean and elegant. Beautiful and deadly all at once.

“I think I will call you Temeraire,” Laurence decides. The dragon huffs and starts walking again.

They find the houses in the late afternoon, just as the sun is falling. “Perhaps it would be best if you remained here,” he tells the newly-named Temeraire, thinking it will be a very poor introduction to this town, appearing from the forest with a dragon. The creature blithely continues to walk. Laurence sighs. At least the dragonet is still courier-sized; Laurence has a sneaking suspicion he is a fighting-beast, which makes his egg's appearance on this island even more bewildering.

It turns out there is no need to worry about manners or public hysteria; Laurence knocks at the door to the first house he sees, to no response. A cat darts away into the bushes near the next house, skinny and spitting. At the third, Temeraire briefly disappears and returns with a long goat-leg hanging from his mouth; he swallows it up and says something cheerful.

“I do not suppose they are just hiding,” says Laurence, with a sinking feeling. For a horrible moment he wonders if Temeraire ate them all up, like a monster from the old stories of dragons stealing away princesses and luring away knights for a quick meal. The dragon is huge now, easily three times Laurence's height. It is also young, and hasn't even been here long enough, Laurence reasons, to eat up the whole island. Even supposing it would try.

“But you are not a beast,” Laurence says aloud. Temeraire hums happily when he reaches up to stroke the creature's smooth black scales. “Nor can I imagine that you would harm these people, and suffer my presence so happily; so what has happened here?”

He soon determines that the whole area is empty of people, though not of rats and mice scurrying from one house to the next. It is late, and he should turn back, but some desperation makes him reluctant. Laurence ducks inside one of the empty houses to rest for the night, digging some loose-fitting clothes from the closet; when he does not emerge from the house Temeraire lays himself around it like a giant serpent, shifting until he can stick his head halfway through the window.

In the morning Temeraire retrieves food – more fish, as always – and Laurence finds some edible grains to make an unpleasant sort of gruel. They continue. Laurence hears the ocean before he finds signs of humanity; this time there are dozens of houses, and storerooms, and a sprinkling of all the other parts of a living, working community; inns and stables and a spinning wheel, left out under an overhang, gathering dust. It's a small place, but in the distance Laurence spots ropes and barrels hanging off the shore of a small port. Relief fills him. Perhaps he really does have some hope of encountering a navy-officer who can help him, he thinks, until he tries the first house and finds it just as empty as the ones before.

With a sinking feeling, he knows there is little use seeking out members of the local government; he tries anyway, making a beeline for the nicest houses, and then a neat little place with a sign outside – Laurence cannot read it, but it looks very officious. He tries a dozen other likely places, too.

The next house Laurence enters is much the same as all the rest – scant belongings strewn here and there, yet much missing. A half-eaten meal lies on the table – molded, and crawling with ants, but not terribly old.

Laurence has heard rumors about an early colony across the sea, which went missing; not through attack so far as anyone has learned, but simply missing. Meals and belongings were found rotting inside the colonist' small houses, the woods all empty, and nothing heard from them again. Laurence is not one for superstition, and yet the eerie emptiness of the port makes him anxious.

It is only when he walks to the docks, and looks out toward the empty ocean, that he realizes what else is out of place. There are no boats left.

Trailing behind Laurence, Temeraire walks the narrow streets like they belong to him. Like he's been here before.

“Good God,” he says to the dragon, stricken by realization. “It was you, wasn't it? You scared them away.”

Temeraire gives him a quizzical look and makes inquiring noises in French.

Laurence shakes his head, staring out at the empty dock and its complete lack of ship or boats. He walks to the edge of the water, trying in vain to see something – anything – on the horizon. “Well,” he says. “I daresay there is no way to leave the island, then; we will have to wait for someone to investigate. Whenever that might be.”

Temeraire abruptly flings himself into the ocean, causing waves to splash up the shore. Laurence sputters, and the dragon croons happily in the water.

And so, smiling, Laurence joins him.

Laurence tries to avoid dwelling on the fact that he is, quite possibly, the only human on the island.

Such fine islands, with great pools of freshwater, do not remain unoccupied for long. Inevitably some ship will come to dock at the port – ignorant, most likely, of the island's desertion – and Laurence will be able to have words with the captain. In the meantime, he just has to focus on surviving one day to the next.

