"Do you know," said Perscitia, "I think it might all come down to cows, in the end."
This statement did not arouse the interest she had hoped. She had been working on the theory for some time-- had begun thinking of it during the invasion, in fact, and felt it quite perfected, now, in the weeks following the great battle.
"What was that, Persey?" Minnow said. "I didn't hear." She was holding a great wooden beam steady while workmen swarmed around her, propping and shoring and doing various carpentery things. The bell tower of the village church in Twickenham loomed above her, a skeletal frame half-open to the sky.
In fairness, Perscitia could not blame Minnow for being busy. When they had agreed to bring their militia home, Perscitia had not expected to stay so very long. But the town, and much of the country surrounding it, had been very badly damaged in the invasion: villages half-burnt, bridges demolished to slow the progress of French troops (which was very stupid, as they had just flown right over), mills smashed and fields ruined. There was a great deal of work to do, and Minnow had been seized with a sudden passion for building. They'd heard a great many of Temeraire's stories about the work dragons did in China and Africa, and when Minnow had proposed that she and Moncey and some of the others be hired to help rebuild, the idea was taken up with surprising enthusiasm. It helped, she supposed, that George Jemson was the mayor's son, and quite persuasive. A barn had been provided them-- not as nice as a pavilion, but Minnow and the other little ones at least seemed to find their heaped-straw beds perfectly comfortable-- and they had begun the work. Perscitia found manual labor a bit beneath her, but certainly better than fighting, and it all became much more interesting when she began to help with the plans. And she had plenty of time to perfect her theory, of course.
The theory went thusly: China had a great many dragons, and people were not afraid of them, and they were free to do as they pleased. Africa had a great many dragons, and people thought they were their ancestors, and they were free to do as they pleased. China was very good at farming, and Chinese dragons ate cooked food, which meant there were a great many cows to go around, and they could be made to feed more dragons than if they were eaten raw. In Africa, apparently, the dragons ate elephants; Perscitia had never seen an elephant, only had them described to her, but she imagine them as being like very large cows with long noses. At any rate, there were enough elephants to feed all the African dragons. This meant, by Perscitia's reasoning, that the sorry state of English dragonry was largely due to the lack of cows.
She thought it a very good theory, and was a bit upset when Minnow did not seem impressed; but then, Minnow hardly even seemed impressed by anything, and Perscitia was beginning to suspect it was all a great show.
"It's all very well to say we'd be better off if we had more cows, you know," Minnow said, "and I'm sure we would be; I would certainly like more cows. But where do you suppose we should get them?"
"We could steal them from the French," suggested Laculla, who had just landed with a load of timber. "That worked quite well." Moncey nodded, shameless creature; he would agree if Laculla said the sky was lavender and cream, striped.
"I do not just mean a few cows here and there, enough for a week's campaign," Perscitia said crossly; they were not taking her seriously, at all. "I mean across the whole country: the ability to grow more food, and keep more cows, and sheep, and chickens; I do not know how they do it in China, but if they can take a field of the same size and get twice as much food out of it, we should surely be able to do the same." That was the trick, she was sure; that stood between English dragons and their freedom.
She said as much to Wellington, when she returned to London. Minnow had stayed behind, with a dozen others, and every apparent intention of settling in: they had hired a cook, and when Perscitia left had been cheerfully squabbling over how best to rebuild the barn, since a pair of idiot Winchesters had tried to sleep in the hayloft and collapsed it.
"I beg your pardon," said Wellington, "but what did you say they did?"
"Ignored me entirely, if you can credit it," Perscitia said crossly. "And I am sure I am quite right; it is all down to proper management of rescources."
"No, not that, although that does sound likely; I meant the motley pack of reptilian lunatics you left behind. Am I to understand they've hired themselves out as jobbing builders? And are in the process of knocking down half the barns in Middlesex?"
"It was only the one barn," Perscitia said, "and anyway, it was given us; I am sure they can do what they like with it."
Wellington looked at her for a long moment. "I think is is entirely possible that you are the third-most-troublesome dragon in all England," he said. "I think it very likely."
