“Even had he not reeked of whiskey like an immoderate cologne, I could imagine fewer maladies that could compel a man to approach someone that outweighed them by several stone and some twenty tonnes and call them, among other things, a 'Chinese devil.'
Appallingly rude as it was, the outburst was neither shocking nor altogether unwonted. The great surprise was the appearance of Mr. Clemens, the man I had traveled all that way to see, stumbling into the conversation as if by blind happenstance.
' Actually sir, I have it on good authority that they do not even have a Devil in China. It's true! Only do not ask me where they cast the blame for their sinning and moral lapses, I haven't the foggiest.'”
– Temeraire, A British Celestial in Yankee America , 1895
In retrospect, Cef should have seen it coming when he'd agreed for Sam to pick him up for the lecture. It had been all the way at the start of the semester, he'd been young and foolish back then.
He'd looked up from his laptop and saw Samaritan peeking through the second story window an hour early, tapping at the glass instead of just calling like a civilized person. It had to be a portent of the Apocalypse. Any moment there would be trumpet sounds, plagues, and Tiamat roaring hellfire out of Babylon; all appropriate reactions to Sam fretting over punctuality.
Then again, hellish traffic was a staple of Los Ángeles, Armageddon or not. At least Cef could tease Sam a bit over it and avoid the hassle of having to drive- which was something he tried to avoid whenever possible.He tucked his great-grandfather's jangling dog tags safety under his shirt and zipped up his hoody before locking his dorm room behind him. His sneakers drummed down the stairwell, all painted cement and echoes, hopped the last few steps and shouldered open the one-way door.
Samaritan waited for him in the parking lot, sitting on his haunches among the aging sedans and compacts like a five-ton, admonishing cat.
Being 'picked up' had very literal connotations when your ride was a dragon.
“Took you long enough!” He lashed his tail impatiently.
Cef shoved his hands into the hoody's cozy pockets. “The doors don't open for another hour, Sam.”
“Yeah, but it's a twenty minute flight.” He flexed his wings to emphasize. “And then we have to land, wait in line, find our seats...”
“Cabrón , we ordered the tickets three months ago. They're reserved. We're not going to lose our seats.”
Samaritan craned his head down to Cef's level, who didn't bat an eyelash at the proximity of a dragon whose maw could fit his entire torso. He was small, as far as dragons went. Even at full-growth, his shoulders were scarcely as tall as Cef's head. Not that it would have made a difference even if he were a thirty-tonner that could be confused as a landmass. It didn't feel all that long ago that Sam was no bigger than a dog, sprawled on his lap while the TV droned mindless reruns of Joust.
“Are you sure you've got the tickets?” Sam peered at his pants anxiously, like he might be able to see through the denim.
Cef clapped his pocket. Pretended to look confused, and started searching his back and hoody pockets with mounting urgency, looking back up at Samaritan with convincing panic.
The alarm on Sam's face turned indignant when Cef flashed him the tickets and a grin. “That was so not funny.”
“We'll have to agree to disagree.” Samaritan still looked indignant. “Aw, come on, Sam. You know I'm just as stoked to go as you are. You just have a relax a little. If you want, we can head out now. Will that help?”
“Yes, very much,” he replied.
Cef pocketed the tickets. “Alright, let's go.” He stopped when Sam was looking him up and down dubiously. “What?”
“...are you really wearing that? No, sorry, sorry. I didn't mean it like that. You look fine. Really.”
Cef doubted he looked scaled anywhere close on Sam's standards of 'fine,' but he was probably more eager to be underway than willing to wait for Cef to go back upstairs and change. For himself, Sam had on a burgundy flight vest that complimented the bronze of his scales and a smart-looking olive scarf wrapped around his neck.
Sam bowed low for Cef to clamber more easily up his side. Besides buttoned pockets, the vest came with fashionable but sturdy loops to hold the scarf more securely. Cef took both ends of it and tied it around his waist with quick, practiced fingers. He slapped Sam's shoulder. “Ready.”
Cef could feel Sam's muscles tense beneath his legs as he crouched. He sprung, leathery wings snapping open and beating fast for that crucial momentum. Cef was thrown backwards, the scarf strained against his back and his fists clenched the fabric for stability. The sudden gusts rattled window frames off all the nearby apartments. A car alarm even went off, but really it wasn't their fault Student Housing hadn't sprung for a proper take-off zone.