Temeraire disappears soon after they return to the cave, presumably to hunt their dinner. Laurence leaves him to it and lays out his clothes – still wet from the swim at the port – and lies down to rest in the cave. He is awakened by a strange mix of scraping rock and low, draconic growls. Laurence jolts upright, scrabbling for his dress sword. Then he gains his bearings, looks around, and bursts into laughter.

Temeraire mumbles complaints in French as he tries to fit his shoulders through the cave entrance. Either he grew during the night, or else added a fair few pounds during his meal; the dragon is too big to come inside. When his renewed efforts cause a few rocks to fall, Laurence hastily stops laughing and shoves at the dragon's chest. His strength cannot signify to such a creature, but Temeraire backs off anyway.

“My dear, you will get me killed like that,” Laurence says. “Do not be so particular; dragons can sleep outside perfectly well.”

It's unclear how much of this Temeraire understands. But the dragon is inclined to sulk; he even turns up his nose when Laurence offers a slice of rosemary-rubbed fish later, though he sneaks over some glances and eventually snags a piece with one quick claw, gulping it down without looking at Laurence at all.

Laurence is a bit dismayed when it starts to rain. The dragon huffs and prods Laurence with his nose, as if to say, This is your fault. Make it stop.

“I cannot control the rain,” Laurence protests, and then feels very silly.

But the dragon's sulkiness leaves him guilty. So that night Laurence feeds the fire, retrieves his slightly-damp coat, and curls up by Temeraire's side. The dragon huffs, sniffing over him a moment. Then he settles down, spreading a wing over Laurence.

“Dors maintenant,” Temeraire says. And that is the last Laurence remembers for a long while.

Tom Riley uses a leaf to wipe away the sweat on his brow. “It is treason, Sir,” he explains politely. A palm tree sprouts from the deck behind him, glowing white under the midnight suns. “First you abandoned us, and then you made things worse being tamed by a dragon. It cannot be tolerated.”

“I did not mean to do it,” Laurence protests.

“No, Sir; but that has never been an excuse for the law.”

The bosun steps forward, a swarthy man wearing a powdered wig and the formal black of an executioner. He holds a whip made of ten golden dress-swords, and Laurence cannot help but shout when the blows land, one after another, stinging against his arms and shoulders and legs.

“Laurence!” a strangely deep, resonant voice calls, “Laurence!”

Laurence wakes just in time to roll away from a glint of metal; the pitchfork, which had been aimed at his head, burrows deep in the earth instead. Laurence springs to his feet, staggering from sleep, and stumbles against Temeraire's side.

The dragon is going wild. They have been surrounded during the night by at least a dozen men, all stabbing at the dragon with improvised weapons. One of them has a gun – the small shots do nothing but irritate Temeraire, though, and with a roar the dragon sweeps forward one massive forehand, crumpling the shooter in a single blow. Laurence scrambles to grab his sword; he is dismayed to see that despite his rather large advantage, Temeraire is badly hampered in their current situation. He cannot adequately turn around, and he is beset by every side.

The dragon jerks around to look at him. His mouth opens to reveal a row of thorny teeth as he shouts, “Laurence! Behind you!”

Laurence turns - more by instinct than true understanding - just in time to duck beneath a wildly-swinging pickaxe. He swings with his dress-sword, catching his attacker along the arm; but when he lunges again, the man blocks it, and Laurence's sword shatters halfway up the blade.

Temeraire roars so loudly that the air seems to tremble. Laurence stumbles back, almost absently battering at another man with his paint-gilded sword. In one horrible lunge Temeraire throws himself forward, crashing through trees and rocks and bodies. Yells and screams pierce the air. Laurence stabs a man who tries to leap over the scattered embers of the fire at Temeraire's back; the remainder of the blade snaps when he pulls away, remaining behind as one of the natives keels forward.

And then all is quiet, save for a few low groans through the clearing. “Laurence?” Temeraire demands, swiveling to look at him. “Are you alright?”

Laurence does not answer immediately. Almost bemused, he lets two injured men stumble away; another man on the ground seems close to death, so Laurence knock him over the head. A damn waste, all of it, when their attackers are probably honest men; honest men frightened by an invading dragon.

“Well,” says Laurence, wiping the blood from the useless handle of his dress-sword. He pauses, assesses the glittering golden hilt, and tosses it into the bushes. “I suppose we know why the islanders left their homes; they were regrouping. I hope they do not mean to mount another attack.”

“I do not suppose they could,” says the dragon, in perfect English. Blood trickles down from a scratch above his snout; Temeraire doesn't seem to notice. “There were not very many of them; and anyway, I saw the women going away with their wriggly eggs, days ago, in all the boats. I do not think there is anyone left.”