Perscitia was, at first, quite offended at this, but then it occurred to her that with Temeraire and Iskierka gone to New South Wales, technically this meant that she, in fact, was the most troublesome dragon in all England. And there was something rather flattering about that; England, she considered, needed troubling.
"No," said Wellington, "they are perfectly capable of troubling me at great distances. Only yesterday Roland pointed out that the Chinese might find out that we've exiled their Emperor's adopted son, after sentencing him to death and separating him from his Celestial for months on end; I assume she thought I did not have enough to worry me already, and wanted to be helpful."
"Hm," said Perscitia, and thought on it for a little while. "Temeraire said China hardly looks outside its own borders; I do not see how they would find out, unless someone told them. And they are not very likely to trust Lien's word, anymore."
Wellington nodded, and looked a little relieved. "Just so. I said as much to Roland."
They were in the garden at Apsley House, which was rather nicer than the covert, now the weather was warming. The house belonged to some relative or other of Wellington's-- Perscitia had not paid particular attention-- but had been left standing empty for the length of the invasion, when all Wellington's family had gone to Ireland. Now there was a constant bustle of servants and deliverymen, cleaning and repairing and carrying furniture in and out. Wellington had sent to Ireland for his wife and children; they were coming on the courier routes. His wife had just had an egg, apparently, at the start of the year, which Perscitia thought very interesting, and Wellington had not even seen the child yet.
She was finding London society very congenial, what parts of it were not afraid to talk to her. Sir Edward Howe had come, from the Royal Society, and brought her some books: among them her own copy of the Principia Mathematica, which was very nice, although much of it were things she had already worked out for herself. Some other gentlemen had brought her books and read to her on the Romans, and dragon history, and other things. She thought she might give a lecture on her theory, when it was quite finished, if enough people could be convinced to attend. It was for this she had come to see Wellington, since they would be much more likely to go to a lecture at Apsley House than at the covert.
He seemed to think she could not give a proper lecture, though, which was very unfair. "I am only saying," he told her, when she argued, "that you are self-taught, and hardly know those books you are so proud of. You ought to have tutors, and learn what the rest of the world has to teach, before you set yourself up as an expert on anything."
"Oh," said Perscitia, deflating a little. "Well. That is fair, I suppose. How does one get a tutor?"
It proved difficult. Wellington had not, apparently, told the first one his student would be a dragon; the second one stammered his way through a lesson on the times-tables, then shrieked and ran when Perscitia told him she would rather have calculus; the third smelled very strongly of spirits and the fourth never arrived at all.
Perscitia took delivery of a handsome reading-table, with a great glass lens to magnify the words in the little books so she could see them, but it was quite useless with no-one to teach her to read. Wellington helped, a little, though he always made a great deal of noise about how busy he was, and Sir Edward and the other Society gentlemen as well, and so Perscitia learned in bits and pieces all that spring. She found herself feeling embarrassed, and perhaps a little contemptuous, of her old self, that creature whose world ended at the bounds of the breeding-grounds, and whose thoughts ended at the bounds of her own head. Even what she had gained from her scattershot education was proving that old self a fool, and oh, if she could only learn to read, what worlds could be opened to her then!
She went often to Apsley House, where it was very pleasant to lay on the sun-warmed green grass and argue with Wellington, or a Society gentleman. Wellington always had something of military history to tell her, or tactics; he was always rushing back and forth to, as he put it, "shout at Government, when I am tired of shouting at you." Perscitia thought some plan was in motion, some new action against Napoleon, but he would not tell her anything of what it was, even when she was very nice and flew him across the city to one of his urgent appointments, or picked him up afterwards and flew him home again. Doing this reminded her, a little uncomfortably, of having a captain again, although Wellington never behaved in the least as though he was any such thing.
Wellington had been gone for some hours, the day a new Society gentleman came to see her. She was, rather embarrassingly, peering at a copy of the alphabet that a squeaker at the covert had written out for her, and was finding it little use without an explanation of what the letters stood for. She recognized several as being part of Temeraire's name, and others from her books, but they were still quite meaningless. It was terribly frustrating.
