Uncle Will had only been to Wollaton Hall twice in her lifetime. The first time, Helena had been only two years old, still in the nursery; she did not remember that visit, nor much of anything surrounding that time at all. From her father and grandmother, in later years, she learned that at that time Uncle Will was captain of His Majesty's Ship the Reliant and just about to go on blockade duty in the Mediterranean at the New Year; the timing of his orders and Reliant's time in dry-dock had allowed him to stay through til Twelfth Night, and though Grandfather and Uncle Will had managed to make the evening atmosphere tense between them, Grandmother spoke of it as a lovely Christmas. Helena, her Father and Mother, and her brothers had gone back to their own house in London afterwards, and it was five years before Uncle Will was at the Hall again.
He came through Nottinghamshire a week before Easter and, it seemed to Helena, pulled all the joy out of the Hall. Or rather, Grandfather did not allow him any joy: Helena watched from the landing above the foyer as Grandfather met Uncle Will in the front hall. Grandfather's voice snapped to and fro from the marble floor to the high ceiling, echoing coldly down to Helena's perch in the shadows at the top of the stairs; while she could tell that this man was her uncle, Helena could not reconcile the stories of the heroic sea-captain, champion of the King's Navy, with this bent-backed man who seemed to bow closer to the floor under the weight of her Grandfather's disapproval. The only granddaughter of Wollaton Hall could sympathize: Grandfather had, on more than one occasion, chastised her younger brothers for playing too loudly in the Hall, or for roughhousing in the nursery, or for causing any kind of noise or disturbance at all while he was in residence to hear it. Helena had managed to slip his notice, for the most part, spending her days with Mummy and Grandmother in quieter pursuits than her brothers managed to find; still, she shrank back at the thought of that stony disapproval turning upon her, and huddled futher from the railing as Grandfather turned his back on Uncle Will and strode into the house. After a moment, Uncle Will straightened his coat, and followed.
Sneaking back to her room took longer than to sneak out: Mummy and Father were awake, now, their door ajar; Helena could see Father out of bed and pacing before the window. Helena would have to tiptoe past their door to reach her own, but she had enough experience at tiptoeing through Wollaton Hall after bedtime to know that she need only be patient, and wait for her parents to close the door, or blow out the lamp, or both.
“Of course he'll be at breakfast tomorrow, I shouldn't wonder,” her father was saying. Through the little crack between the door and frame, Helena could just see him: in shirtsleeves and breeches, his boots off, and one hand worrying at the buckle on his braces, at the shoulder. Father's hair had started, this year, to turn a little gray at the temples, but in the soft gold glow of the lamps, Helena couldn't see it.
“I'll speak with him then and get this all cleared up, but I daresay it will be another five years, or ten, before Father forgives him this time.”
“As though you brother had a choice in his duty,” Mummy replied, out of Helena's line of sight. Her voice was low and even, but Helena could hear the undertone of strained patience that Mummy often used when they spent time at the Hall: the same tone of voice that Mummy used when hosting some of the neighbor ladies for tea, back in London, especially Mrs. Wellesby and her daughter Mrs. Middleton, whom Helena had heard Nanny refer to as “a bit higher in that Tower than others,” when talking to Cook.
“His duty, yes. Do you know, I heard back in town that his first lieutenant and his second were promoted for this? Will was barely ashore before both of them were slotted into place. Not so much as a by-your-leave, and he's saddled with the care and feeding and training of some Aurthurian beast for the rest of his life while Riley and...and that other one, his first, while they're both off to fame and fortune in their own boats now.”
“He is still a Captain, isn't he? That won't change in the Aerial Corps,” Mummy put in, as Father crossed out of Helena's narrow lookout. She heard the bed creak as he sat down.
“Yes, for all that matters in the 'Corps,” Father replied. “A man may as well call himself a maharaja and a grand high emperor; he's sure to be flying in formation with some other crown prince of their covert, for all the good a system of command is to a dragon. Entirely beholden to their beasts for rank, and I suppose that the whole hierarchy will fall if two males get to scrapping over some nest of eggs or who gets fed first. No discipline, I hear, and no real structure of command; Will is likely to die of misery in such a place,” he concluded grimly.
“You must allow your brother a bit more credit; he's been stationed on the blockade for two years, and I'm sure encountered his share of rough seas and dire circumstances before that,” Mummy chided.
