The air was crisp and the view fine, with all the green of the hills cut across by the shadow of Temeraire's wings in the bright mid-morning sun. Yet Laurence could not help but suffer from some unease over both the timing and the errand. While Temeraire claimed to be quite rested and ready to fly, he had been scored by Victoriatus' claws so recently that Laurence could not think flying entirely suitable yet; and James had been uncharacteristically mysterious about the request the courier had made of the two of them.
"You're just the man for the job," James had said, "given your background, and it's scarcely an hour's flight even if you take an invalid's pace. You'll have everything sorted and be back before dinner." Then Volly had come leaping over to exclaim over "Temrer's" fine new collar, the courier had made excuses about scheduling, and now Laurence found himself winging towards a tiny hamlet with no clarity as to what made him "just the man."
He could scarcely imagine what qualified him to retrieve a misplaced, and potentially feral, dragonet. Any man (or woman) of the Corps had more experience with such beasts than he, down to the eight-year-old runners. But Celeritas had not objected--had said, in fact, that some light exercise would do Temeraire well, and keep him from trying to join in maneuvers again before he was ready--and so there was nothing to be done but follow the request that was not quite an order through to its conclusion.
There was also a certain satisfaction to taking the flight without so much as a partial crew. In all the vigorous work of training there had been time for reading together at night, but seldom opportunity for Laurence to fly alone with Temeraire as they once had. He tried to set aside his confusion and enjoy the flight on its own merits. It was a real pleasure to hear Temeraire point out interesting sights on the ground below after so many weeks of flying over the same training grounds, and their one real change from that having been serious work that allowed no space to turn one's attention to sight-seeing.
"Laurence, is that it ahead?" Temeraire called. His sharper eyes had caught something in the cleft ahead between two forested hills before Laurence could be quite sure. Within five minutes, Laurence could make out the smudge of low-lying smoke indicating the location of a hamlet bearing perhaps two dozen souls.
The matter of landing was awkwardly managed. Temeraire had grown enough since he came to the covert that he no longer fit neatly between trees, nor at all. At last they settled him in a sheep enclosure empty of any sign of shepherd or flock, claws dug into the earth to compensate for the steep incline. The handful of buildings in view stuck to the sides of the high valley like burrs on a hanging coat.
"Do you think everyone is out?" Temeraire asked, craning his head about to look over the silent houses. Any of them might have stood in the same place, looking much the same, for the last century or two. The smell of smoke assured Laurence that they had not landed in an abandoned village, no matter how quiet.
"They may be unaccustomed to dragons," he began, and at that moment saw a man hurrying out of the trees beyond the enclosure. By the time Laurence had been settled on the ground, the man was before him.
Red-faced and puffing with exertion, the crofter had the look of a man squaring himself to deal with unpleasant business--as well as a man who had hurried his flock out of sight before a dragon could descend on them. "You must be from the Corps," he said, as if there could be any other explanation for a man descending on a dragon in the middle of Scotland. "You're here about the egg?"
"I was told it had hatched," Laurence said, and wondered if James might have been mistaken about the details. But a courier, of all people, would not garble his messages in transit.
"We sent a message," said the crofter. His tone was so sharp that Temeraire's head swung down to fix the man with a stare. "Begging your pardon, but we sent a man with the news, when it was in the egg. It were no fault of ours that he broke his leg, and took fever, and no one knew but that you were on your way until his kin told us how he'd been laid up, and then the egg was hatching right in our barn."
"I am certain no one holds circumstance against you," Laurence said, though his experience with the Admirality told him that admirals quite often did. A captain could not lose his ship to storm or crew to plague, and say with a shrug that he held fortune responsible. However, a crofter who had come into possession of a dragon egg was no ship's captain, and deserved no censure for a set of bad luck. "Could you take me to the dragonet?"
"My daughter's had the keeping of it." The man wheeled about, and called towards the nearest building, "Bess!"
"So long as the egg is well," said Temeraire, who had been following the conversation with little interest once that was established. "What sort of barn is that?"
Laurence scarcely would have named it as one. It was built of loose stones fitted close together, with a door short enough that a man of his height would have to stoop to enter. Only a very narrow cow could fit through such an entrance. But the crofter said, with every sign of pride, "My grandfather and my father built it with their own hands, not fifty years back. When I have grandsons, they'll use it too. Bess!"