They let the ruckus of their departure behind them. The complex was already shrinking, quickly diminishing until it was a just another feature on a meticulous scale-model.
Sam turned his head to check on him. “You still back there?”
“No. I plummeted to my death.”
“Don't be so morbid Cef, I'd never let you fall. You still have the tickets.”
He grinned after Samaritan looked back ahead. It had been too long since they'd done this. Long enough that he couldn't pin down an exact time-frame. Two weeks? Slightly less? Cef had been busy with mid-terms, and Sam had his part-time delivery job. It was almost alarming how easily they lost track of time. Of each other.
He'd missed it. The serenity of altitude, a cushion of distance that removed him form the press of gravity, deadlines, stifling walls and the pressure of living. An opportunity to breathe open air and look down at the world from another perspective. Just the two of them, the bob of Sam's wings catching the wind. Feeling the strong cords of muscle pulling along his flanks, his heartbeat pumping against Cef's thighs. If they flew long enough, they'd start beating in time together, a rhythm like a metronome.
No wonder why some counselors swore to sky-therapy.
Wind tangled his hair and cooled his face with a pleasant sting. It was the perfect night for flying. The sunset painted the horizon orange and cut black silhouettes of the LA skyline. The stream of rush-hour slogged through winding branches of highway like concrete arteries.
Sam seemed to have the same idea. “Hey Cef!” motioned at the whole of Los Ángeles with a talon and started to sing, “I can show you the woooorld. Shining, shimmering-”
“I will throw myself right off Sam I swear to God.”
His big dragon-laugh rumbled like a heavy bassline. He hummed as they flew, a low pleasant vibration up Cef's spine, tickling pins and needles in those soft, emotional spots in his brain and made him twitch a smile.
Their privacy diminished as they crossed into the city limits. First were the dragon shapes, bird-sized in the distance. Light and welterweight couriers darting across the city running their deliveries. A little further in, the skies were thick with dragons. Lone fliers headed back after along work day, a scattering of middleweights ferrying commuters on their backs.
They passed close to a heavyweight, their breed and features unremarkable but for the drab of their UPS harness loaded with a cargo-container's worth of packages for transport.
“See?” Sam said. “I told you it was smart to leave early!”
He had some cause to be smug. The university stadium was the largest, most prominent building for miles, and its airspace was already teeming with circling dragons by the dozens. It was a good thing the school had decided the lecture to be held there. No way any of the auditoriums could have handled even the dragons that had arrived punctually.
“Well, it's about time this money sink was being used for something useful for once.” Cef said.
Sam maneuvered them into the formation of circling dragons. A pair of intimidating middleweights wearing blue police-harnesses managed the flow of dragons to available lading zones with thunderous voices while human cops on the ground waved flashing batons.
It all moved like clockwork. They only had to circle the stadium a few minutes before one of the Police Dragons brusquely directed them to the next available landing pad properly free of cars, foot traffic or anything else that could be disturbed by beating wings.
Cef was prepared for a more jarring reunion with the ground, but was surprised as they set down that he was barely jostled. “Oh, it's the new recycled rubber stuff,” Samaritan pressed a foot harder down on the asphalt. “That feels much nicer to walk on.”
“Clear the area quickly for the next party,” a traffic cop reminded them.
Sam started guiltily. Cef untied the scarf and smoothly slide down his side. They hurried together to the footpath that could qualify as a small runway, and paused to watch a dragon as tall as a bus touch down. Even at a safe distance, Cef had to lean back against Sam's side to keep from being bowled over by the gusts.
The dragon was a breathtaking shade of blue, scales patterned with swirling white markings. He'd landed on his hind-legs first, massive wings open like sails to shave off the last of his speed, fully displaying thorny, tribal designs in black ink. Some dragons applied special cosmetic paint to their scales, but Cef had only seen a few with actual tattoos . The only practical place for them was on the soft membranes of their wings. It was supposed to be a long and painful process over many, many sessions.