“Oh, of course, but the next time we see Will for Christmas, I despair of him still behaving like a gentleman and an officer; we'll as like be dining with an aviator, and have to leave open a window to feed his beast from the table,” Father said, grimly, and Helena pressed herself against the wall as he moved to the door to close it all the way.
Blinking so her eyes could adjust to the darkness in the hall, Helena stole back to her own room: Nanny was still absent from her chair between Helena's bedroom door and her next-younger brother Henry's; gossiping with the staff in the kitchen, Helena didn't doubt, and as ignorant of her charge's brief sojourn and eavesdropping as Helena could wish. Helena crawled back into bed, imagination whirling with images of snarling dragons, rough-shod dragon captains, marching soldiers and ships' cannons firing away, and amidst all of it, the sandy-haired man from the foyer, her Uncle Will, wielding shield and sword from atop his own shrieking, fire-breathing half-wild dragon.
In honor of the holiday the children only had lessons in the afternoon, so Nanny let Helena and her brothers sleep past their normal breakfast-hour the next morning. Instead of the voice of their governess ordering them to rise, the children were instead awoken by the percussive thump of wing-beats very nearly outside their windows, and sound of something very great and heavy settling to the ground in the courtyard. Helena tumbled from her bed, disentangling the bedclothes from her nightgown in a very hasty, unladylike manner, and pressed her nose to the window, goggling at what she saw below.
There were Uncle Will and Grandmother, seeming to speak together with a seething, winged form that dwarfed both them and the house—Helena's window, on the second floor, would have been level with one great, shining blue eye, had the enormous creature held its head upright. As it was, the great, night-black neck was low to the ground and Grandmother was reaching, so tentatively, to touch the wedge-shaped head right on the nose! Though she could not hear what Uncle Will and Grandmother were saying to it, the immense creature was nodding and replied, in a great, rolling voice, that it was everso pleased to meet Grandmother, and how it was going to take such good care of Uncle Will—whom the dragon referred to only as “Laurence”, with a great deal of affection plain in his voice.
It was the most splendid thing Helena had ever seen, and she moved her nose from the glass only to wipe away the fog of breath that threatened to cloud the window. The wings!--so delicate, so massive, with elegant spines like fingers or the folds of a great lady's fan, the inky membrane glowing in the morning sunlight—The tail!--long, supple, lively, as though possessed of a mind of it's own! And those clever talons, so like human hands, carefully closing—oh! Closing 'round Uncle Will to lift him to the broad leather band that circled the base of the creature's neck, just above the massive, muscular shoulders. Scales like a million chips of black porcelain glistened in the sun as Uncle Will gave Grandmother a salute, buckling his belt into the leather band, and the dragon nodded regally to her too before gathering himself for a massive, explosive leap—Helena gasped to see those mighty wings sweep down, blowing dust from the courtyard's cobblestones, and then the great beast was winging away into the morning sky, following another, smaller dragon that Helena hadn't even noticed was there. She was still staring after them when Nanny entered the room, breaking her awed reverie with much clapping of her hands and admonishments that Helena was still in her night-gown half-abed.
Wollaton Hall fairly crackled with gossip as her grandparents' guests traded interesting tidbits back and forth about Uncle Will's sudden arrival and departure. Information about his dragon, however, was thinner in the air—if one did not count the hyperbolic inflation of the beast's speculated strentgth, it's size, and quiet wagers regarding how long her Uncle would be “in harness,” as they said, before the beast decided he would make a better snack than a handler.
“Oh, pay them no mind, Helena; Temeraire was perfectly delightful to converse with this morning, and I daresay would not eat your uncle if his very life depended upon it,” Grandmother said in response to Helena's inquiry at dinner-time. She plead ignorance, however, to many of her granddaughter's further demands for more information, saying only that their conversation that morning had been regrettably brief, if surprisingly pleasant. “You might write to your Uncle, at the covert, if you have questions about Temeraire, and if your father and mother say you may,” she added conspiratorially. Though Helena wasn't sure, she thought Grandfather might have objections to people sending letters to Uncle Will at sea; she resolved to send a letter to him at Loch Laggan as soon as her family returned to the house in London, where Lord Allendale's disapproving eye might not light upon their correspondence, and Helena might be able to learn everything about dragons—about Temeraire, and wasn't that the most wonderful name for such an elegant, noble creature!--that her prodigal uncle could tell her.