A woman's voice called back some muffled response from the barn, and a moment later she appeared. At first Laurence took her for a woman of thirty; she had shoulders broader than many of his younger officers, and stood taller than her father. But as she approached he saw from her face that she was even younger than Captain Harcourt.
"You must be Captain Laurence," she said to him, giving Temeraire a polite but not terrified amount of distance on her way over. "The courier said he would send you right over, saying as you would know what to do with the beast."
"Has it a name?" Laurence asked. "Temeraire, I will be back shortly," he added, seeing his dragon starting to rise. A hatchling kept in a barn by well-meaning but ignorant rustics ought be approached gently, and the close attention of a dragon whose head would not even begin to fit through the barn door might startle it. Though upon reflection, he was not certain that a dragonet might not prefer to speak with its own kind. He had no experience with any but Temeraire, and he could only think again, unhappily, that the Corps ought to have sent anyone else.
"Is it quite newly hatched?" Temeraire asked, with a note of suspicion in his voice that Laurence could not account for.
"Four days past," Bess said, "and already through two of our sheep, for all that it's not the size of a sheep yet itself."
Temeraire settled back at this as if it satisfied him entirely. "I will just look at these trees," he said, as if nothing else could be more interesting. "Are there any more sheep?"
"You may have as many as you want when we return to the covert," Laurence said. "And of course the Aerial Corps will compensate you for the sheep the dragonet has eaten." The latter was directed to Bess, as her father was already stumping away toward the line of trees where he had no doubt concealed his sheep.
She nodded shortly. "You ought to come see the beast, then."
It only struck Laurence at the door to the barn that the dragonet might have attached to her. She did not show any qualities of an officer; while her birth did not disqualify her, nor even her sex, surely the Corps, which had balked at a naval officer attaching himself to a rare dragon, would take it even more poorly if a sheepherder's daughter became the captain of a dragon herself. And while the misplaced egg had only been for a Greyling--neither rare nor vital to formations--it would be difficult to conceal the sex of a courier the way one could the captain of a Longwing, unless they went so far as to restrict all her work to runs between coverts.
No wonder James had decided Laurence ought to look into the matter. He, at least, could appreciate the difficulty of a dragon taking on an unusual captain.
"Does it have a name?" Laurence asked.
Bess ducked inside, and beckoned to him to follow. "Not yet. It asked me for a name, but I said how only the aviators could give it one."
So perhaps the dragonet hadn't attached to her. Laurence suspected that made it feral, and good for nothing more than expanding the breeding stock, but perhaps the Corps had a process for coaxing young dragonets to take on a captain if the first candidate had not been found amenable.
The inside of the barn was dark and close, but not damp or foul. Whatever other qualities the girl might possess, she could keep her property tidily. A large gray cat striped in black brushed against her ankles, then sat down to regard Laurence with keen yellow eyes.
Bess made a chirping noise at the darkness of the barn; for a moment Laurence thought she was calling the cat, as it was exactly the noise a lady might use to fetch her puss from across the room. A patch of murkiness in the back of the building detached itself, and loped over towards her.
"Hello, Bess," said the dragonet in a piping voice. At four days of age it was smaller than Temeraire had been when new-hatched, a frail creature the color of winter clouds. Laurence could not tell if it was underfed, or merely following the growth progression of one of the small courier breeds. "This isn't a dragon, is it?"
"No, you daft beast," Bess said. She crouched down to look the dragonet in the eyes. "His dragon is the size of a hill, and just outside. You must go with them to proper company. Aviators and dragons, not sheep and shepherds."
The dragonet picked at the rope tied to one of its ankles. Surely it could have snapped that through with the slightest effort, the line being nowhere near the strength of what Laurence had become accustomed to on proper ships, but it was, if feral, an amiable example of such and showed no inclination to flee. "I suppose that would be nice," it said, and twisted its head about to look up at Laurence. "My captain will come along too, won't she?"
"I suppose it would depend on how she would like to proceed," Laurence said slowly. Perhaps the Greyling could be sent up as a scout, if the girl proved equal to the task; she was terribly young for such a business, but ensigns younger still went aloft in dragon crews or served on ships; besides, he could not countenance tearing a dragon away from a captain who had any strong affection for their beast, however unsuitable that captain might otherwise be.
"I will ask her," the dragonet said decisively, and bounded past the two of them to crouch down before the cat. "Would you like to come away with me to a covert and join the Aerial Corps?"