The blue dragon settled on all fours, tattoos creating new shapes as he folded his wings back. He wore a light harness, old leather etched with elaborate designs in the same spirit as his wings. Only one person slid off his back: a short, stocky woman in a battered leather jacket, goggles and thick gloves, exactly what you'd want to wear for a long flight.
The pair walked off the pad without needing prompting, his strides slow and wide and hers the unsteady wobble of an extended time on dragonback. There was a sun-burnt outline of her goggles after she pulled them off her face and propped them in her trim hair. “Would ya look at that,” She checked her phone, speaking in English. “We made it right on time.”
“Well done,” he answered with a deep, bored baritone.“Your heroic arm-flapping made all the difference.”
The chill of high altitude was nothing like Los Angeles, even with the sun setting. She was already pulling her gloves off with her teeth and shrugging off the heavy jacket as they walked, audibly savoring the cool air on her bared arms. They were thick, tanned, and raked with what could only be scars from dragon claws.
Cef shoved his hands in this hoody pockets, and turned away before he could qualify for rudely staring. The scars were impressive, as was her gear. They had to be American, if her accent and the breed of her companion were any indication. He was more than a little curious, but it would be awkward to just turn to a complete stranger and strike up a conversation out of the blue-
“I love your wings!” Samaritan said.
...God dammit Sam.
The tattooed dragon paused, peering down at Sam dubiously. Because of course, he might not even had understood him, but he recovered from the random compliment and responded in perfect Spanish. “Thank you, it is kind of you to say.”
Sam titled his head, not unlike a curious raptor. “Did it hurt?”
“Oh yes, it was excruciating.” He boasted cheerfully. “Took three weeks of sessions before they finished, and I had to keep my wings propped open. Couldn't fly for a days afterward. “
The prospect of pain and being grounded no doubt quashed whatever ideas Sam might have been nurturing to have a bit of inkwork of his own. Cef breathed a quiet sigh of relief.
“I like your vest,” the dragon's companion offered. Her Spanish was halting and uncertain. “And the scarf.”
Sam preened, the vain little peacock. Cef interrupted before he started going on about his hoard of fashionable vests. “Trust me, he's impossible to shop for.” He held out his hand. “I'm Cef, and this mannerless mutt is Samaritan.”
She shook it firmly. “Ash.”
“Cloud Chaser,” the blue dragon nodded his head.
“Pleasure,” Cef switched to English. “Let me guess, flew in from the States?”
There was plain relief on her face. “Am I that obvious?”
“Your Spanish is pretty decent.” he said charitably.
“It's so weird, I learned Arapaho just fine in high-school, but I could never manage Spanish that well.”
“Arapho?” Cef racked his brain trying to remember where that Nation fell on the US map. “That's...the central mountains, right?”
“Not bad. Yeah, we flew in from Denver.”
Samaritan hopped up to Cloud Chaser, who probably had three or four times bulk on him at least. “You flew all the way from America?”
“It's only two day ride,” Cloud Chaser said. “And the thermals of the Mojave make for some easy flying.”
“Oooh, I've always wanted to fly out east,” Sam perked excitably. “What do you think, Cef?”
“I think there's nothing in southern Nevada but mines, Mormons, and decommissioned coverts.”
“The coverts were cool,” Ash offered. “All spooky and abandoned like a horror movie.”
“Still seems like a hell of a way to fly for one lecture,” Cef said.
“For this, I'd fly from Alaska to London if he let me.”
“Planes of course being pure fiction,” Cloud Chaser snorted sardonically.
“What can I say, I'm a traditionalist.”
Fresh gusts hit as a green-scaled middleweight with orange spots landed, over two-dozen people climbing off her back.
“Looks like it's getting crowded,” Ash said. She threw the jacket over one shoulder. “See you guys in there?”
“I'll think we'll spot him pretty easily,” Cef cocked his head to Cloud.
“Ha-ha, true. Nice meeting you guys.”
“Yeah,” Cef said, while Sam hollered. “Nice meeting you too!”
Ash strode off, Cloud trotting at her side like a dallying blue tour bus. The green dragon walked down the path, keeping a watchful eye on her party, mostly teenagers. Some wore black t-shirts with a name in elaborate Chinese calligraphy. A few had the same thick book tucked under their arms. Cef had a much more worn copy back in his dorm, and he'd be willing to bet Sam had packed his in one of his vest pockets.