Helena's father agreed to add her inquiries to his own letters on her behalf, but only for the first four exchanges; after the third, he began to question whether or not this was a suitable subject of interest for a young lady, and at the fourth letter, he put his foot down.
“You will do better to please your history tutor, Helena, rather than filling your head with this animal-husbandry nonsense; after all, it is not as though you are going to be anywhere near a covert in your life, and heavens forbid that you take it into your head to marry an aviator, or any such foolishness,” Father added sternly, capping his pen and standing from his chair to glare at his daughter. “Once we receive Will's reply, you will write him a proper thank-you note, and that will be the end of this correspondence; is that clear?”
Helena looked down at her shoes and nodded, whispering “Yes, Father,” though her belly burned with the unfairness of it all. Now she regretted deeply not having rushed out of the house, night-clothes and all, to meet Temeraire, to ask him questions herself, and to have some conversation with such a magnificent creature, however brief, to cherish through her long, dull afternoons at lessons. She pored over what information she had already gotten from Uncle Will: Temeraire's love for books, most incongruously the Principia Mathematica; the identifying characteristics that marked him as a Chinese Imperial, and the weight, speed, and hovering abilities that they hoped to improve upon, so as to make the most of his position in their formation; even tidbits about the other dragons in the covert, like Captain Berkley's massive Regal Copper, Maximus, who seemed to be Temeraire's particular friend, and Lily, the Longwing that was their formation-leader. As the weeks stretched by without reply from Loch Laggan, Helena began to sneak glances at Father's newspaper for articles or editorials regarding the role of the dragon-formations in the war against Napoleon. She did not understand many of the sentiments expressed in the few editorials that dealt with the presence of dragons near to London: there seemed to be a great many gentlemen, even Lords, that were misinformed as to how often a dragon would go rampaging through the city streets, on the hunt for young women and ladies upon whom to feast. Even rarer were mentions of the Royal Society meetings at which the abilities and traits of dragonkind were debated, and to Helena these reports might have seemed silliest of all: after all, if her uncle's dragon was so fond of Newton's Principia Mathematica, whyever should it be that he was simply parroting the sentiments of his captain, who, to Helena's understanding, was himself no great mathematician?
“Enough, Miss Laurence, and more than enough,” Nanny scolded her one afternoon, finding Helena searching her father's study for the day's newspaper. “This obsession with those creatures is not to be borne in a young lady's education! You are neglecting your other subjects, your dancing, even your needlework. Now, you will translate the following phrases into French, and you will copy them fifty times each, in both French and in English...”
But lessons that afternoon were disrupted, again and again, by the ringing of the door-bell and visitors to her father, all wanting to exchange news and gossip about a great battle at Dover: Napoleon was dead, or his Navy was all sunk to the bottom of the Channel; or Napoleon was captured, and all his men killed by a formation of dragons, led by none other than the prodigal youngest son of Lord Allendale! And wasn't that beast of his the most exceptional creature, wholly remarkable, a Chinese breed, wasn't it?....Long after the supper-hour Helena could hear the celebrations carrying on in the streets as news of the Battle of Dover circulated, recirculated, inflated and grew with each new tidbit of gossip. Her heart swelled with pride, making it altogether impossible for her to sleep: Her Uncle Will, and Temeraire, heroes! Wasn't it just the most magnificent thing! And he was her uncle, which made Temeraire almost her dragon, didn't it? How splendid, how marvelous....and in the sleepy corners of her mind, Helena could almost see a hazy vision of her future: studying dragons, meeting them, talking with them, riding on them, finding out everything there was to know about them—and not just the British breeds, but the French, too, once they'd won the war with France and she could go to and from the Continent safely; perhaps into Austria, or Spain, to study those dragons, too. She would write brilliant papers, and be admitted to the Royal Society as a lecturer; perhaps even travel to China, and observe the dragons there....!
When she presented her plans to her parents the next morning, however, she was met with a wholly oppositional enthusiasm: “Absolutely not,” Father growled down the breakfast table at her. Mummy sat in almost shocked silence, staring at Helena as though she were some completely strange little girl who had suddenly appeared at the table. “You are done with this, Helena. No more dragons, no more letters to Loch Laggan, and no more discussion of these....studies. Your uncle is a military man and must be expected to carry out his duty and so is above any reproach that might naturally follow his appointment to the Aerial Corps, but you—you are a young lady, and you will begin behaving and conducting yourself as such. No,” Father held up a hand, forestalling any protest, “no more of this. As of today, we will have no more mention of dragons in this house, is that clear?”