To make matters worse, this gentleman was nothing like Sir Edward's friends, who were cheerful and clever and quite willing to argue endlessly about their particular view of history or solution to a mathematical puzzle, without at all making Perscitia feel foolish or as though her own answer was wrong. He had come to the covert in Wales, she remembered, and made Temeraire angry, but she supposed she owed him at least a thank-you, for she would not have found a like mind in Temeraire without him.
But when she said as much, he was at first confused, as though she were too feeble-minded to remember something that had happened not half a year ago; and then he became pompous, acting as if he had done her some great favor, and was some great font of wisdom enlightening the stupid dragons. Well, it was understandable, really, that she should become angry, and shout at him, and if she was a little louder than she might be in good-natured argument, then that was only reasonable.
So she did not think it at all her own fault when a door opened in the house, and a lady came storming out, wailing the she could not suffer in silence anymore, that she had borne too much, that great vicious monsters in her back garden were bad enough, "but," she said, voice quavering, a thin shaking hand pointing at Perscitia accusingly, "you cannot be so loud! You have woken the baby, and he was only just asleep, and I-- I--"
The lady threw herself down upon a stone bench and burst into furious tears. The stupid gentleman, the great coward, had fled, and Perscitia found herself quite alone with the weeping lady. Perscitia edged forward, making herself as small as she could, wings pressed flat against her back, and said, "I am sorry, but I did not know babies slept during the day. I thought they slept at night, like grown humans do, and most dragons. Are they nocturnal, like cats, or Fleur-de-Nuits? And I am not vicious," she added, as an afterthought. "I am not a fighting-dragon at all, in fact."
The lady's tears did not abate at all during this speech, but she managed to hiccup out, "No, no, babies ought to sleep at night, but he does not sleep when he ought, only cries and cries, and I do not sleep either."
Up close, Perscitia could see, she did not look well; she was not a great judge of health in humans, as their faces were so much smaller and harder to read than those of dragons, but Perscitia was sure humans ought not be so pale, or have great dark circles around their eyes.
"Well, only let me know when he is sleeping, and I shall be quieter, or go to another part of the park if I must shout at someone," she said. "I would not have shouted so now, but that he was being so stupid."
"I only heard your half, I am afraid," the woman said, "but he cannot have been a gentleman, to flee a lady in distress and leave her alone with a dragon." She paused for a moment, as if she had only just remembered that she was, in fact, alone with a dragon, had just realized that the voice she had been speaking with belonged to the large blue-and-green body crouched opposite her. Her eyes widened, and she said in a rather faint voice, "But you are not a fighting-dragon, you say?"
"Oh, not at all," Perscitia assured her. "Tactics are very interesting, and strategy, but I cannot see what is so nice about flying about in a battle, and being shot at, and losing your crew or your captain. I am told that in China there are many dragons who do not fight, but who work in Government, or are scholars, or other things. I suppose I am one of those, even if England has not had that kind before."
"Oh, I see," said the lady uncertainly. "I have heard Arthur speak of you, a little. I am Kitty," she added, and that was how Perscitia came to meet the Duchess of Wellington.
Perscitia found she liked Kitty, although she was not the sort of person she would tolerate in the ordinary course of things: she was very nervous, and tended to flutter instead of deciding things properly. Wellington had not spoken of her to Perscitia, at all, and she began to suspect they were not well-matched. But Kitty was quite kind, in her way, once she was no longer afraid of being eaten. Perscitia suspected that she was rather lonely. Kitty said that with the new baby still so small, she was not expected to do much in Society; whatever Society was, Kitty seemed to put much store by it, and miss it a great deal.
When Perscitia explained that she did not yet know how to read, and how annoying it was, Kitty quite burst into action, and was rather more successful than her husband. Within a matter of days, a placid woman arrived with a stack of small books printed in large letters, and began reciting, in the manner of one who has done so a thousand time before, that A was for Apple, and D for Dragon, and so on.