“Cef,” Sam gave him a goofy carnivore grin, practically vibrating with excitement. “We're going to see Temeraire!”
Cef had never actually been to the stadium before. There hadn't been much of a need to. He wasn't all that interested in football or sky-blitz, and the bands he liked never seemed to book a concert there. That, and the crowds. Thank God there didn't look to be anywhere near close enough to fill the entire stadium to capacity. Close quarters with forty-thousand people seven hundred dragons was not appealing in the slightest.
The stadium had three tiers to accommodate not only tens of thousands of people, but all variety of dragon breeds.
Heavy and middleweights were already crowding the lowest level, their height giving them a clear view over the rows of seats occupied with humans that decidedly weighed less than twenty-five tons. The third tier, the nosebleed seats, were more popular for the smaller lights and ultralights. It was closest to the sky, and with eyes that could read a street sign from fifty meters up, they missed very little. The retractable roof stayed closed, of course, for ticket counting and to safely manage the influx of spectators.
Cef and Samaritan sat down together on the middle tier, and as the seats around them filled he noticed a higher volume of dragons than you usually saw when the college games were on TV. After students had been given first grabs, tickets were made available for the public; there must have been dragons flying in from all over the Republic, or like Cloud Chaser and Ash, from America, México, and Canada.
The number and variety of them was staggering. Hundreds dragons of all sizes and breeds in a plethora of color. He could spot Viceroys, Arikara, Ashcrofts, Gros Ventres, Hi-Ryu, Palmettos, Shen-Lung, Montana Flatheads, even a few South Americans with their flamboyant feathers.
All to see one dragon.
To save the football field's grass the trauma of dragon footfalls, raised platforms had been erected over it to form a kind of stage. On it was a podium with the University's crest and a long conference table for the other speakers. Mostly professors from the school that had some interest or academic background related to the lecture.
Cef was only able to recognize a few of them personally. The most obvious was Herr Lotharius, a surly old Prussian that taught several high-level history courses. He was a bit infamous for threatening to devour at least one problem student per semester, but as far as history professors went, you couldn't do much better than one with as many doctorates as he had bullets stuck in him from the Franco-Prussian War.
Sam nudged him with a wingtip. “Cef. He awed. “There he is.”
As the guest of Honor, Temeraire sat at the center of the line of gathered professors, posture straight-back and regal. Whoever still thought that larger-breed dragons were clumsy brutes would bite their tongues at the sight of him. One of only two living Celestials on earth, the companions of the old Chinese Imperial Family. His head was framed by a distinguished webbed ruff, and his snout ending with two long tendrils maybe as long as Cef was tall, giving him the appearance of a wise, bearded elder. The only ornament he wore was a platinum breastplate set with nacreous pearls that offset the glossy black of his hide.
Sam gawked, absolutely enraptured “Oh. Oh wow. He looks so different than his picture. Such a nice coloring. And those scars.”
“Pretty sure he's a bit too big for you, Sam,” Cef said. “And I don't think he's the egg-robber type.”
“S-sh-shut up! It's not like that!” His head flattened, a gesture as plain as a blush. “But I mean...” He added meekly. “He is very...elegant, isn't he?”
Cef couldn't argue with that- even if he didn't share a hormonal fixation with old scars from claws and artillery shrapnel.
Temerarie was beyond stunning. It was difficult not to be a little swept up in his legend. How many other dragons had sailed the world, been at the center of so many world-changing events, pioneered the emancipation of dragons, and set the course of an entire century before they were ten ?
Dragons and people spent their whole lives just trying to live up to the legacy of Temeraire's first few years. Now he was just...there. In person. Cef felt almost in a daze by the surreal, dreamlike quality of it. A force of nature right out of the pages of books and History Channel reels making small-talk with Dr. Oliván as if he wasn't older than the country he was standing in and hadn't once given Kaiser Wilhelm a brutal tongue-lashing.
Cef touched Sam's flank for support. “Holy shit Sam it's Temeraire.”
Just the sight of Temeraire, even from a distance, brought out a wall of snapping phones and social media updates. A few rows down, Cef saw a dragon tap his claws at the empty air, working a keyboard only he saw through the smart-visor over his eye like a monocle.