It was another five years before Helena saw her Uncle Will or his dragon, Temeraire, but oh, how splendidly adventurous those five years were. Despite their efforts to keep the news from reaching her, Helena couldn't help but hear her parents, and later the household servants, talk and gossip about the emissaries from China, and then how Uncle Will and Temeraire were posted there as a kind of goodwill gesture (and meanwhile, Helena was learning all the ways she might get to see the different libraries when she and Mummy went on social calls in London. Not many city residences had collections that were big enough for her tastes, but summer social season opened up a wider range of possibilities, many of which included estate libraries so large that if she happened to, ahem, borrow a volume or two on dragon breeding, training, care, feeding, or even the history of dragons in Britain and Europe, well, it was like as not that no-one was going to notice). Next Christmas, when the news came to Wollaton of Uncle Will's mission to Istanbul, Grandfather warmed to the subject just enough to allow discussion of the war, and tangentially of the Aerial Corps' contributions, to be shared with guests at the dinner table, although only in the most general and polite terms.
(In the spring, Helena managed to forge an invitation to tea with an acquaintance of her own age who lived in Westminster. She bribed the driver with a pair of silver ear-rings to take her instead to the British Museum, where she spent a blissful three hours amongst the artifacts of dragon-taming from the Roman Empire to the modern day, and returned home to London with a sheaf of careful, precise sketches and notes hidden in her waistcoat pocket.)
By Easter, Mummy had moved to Wollaton and was in confinement, awaiting the safe delivery of a new baby—who would turn out to be Helena's third younger brother, and Uncle Will was back in Britain, maybe even doing some political work with Grandfather. The hope of reconciliation cooled, however, when Grandfather returned from a soiree that he and Mr. Wilberforce had arranged for Uncle Will and Temeraire to meet some of their abolitionist allies. Grandfather had been carrying a crate that proved to contain a rather breathtaking crimson porcelain vase, and had closeted himself with Father in the study at their London house for several hours. For most of the remainder of Grandfather's visit, Helena would catch him staring at her, sometimes thoughtfully, sometimes, she thought, rather resentfully, but he would refuse to speak to her about it if she asked.
(Helena risked the forged invitation gambit once more after Grandfather left; this time, a coral bracelet helped convince the driver to take her to the little-used covert in London. The covert was empty of all but one small Winchester, a courier waiting on the mail from London, and Helena's courage failed her. After three-quarters of an hour watching beside the gate, Helena had utterly failed to go up to the Winchester and introduce herself, and the post came and the courier flew away. Helena returned home disappointed in herself.)
Mother and the new baby returned from Wollaton on the heels of heavy, shocking news: Uncle Will and Temeraire disgraced, separated, turned—traitor, an ugly, acid word that made Helena want to spit, even though she wasn't supposed to know how. She wept the whole first week of their new life at Wollaton Hall. Treason had so shocked Grandfather that he'd taken to bed and been unable to rise, and so Father had made the decision to leave London to begin taking over as the next Lord Allendale.
And then Napoleon came to Britain, and Napoleon's man came to Wollaton, telling them that because of Uncle Will, his family's home would be spared: a symbol of the French regard. Grandmother wasted no time sending word to the neighboring estates to come take refuge at the Hall. Mummy and Helena and Grandmother inventoried supplies, assigned rooms, hired more men for the house and the grounds and turned the Hall into a haven for Nottinghamshire, even as the French irregulars raided the countryside throughout Northumberland.
And then, one night....
Grandmother roused her from bed, telling Helena to get up, to help bring food out to the aviators on the ground who had stopped for a bit of rest. With a laden basket of bread on each arm, Helena stumbled after her up the hill towards the forest, her heart racing with more than just exertion and excitement: for there, crowning the rise, were dragons, dozens of dragons, steaming and panting in the moonlight, some tearing into the carcasses of deer or cows; others drinking deeply from the fish pond; and one, as black as the night sky above, so much bigger than she remembered, with his great ruffed head bent, speaking quietly with Grandmother and a few of the aviators. She stumbled to a halt, feeling as though her heart would leap up from her throat: all her questions, all the half-imagined conversations she'd ever had with him, everything from Hello, Temeraire, my name is Helena, and Will is my uncle—all of that was gone; this close she could see his scarred, spartan harness, could see how Uncle Will's coat was plainer than the other captains'.