Reading was not, Perscitia found, very difficult to learn, once she set to it properly; Perscitia had always thought the idea of it very interesting, and it proved only a matter of remembering how the letters matched up to the sounds, although some words were not pronounced at all the way they ought to be from the spelling. And it was as wonderful as she had hoped, to be able to read what she liked, and learn as fast as she could; she could read far more swiftly than any Society gentleman, no matter how learned, could talk.
Writing, however, was another thing entirely: though she tried drawing out letters in the dirt at the covert, they were never very nice, and if she wanted to send letters to Minnow or Sir Edward, or make notes, she had to corral some passing ensign and make them put it down on paper for her. But here, too, Kitty was a help: she would look at the smudged and crumpled efforts of whatever young Corpsman Perscitia had commandeered, cluck her tongue, and copy the words out again in a lovely clear hand.
Wellington came home one day and found them, sitting together in the garden with the baby in a basket at Kitty's feet, the older child toddling in circles round her while she read out a letter to Perscitia. Minnow was doing very well, it seemed: she had George Jemson's sister read and write her letters, which were full of chattery news about this person or another from their militia, and Elsie said hello, and they had built a dam at Hounslow, and Moncey and Laculla had an egg and did she want them to tell it anything from her, and so on.
"Tell Moncey they ought to have someone read to it; the egg will hatch knowing things already, history and mathematics and things, and that is very useful," she told Kitty, who wrote it down for her. Perscitia's captain had done his schoolwork sitting beside her egg, before she hatched, and she had liked it very much. Her dimmest memories were of her captain's voice, reedy and thin, reciting his times-tables to himself.
"Hm," said Wellington, "so it seems that gossip is a property of all females, human and dragon alike," which made Kitty duck her head and flush, and look a little sad, and made Perscitia rear up full of indignance, for there was nothing wrong with having news of friends, and calling it gossip made it sound cheap and tatty when it was nothing of the sort. She said as much, but Wellington only waved it away. "Never mind, never mind, I am only here for a moment. There is a dinner-party Saturday next, in honor of someone or other; Kitty, do you think yourself well enough to attend?"
Kitty nodded and said, oh yes, certainly, though she would need a dress made, and when Wellington told her she need not go, if she felt at all ill, she said "I am quite well, Arthur. I should like to go, very much," with surprising firmness.
Wellington nodded, and strode off back to the house. Perscitia settled back down to the grass, and said, "That was unkind of him; I do not know anyone who gossips as much as Moncey, and he is male, and I do not think I have ever heard Admiral Roland gossip at all."
"Admiral Roland?" said Kitty. "I have heard that name, I think; the only other commander Arthur ever has a good word for. Why should he gossip?"
"Well, that is exactly my point," said Perscitia. "She does not; she is a very sensible person. And it is not only that she is an aviator, either, you would not credit some of the nonsense I heard from aviators during the invasion." And then she stopped talking, for Kitty's mouth had fallen open in a little o of astonishment.
"But I suppose it was meant to be a secret," said Perscitia, uncertainly, "that women may be aviators. You will not tell anyone, will you? It is not very many, only enough so the Longwings and Xenicas and few others may have the sort of captains they like, although I have never quite understood why. I asked Gentius about it, once, but he did not explain it very well; but then, he is so old that he does not always make very good sense. I do not think I should care if my captain were male or female-- that is, if I wanted a captain. Which I do not, of course." This last was added quickly, so that Kitty would not misunderstand: of course, Perscitia did not want a captain.
But she only said, "I see," very slowly, and excused herself, leaving the letter behind half-written.
Neither Wellington nor Kitty spoke of the matter to her again, and they were both a little strange in the weeks that followed; she did not see them speak to each other even the little bit they had before. In desperation, Perscitia one day found herself expounding upon her theory to Kitty, all other avenues of conversation having been exhausted, and to Perscitia's surprise, this caught her attention.
"But that seems perfectly sensible to me," Kitty said. "If there are so many more dragons about, and the people see them every day, they ought not be any more frightened than they are of clouds, or houses. And in England we simply cannot feed so many dragons as they have, so they cannot be an everyday sight for most people."