There are a thousand questions Laurence could ask – which way did they go, and when, and is there another island nearby. “Why did you not say you could speak?” he demands.

“Well, I was not sure I could,” Temeraire justifies. “Of course I wanted to speak, but it would be very silly to talk if I were only going to say the wrong things; and perhaps I might say something accidentally awful, or boring, and then you would leave...”

“That is ridiculous,” Laurence says. The dragon ruffles his wings and lowers his huge head, like a chided puppy. “I do not mean to be harsh. But it has not been easy, these past few days. If you had spoken from the start I would have been much reassured.”

“Oh, well of course I could not speak at the start,” Temeraire explains. “I learned by listening to you.” Then, oblivious to Laurence's shock: “Anyway, I am glad that I have learned it properly after all. I have a great many questions.”

 - This, Laurence soon finds, is a significant understatement.

Once his skill is revealed, it seems that Temeraire cannot stop talking. He tells Laurence everything he remembers of his own arrival to the island, which is little; he hatched on the shore, amid splinters of wood, and after clawing his way from his shell was forced to tear apart a half-broken crate surrounding him. He must have been carried on a ship, Laurence supposes, and either fell overboard or sunk with the whole.

He has no contact with any others; he learned French in the egg, but the locals did not understand, and fled in terror when he approached, though he was only the size of a large horse the first time he made tentative overtures to the nearest communities. Laurence's own arrival to the island only followed Temeraire by several weeks.

He tries to share his own history, too; but that is no easy thing. Temeraire has no frame of reference for the life he describes. His whole world is confined to this little island, and the endless waters all about. A second island, like England, he can almost imagine, even if discussions of scope and size leave him skeptical. Trying to talk about continents and wars leaves him with open disbelief.

“But why would they fight each other?” Temeraire keeps asking, in his surprisingly resonant tones. “If there is so much land, and so much to do... although, fighting may be exciting too,” he adds, with a certain bloodthirstiness.

“You cannot conceive of it because there is nothing here worth disputing; yet you have already had a taste of violence,” Laurence points out. “Those men who attacked us at the cave were only afraid; they thought you were going to chase them away, and steal their food, or hurt their families.”

“But I would not! They are far too small to be worth fighting, and anyway, I can catch my own food.”

Laurence pauses, then decides they can discuss things like morals and property and laws on another occasion. Good enough that Temeraire doesn't mean to quarrel with anyone. “You were not going to hurt them,” he agrees. “But misunderstandings can happen too easily; that is often enough just how wars start.” It is a pity they cannot speak the native language; the island is empty again, yet Temeraire's excursions have left no clues to where the nearest settlement would be. One must be nearby, but Laurence is reluctant to encourage the dragon to overextend his flights. How awful it would be, he thinks, for a dragon to drown.

As days and then weeks pass Laurence regales Temeraire with stories of his own time at sea, working to supplement their meals with fish, native rodents, and some edible greens as the dragon heals from his scattering of small wounds. In this time Temeraire grows shockingly tall, and soon a great ruff sprouts around his head, like a crown; he is very proud of this comparison, and asks Laurence for stories of princesses and kings for ages afterward. Laurence skirts around stories of dragons – too many of them cast the creatures as villains, or mindless animals – but inevitably his description of the Nile resurrects memories of flaming Kaziliks and roaring Chequered Nettles. When he tries to describe the Corps, Temeraire latches onto the idea, and decides to take him for a flight.

It's exhilarating to take to the air. Clutching at Temeraire's smooth hide, and trying desperately to keep his balance, Laurence even entertains the notion of constructing a saddle of some sort. But he has no idea how the thing might be managed, and anyway does not want to treat Temeraire like a horse; he balances as best as he can and drinks in the world around them.

The island, he learns, is very small indeed. Laurence could cross the whole span of it in a single day; Temeraire in far less. From the air it soon becomes a pale dot, easily lost amid the waters; Laurence decides he will make Temeraire stay grounded if there is ever a heavy fog, even if he must contrive to tie the dragon down. It is far, far too easy to imagine Temeraire circling the sky, unable to find his way home again.

At his urging Temeraire flies in long sweeps around the island, patrolling back and forth past the coast. But try as he might, Laurence never sees anything to indicate the presence of a ship or some other body of land; they are utterly alone.