“Here now, can I help you with those?” someone asked at her elbow, and Helena whipped around to face a tall young aviator--
Not a young man--?
“Much obliged, miss,” the aviator continued, gently releaving Helena of one of her bread baskets. “Will you help me make sure these are sent 'round to everyone?” When Helena didn't answer, only stared, the aviator scowled. “What, now, you're not scared of 'em, are you? Us at war, and you're scared of a dragon?”
“No, not--” Helena's voice came out broken. She stopped, took a deep breath, and started over. “I'm Helena. And I'm not scared of them. I've....I've been studying them. I 've only ever seen a Winchester this close before. I...I love dragons, and that one...” She nodded somewhat helplessly towards Temeraire.
“Oh, himself? Ent he something? Ensign Roland, by the way,” she added—and yes, now that Helena had her wits about her, she could see that the ensign was definitely a she. “I'm ensign on Temeraire, with Cap-- with Mr Laurence. He's a Chinese breed, you know: a Celestial. I went to China with 'em, couple years ago....”
Roland kept up a stream of commentary, and under any other circumstances, Helena might have mined it mercilessly for information; as it was, Roland's voice barely registered as they circled the camp, distributing loaves. The dragons breathed, sides heaving like bellows, making great soft roaring noises in and out. Even in the dull moonlight there were hides and scales of every color; leather creaked and wing membranes rustled, voices resonated in great big chests and occasionally one of the dragons would cough, although Roland assured Helena that this wasn't of any great concern. Surgeons raced around in the chill night air with enormous, frightening instruments, sometimes packing cloth into wounds, other times shouting instructions to crewmembers pressed into veterinary service.
And the captains, everywhere: most seemed to be men. There were a handful though, like Roland, who were unmistakably women. Women, who were Captains, with dragons. Helena's mind reeled a; t the revelation; she had no way to form the question to Roland. In all her research, her purloined information, her stolen books, there had been nothing, nothing, nothing at all. Women. In harness. Captains.
Too soon the signal went up and the crews scrambled to get aboard; Helena found herself amidst a swirling maelstrom of activity, Ensign Roland suddenly gone. There were dragons taking off; others were still on the ground, finishing loading or harness repairs. She had no idea where her mother or grandmother were, and suddenly all of her questions were boiling to her lips and everyone who could answer them was mounting up and flying away.
She reached blindly and caught the bottle-green sleeve of a captain, still on the ground. “Mort, love, hold still while they set those rivets!” She was calling. Her dragon was a a great blue Longwing, tusked head turned to address the men who were apparently still repairing his harness. The captain, feeling Helena's tug on her sleeve, turned in surprise. She was a large woman, exceedingly tall.
“Alright there, miss?”
“How--” Helena swallowed.
“Will you take me with you?” She blurted. The captain narrowed her eyes, and Helena could see she was about to refuse. “Please,” Helena continued, “please, let me come with. I can help, I've read all about dragons, and I know--”
“I haven't got a spare harness, miss--”
“--anything, I'll do anything,” Helena concluded desperately. The captain turned to face her directly, taking hold of Helena's elbows.
“Helena, you have to understand. I haven't got a spare harness for you, and there's no way I'm letting anyone up on Mort without one.”
“Captain!” A man ran up, arms black to the elbows with dragon blood. In one hand he held one of the wicked-looking instruments that the surgeons had been using. “Captain, Gladius is too wounded to take his whole crew—can Mortiferus carry ten of us to the next camp?”
“Do you have any spare harness?” Helena yelled before the Captain could say anything. Both aviators stared at her, wide-eyed.
Finally the man replied, “Aye, we've got a few belts. Lost a few lads. I'll bring 'em over if Mortiferus has room for all of us.”
The Captain eyed Helena for a long, heart-stopping moment. Then: “Aye, we've got the room. Be quick about it, and bring us a set of straps for Helena, here.” As the man ran off to carry the word to his crew, the Captain stuck out a hand.
“I'm Captain Elizabeth St. Germain, and this--” she reached out her other hand to slap the dragon flank beside them, “--is Mortiferus. Welcome to His Majesty's Aerial Corps, Helena.”