Laurence recalled, quite distinctly, the moment at which he had realized that a woman was the captain of a military dragon; he had thought since then that no development among dragonkind could lead him to a new state of surprise. It seemed he had been misled to this degree. He could do nothing for a moment but stare, entirely bemused, as the dragonet lifted up the cat and continued to inquire as to her desires, while the gray moggy rubbed her cheeks upon its talons with every sign of affection.
"That," Laurence said, his voice not sounding entirely his own, "is a cat."
"Her name's Miss Buttons," said Bess. She wiped her nose on the back of her arm. "Missus Buttons, I suppose, now as she's had her kittens."
The dragonet turned about to lift the cat up towards him. "This is Captain Laurence, of Temeraire," it said solemnly. "Captain Laurence, this is Captain Buttons."
Laurence was not certain if he ought to laugh, or incline his head, or cry. The last seemed least appropriate to the dignity of the Aerial Corps. "I beg your pardon," he said. "I must speak with Temeraire for a moment."
"Well I don't see how that would work," Temeraire said doubtfully, when the matter had been explained to him. "Certainly I never would have taken a cat as my captain."
"Perhaps you could explain this to the hatchling," Laurence said, seizing on the hope that a dragon might have a better idea of how another dragon could take on such a notion. "It seems to have no name, and I cannot see how the cat might have fed it, so surely there is no way in which it is properly her captain."
But this came to no immediate end. With the rope removed from its leg, the tiny Greyling was eager enough to see outside, but insisted on bringing the cat along; then, with its moggy deposited in a patch of sunlight within the pen, the dragonet returned to the barn to retrieve an entire nest of kittens. Curled up in the sunlight with kittens lazing about its shoulders, and the queen cat sitting as proudly between its forearms as any newly appointed captain, the dragonet looked more kin to its feline companions than it did to Temeraire. The cat, for her part, seemed to take the larger dragon as a sort of hill that had arrived in the sheep pen, and worth no more consideration than a tree or house.
"She certainly gave me a name," the dragonet said, indignant, upon Temeraire's question, and produced an excellent imitation of a meow. "See, there I have it, and she gave me a fine rat, and she bathes me after I've eaten." It turned a stern golden eye towards Laurence. "Does he lick you after eating?"
"No," Temeraire said, indignant in turn. "But you can't have a cat as a captain. It has nowhere to put its gold bars, and it can't give you any sort of conversation. Besides, none of the other captains would listen to it."
"I think that is a failing in other captains," said the dragonet. "I can't see that Captain Buttons would want any of their company. With teeth like those, they would catch no sorts of rats. Besides, your captain is far too large; that is all very well for a dragon for your size, but not for me."
"You see," Bess said to Laurence, and he nodded to her as if he was used to being in the confidence of shepherdesses and milkmaids about the fancies of young dragons. "And with her being our best mouser, too." Though he could not imagine what that had to do with anything.
"The Aerial Corps will of course compensate you for the cat," Laurence said. "As well as the sheep." Temeraire was having a murmured argument with the dragonet, on which he strove not to eavesdrop. "You seem be--you have taken this all--" He stopped, having lost any means of forming a proper sentence regarding any of this absurdity.
"My sister had an understanding with a courier," Bess said quite frankly, with a shrug of her wide shoulders. "A polite fellow, and his dragon was a sweet girl. He would bring us broadsheets, and she would sing along. But I've no interest in going to war to be shot at, not when the sheep need tending."
"--and she can't even read you any books," Temeraire was saying, while the Greyling muttered that it had no need for books, had never seen any books, and couldn't see what one would want with books, which couldn't be eaten or licked or shown a bit of string to play with.
"Perhaps," Laurence said, "we can take young, ah, Meow, back with us to the covert, and bring Captain Buttons along. I'm certain there is some young man there who would..." He searched desperately for a politic phrasing. "...wish to bring Captain Buttons saucers of milk, and comb her fur, and bring her along on courier flights. Wouldn't you like to fly?" he asked the dragonet.
It extended its wings thoughtfully. "The barn has been cramped," it admitted, slowly. "But you're certain they won't try to take my captain from me? For I won't hear of it!"
"Certain," Laurence said. "I am quite certain of it."
In the end, they owed Bess and her father a sturdy basket, as well. After all, one could hardly take a new dragon away with its new captain, and not bring along the captain's children.