Laurence picks his way back over the beach. His own footprints litter the ground in neat, looping lines. Again and again he has walked back over the shore, hoping against all odds to find some overlooked boat. He has long since discovered two small fishing vessels, and a little skiff that he might, with luck, manage to sail a decent distance. But nothing that could not be outpaced by Temeraire, and certainly nothing fit for carrying a heavyweight dragon.

It took awhile for Laurence, himself, to realize that his plans of leaving this island have grown to include the dragon. At first he tells himself it would be inhumane to leave any thinking, feeling creature in isolation; yet there is more than that. Temeraire is an utterly charming creature, as friendly and warm as any good friend; and with every day that passes, looking at him makes the warm fondness in Laurence's chest glow brighter.

Temeraire, for his part, seems to take for granted that they will stay together.

“Well, of course you cannot go anywhere alone; then I would not be able to hunt for you, and you would probably drown,” the dragon reasons, sweeping low over the ocean one day with Laurence astride his back. Laurence has by this time tied a piece of leather to connect them, as a paltry protection against falling, but Temeraire is quite good about flying straight. “Also, how would you fly?”

“All excellent points,” says Laurence, amused. “But there are no dragons in the navy, my dear. We will have to join the Corps, if such a thing is permitted.”

“Then I will not get to see your ship?”

“No.” Laurence recalls only dimly the terrible storm, the shouts, and tipping sideways into the water. He thinks he remembers Lieutenant Green next to him in the waves, already floating and bloated. “I am afraid that would be quite impossible.”

They fly for awhile in silence. Temeraire sweeps back and forth over the ocean as the day wanes, following Laurence's prescribed patrols. And then he asks, “Would it look anything like that, Laurence?”

Laurence looks up, and stares; there's a sail on the horizon, pricking up white and splendid against the bright sky. “Just so,” he says, hardly daring to hope. “Pray take us closer.”

Temeraire straightens his neck, and in the next few minutes he flies faster than Laurence can ever recall. The ship must see them; soon they are near enough that Laurence cannot deny what he sees. His heart sinks.

“The ship is French,” he says aloud.

Temeraire, of course, does not understand the problem. “Oh, that is the language you said I can speak, isn't it? That is excellent – we can ask them for help, and then we can see all the wonderful places you've told me about. Although, I do not think I can leave on that ship, Laurence. It looks very small.”

“My dear, they cannot help us,” Laurence says. “Or, rather, they cannot help me. My country and theirs was at war, and almost certainly fight each other still. They would have me imprisoned as soon as I stepped aboard that ship. But you might prefer to approach them; they may be afraid at first, but I am sure they would be glad to arrange some means to bring you to France.”

It is hard to say it; Laurence cannot imagine life on this island without Temeraire. In the dragon's company it is a quiet, almost peaceful place; but without him, the prospect seems suddenly lonely, harsh, and horrible in every aspect. It is awful, too, to suggest that Temeraire join forces with France. But he does not have the right to dictate Temeraire's life, nor to deny him what is undeniably a good opportunity to leave this wretched place.

But Temeraire evidently disagrees. “Why would they arrest you?” he asks, indignant. “Now, that is nice! That means they would lock you up, does it not?”

“Yes,” Laurence says. “I told you I was an officer, Temeraire. They could hardly just return me to England...”

“Well, then we do not need to speak with them at all,” says Temeraire simply. “I do not care to see France if these people mean to steal you away. I would rather live a thousand lifetimes alone with you, Laurence, even if it means every day is exactly like today, and we can never see more of the world.”

Laurence is touched by this plain statement of devotion. But he has to argue. “My dear, you do not understand what you are saying. There are so many experiences in this world, things you have never known...”

“I do not care,” Temeraire says. “You are more important than any person or dragon I could hope to meet; and if I travel to strange and wonderful places, it will never satisfy, unless you are there too. So I suppose we just have to wait until an English ship passes by, Laurence.” Saying so the dragon wheels away, flicking his tail in the direction of the distant sails. “Do you suppose there is time for you to cook today? I would rather like to try that stew again, the one with the little wild onions and crabs.”

“...Yes, my dear. There is time enough for that.”

After the French ship leaves Temeraire's flights shorten. For his part, Laurence no longer insists on the same strict patrols. By his reckoning nearly a year has passed, and they have seen only a single French ship; there seems to be no use in expecting more.