"Exactly so," said Perscitia, very satisfied. "I should like to present a paper to the Royal Society on it, but I suppose I should know more about how other countries do things, first. Sir Edward has told me what he knows about the Inca, but it is not very much, and that still leaves most of the world an utter blank."
"You should ask Arthur about India, then," said Kitty, and then went on, a little softer, "He served there nearly eight years, before we married." She put down the embroidery she had been occupied with, and wrung her thin hands; the mention of India seemed to make her melancholy, and Perscitia did not know why.
She asked Wellington about India, when next he came to the covert. "How do dragons live there? Not so different from here, I suppose," he said. "I did not see them very much; we had a formation at Assaye, for what good it did, but we did not need one at Seringapatam. I do not know what it was like when the Company first came to India, fifty years ago, but today it is much the same on both sides. They do not have as unified a Corps, is all: each prince or sultan has a few dragons he calls his own, and they combine forces when they must. They do not eat cows there, you know," he added. "So I suppose that theory of yours still stands."
Perscitia found this "no cows" business very interesting, but Wellington distracted her with an explanation of his strategy at Argaum, which became an impromptu lesson on supply lines. Later, Sir Edward found her a slim book on the dragon breeds of India, but that was not very much help either, only a dry listing of each breed and its traits, and of those only the ones useful in war had been deemed worth mentioning. Nothing of their society, of how they lived-- but then, Perscitia reflected, such a book on British dragons would sum up her life in a sentence just as dull. Dragons who do not serve in the military, or who are retired, go to live in the breeding grounds. There, that was her whole life before the invasion.
She complained of it to Sir Edward, when next she saw him, and he agreed that there were sad gaps in the scholarly literature. "But perhaps you shall be the one to fill them, my dear," he said, and smiled up at her. She did like Sir Edward.
Perscitia wondered how she might get to India; it was a shame, she thought, that the Allegiance was already gone, but if she had left with Temeraire and Iskierka she would not have learned to read, or met Sir Edward or Kitty. It seemed unfair that only now did she know enough that traveling could teach her more, when she had no way of getting anywhere.
But perhaps the answer lay in the west, instead. Majestatis had gone to the breeding grounds in Ireland, to talk to the dragons there and explain that they could now have pavilions, and did not need captains, but no one had yet been to Halifax. And from Halifax it was not so very far to the rest of the Americas, and very little study had been undertaken of the dragons there. Perhaps, if she went far enough, she could meet the Inca! Oh, that would be exciting. She proposed the scheme to Wellington, when next she saw him, but he did not share her enthusiasm.
"Someone ought to go to Halifax, it is true," he said. "We need every pair of wings, now the French have charmed their own dragons out of their breeding grounds. But I do not think I can spare you so long."
"Spare me from what?" Perscitia was puzzled. "All I have done is sit about reading, and arguing with Sir Edward, and while Kitty is very pleasant company I am sure she could manage without me."
"Yes, I imagine she could," Wellington said dryly, "but the time is coming soon when I am not at all sure that I can. You know of the situation in Portugal?"
Perscitia did, a little; she kept up with the newspapers as well as she could. The mountains had kept the French out overland, thus far, and England's Navy kept them out at sea. In Spain, meanwhile, the people had risen in general revolt, leaving the French occupying force all in disarray. Napoleon had lost a great many men and dragons, in his invasion of England, and that weakened his ability to hold Spain, or take any new territory.
"We are sending thirty thousand men to Portugal, and forty dragons; I am in command, and I would like you to come with me," Wellington said.
"Which forty?" was Perscitia's first response. "I would make it fifty, and the balance of them middle- or light-weights; and bring a dozen couriers, besides, so you can move any part of the force quickly, and keep in contact with everyone always."
"And this is why I want to bring you," Wellington said, laughing. "Sir Edward and his friends say you have advanced a great deal, and I see it is true. Admiral Roland is needed here, so I would like your help devising our aerial strategy in the Peninsula."
"I shall not fight," said Perscitia.
"I know it," said Wellington. "But I have a use for you, nonetheless."
Perscitia dug her talons into the dirt thoughtfully. "There are things that need to be done here, too," she said. "I do not know if Portugal is as important, to me. I know I rabbit on about my theory, but-- it is not only about resources, do you realize?"
Wellington shook his head. Perscitia went on, "The difference between England and China, or England and Africa, is not only that they have more dragons than us, or that their dragons have better lives. They are stronger than us, too, are they not? The Tswana drove us from the continent, and no one would ever dream of invading China. If we wish to defeat the French, we cannot go on as we were. Napoleon knows that: only see how he is already changing the way his dragons live. If we do not change too, it would be as stupid as if we kept on with formation-flying, like the Prussians."
"You have your pavilions, do you not?" Wellington asked. "I cannot countenance the overthrow of all English society, for the benefit of dragons."
Perscitia fluttered her wings at this, a little. "Then you may not have an English society for much longer. Perhaps you shall hold Napoleon at bay, or defeat him, and preserve things for a little while. But we know about the rest of the world, now, and we can fly: how should you like it if we left, every wing and scale of us, and found someplace more congenial?"
Wellington snorted at that. "I suspect that many would say good riddance."
"When they could have the advantage we would give them, if we were free to do so? In Africa dragons mine for gold; in Peru they built the Inca unbreachable fortresses. Even here, Minnow and the rest of our friends have rebuilt their part of the country faster than anywhere else in all England. Hold us back, and you hold England back, too."
For a long moment, Wellington was silent. "You are asking for something I do not think I can give, alone," he said. "But you may be right. Come with me to Portugal; when we make a war hero out of you, it is just possible that more will listen to what you have to say."
"Give me a day or two, to think on it," Perscitia said, and he left her.
She did not go to Kitty for advice, because she knew Kitty would tell her to go if Wellington needed her. But she asked her opinion anyway, and when Kitty said "You will look after him for me, I hope?" and smiled at her, Perscitia knew she had Kitty's approval.
Perscitia went to Minnow for advice, instead, because Minnow was not impressed by anything and determinedly practical, always; she thought Minnow could be relied on to see things clearly. But when she arrived at the old barn in Twickenham, Minnow was not there. "Gone to fix the bridge at Chertsey, the whole boiling of 'em," said the cook, a stout woman with arms floury to the elbow, and rolled-up sleeves. "But back for supper, I'm sure, so you'll excuse me," she added, and went back inside in a gust of good smells.
The barn was much changed, since Perscitia had seen it last: the whole big kitchen added on along the side, with a chimney billowing steam into the cool air. The big doors at the front were gone, the doorway enlarged and hung with a heavy oilcloth curtain that could be raised or lowered, no fiddly latch at all. Inside was different, too: the hayloft rebuilt, much sturdier, so two or three little dragons could sleep up there, and colorful plates and pictures hung on the walls.
It was all very homey, with the heat from the kitchen warming the whole space, and Perscitia thought of the bare clearings and plain pavilions in London, of the dirt and constant movement that would no doubt be the Portuguese campaign. There would be little time for reading in Portugal, either, or for study, and no one but Wellington, in all likelihood, to talk to about the things that interested her.
But then again, there would be the things she had during the invasion: the chance to think on the wing, lightning-quick, to devise a plan and put it into practise immediately, to see it save the lives of men and dragons and send their enemies off cringing. For all that Perscitia insisted she was not a fighting-dragon, these things were very satisfying, and between her and Wellington she suspected they could outthink even Napoleon. Lien, too; for all Temeraire's talk of how clever and sly she was, Perscitia did not think her too great a challenge. True, she was older, and perhaps wiser, and had seen a great deal more of the world, but what was that? Perscitia was young, and learning more all the time; if she was not as clever as Lien yet-- and she would not admit that, not without a good fight-- then she would be, soon, and then she would fly past her. Lien was not, Perscitia thought, getting any cleverer, and Perscitia was, all the time.
Hm. Perhaps she had made up her mind, Perscitia thought. She rose to her feet, mind already awhirl with plans-- she would have to bring her books, surely no-one could complain about a dragon carrying too much baggage-- but, after a moment, she stopped, and lay down again.
It wouldn't hurt to stay for supper, after all.