That does not mean they stop flying together. Temeraire delights in stretching his abilities, and Laurence exercises his creativity in coming up with new flight experiments, and rifling through his memories for examples of aerial battle-maneuvers. Not that Temeraire will ever have a chance to fight a dragon, of course, but he loves to imagine such fights anyway.

“Are there really dragons bigger than me?” Temeraire asks one day.

As he speaks Temeraire glides low over the prickly, thinly-leafed trees of the island. There are no large mammals here, and few small ones; Laurence still wonders if an all-fish diet is really healthy for either of them. He himself has lost quite a lot of weight, and suspects scurvy may soon be an issue, the small and rare fruits on the island notwithstanding.

“There are,” he replies aloud. “I have seen them myself, in battle. At the Nile the Turkish brought huge fire-breathers, easily your size; and in Britain the Regal Coppers are quite a bit larger. Perhaps half your weight again.”

Temeraire snorts doubtfully. It's hard to blame him; the poor dragon can cross this little island within minutes, and has never known anything that could threaten him.

“What else lives in England?”

Laurence has already described every natural creature known to man, so today he decides to tell Temeraire about the unnatural ones. He describes legends of wyverns and chimaera and unicorns, griffins and black dogs and hobgoblins and ghosts. Temeraire is charmed by the notion of creatures that may or may not exist, and adamantly declares his intent to find them all. “Because the fact that you have not seen them does not mean they are unreal,” the dragon explains. “After all, no one knows I hatched here, or that you washed ashore; but we survive all the same.”

It is very hard to dispute this argument.

“It all sounds so wonderful, and so strange... Oh, Laurence,” adds Temeraire, in a voice deeply puzzled. “I have never seen birds like that.”

His ruff stands rigid with curious tension. Turning, Laurence follows his gaze and freezes.

“...Those are not birds,” he says.

“A year,” Captain Roland repeats yet again. “A full damn year. How you managed it, I'll never know.”

She has said this three times, sending admiring glances to where Temeraire paddles through the shallow ocean waters. Laurence does not mind; he is still accustoming himself to the shock of a female aviator, though under present circumstances, he does not much care to ask for details. Right now he would be only grateful if even a mermaid were to swim ashore, asking politely if he needed a little help getting home.

The three visiting dragons are all standing on the shore, watching dubiously while Temeraire encourages them to swim. In the distance a huge ship, a dragon-transport, quietly idles over deeper waters.

“I do not at all understand how dragons are usually raised,” Laurence says, with the odd sensation of being a schoolboy found encouraging his peers to skip lessons. It is not as though he intended to let Temeraire run wild; but until this very instant, the implications of the dragon's devotion never quite sank in. Of course, as a navy-officer and the only human around, it should have fallen to Laurence to teach his friend proper manners and notions of civility; of course, these things never occurred to Laurence at all, when it was much more fascinating to learn about Temeraire's past, and share stories of his own.

But Captain Roland just shakes her head. “Ha – do not try to justify anything. The admiralty will be amazed that you communicated with him at all, much less managed to bond with him; and you are his captain, I should think. That much is quite plain. A full year! I should not like to imagine it.”

“A full year,” Laurence echoes ruefully. He reaches up to the place his neckcloth should be, acutely aware of his scruffy beard and general dishevelment. If Roland has noticed the same, she is too polite to comment. “We have missed much, I assume.”

“Oh, you will not believe it,” Roland agrees. “We are allied with China now, you know. I expect Napoleon's attempt to invade Britain might have succeeded without their help, and damn what else you might hear, about our militia and the shore defenses and suchlike.”

Laurence startles. “Napoleon tried to invade?”

“Oh, yes. But the Chinese had already sent ships and dragons, you see. They were furious with the Emperor when they learned...”

Roland pauses, a strange look coming over her face.

“When they learned what?” Laurence prompts.

“Ah, well... nevermind that. I am sure the brass will bring you all up to date when you arrive; and this is sure to be a seven-day wonder for all the country, you poor bastard.”

“Did you have the slightest notion we were here?”

“None,” Roland says. “Actually, we came to see why the island has been abandoned by its inhabitants, and why they've been flooding our lands nearby, yelling about some black devil... Congratulations, Captain Laurence. I expect you have single-handedly delivered us of a new colony.”

“We are very proud,” says Laurence dryly, as nearby Temeraire gags on a jellyfish and flails in the water. “As a reward, I should like to ask our superiors in England to never see this place again.”

“Well,” says Jane. Despite the scars, she does look oddly welcoming when she smiles. “I think we can arrange that.”