Cef only vaguely recognized the first person to come to the podium. His faced was beamed onto the stadium's enormous video screen, but failed to jostle his memory.
He introduced himself as the University President- Doctor Vallejo- although what he was a doctor of was never made clear. The phones lowered like a collective sigh, and the entire stadium bore through the administrative drone of Dr. Vallejo boasting of school- which was of course honored to host such an esteemed guest- and its long history pioneering equality in education for every citizen of the Republic. Sam rolled his eyes and mimed clawing at neck with his own talons. Cef snorted back a laugh, as if they were in class and the President were only a few rows away rather than a hundred meters.
The ragged applause when he finally concluded was at least genuine, and picked up with more enthusiasm as Professor Lung Ma Jia elegantly sauntered past Vallejo to the podium.
She was a petite vermilion-spotted Chinese breed, no larger than a horse. Cef hadn't yet managed to enroll into one of her classes yet. They were in huge demand and tended to fill up quickly, but he'd sat in at a few other presentations and lectures she'd spoken at. Being one of North America's foremost sociologists and draco-anthropologists, the University went out of its way to keep her and her stream of publications in-house.
An aid adjusted the height of the microphone for her. The phones re-emerged in anticipation.
“Thank you, Dr. Vallejo. This gathering tonight is the fruit of many departments working together, with months of phone calls, correspondence, board meetings, and poor sleepless TAs.” A collective chuckle, from the professors behind her. “Without all their hard work I would not have the very distinct privilege to welcome our Most Distinguished guest speaker this evening. He certainly requires no introduction, but I am still compelled to make an attempt:
“He is the veteran of four wars- and a proponent of peace against a dozen more. His debates with the likes of Lord Pembridge and Reverend Salcombe brought the personhood of dragons to the public forum. He was one of the first dragons to address Parliment, and among the first to serve a term in the House of Commons. With his influence in both England to China, he has been the greatest bridge between the East and the West.
“He has spoken frankly to Emperors, Kings, Presidents, Prime Ministers, and Tsars. He was the Savior of Dunkirk, defended England in her darkest hour, and helped negotiate the Treaty that ended the Korean Civil War.
“He is an activist, an academic, a solider, poet, writer, playwright, orator, legislator, and diplomat. Please, join me in welcoming tonight: Lung Tien Xiang, better known as Temeraire.”
The stadium applauded uproariously, humans clapping and dragons tapping their claws on the floor. Several, like Professor Ma Jia, bowed their heads. It lacked the kowtow and reverence it would have had a century ago, but was still the respect traditionally due for a Celestial.
Temeraire did not approach the podium. He spoke clearly without a microphone, voice carrying enough for the third tier. Cef almost shuddered with the thought that Temeraire could burst the eyeballs and ears of half the stadium if he wanted. Instead, he merely stood up straighter, fan-like wings shifting, and raised his head to better address the audience.
With the same voice that broke the Luftwaffe , Temeraire airily said, “Thank you for such a kind introduction, Professor. Although you did neglect to mention the heavy-metal band I formed with Sir Christopher Lee.”
Laughter rippled through the audience. Professor Ma sardonically inclined her head in apology.
“It has been a long while since I have been to Los Ángeles. The city has grown so much I can hardly recognize it, save for the familiar weather and warm hospitality. But it is so much more amazing to see such an overwhelming crowd that has come to listen and contribute to the dialogue of equality for dragons and humans around the world.
“When I was hatched, dragons in Europe were considered mere beasts to be tolerated only for warfare, their speech no more remarkable than a parrot. Women lacked simple liberties for no more reason than their sex. Entire cultures were enslaved and considered property by men that fancied themselves their betters, and people who felt a pull of love different from the norm lived in perpetual shame and secrecy. It is easy for all you students and young dragons here to look back at these times as if they are long passed, but these injustices are still in living memory. Not only for dragons with long lives, but the descendants of slaves who still live with the lingering evils of an eradicated institution, the mothers and grandmothers who stood for suffrage and equal opportunity, and the daughters who make their own stand today.
“I feel proud to have witnessed the world go through such phenomenal changes as we have here today, represented by so many diverse cultures and breeds living and interacting in a curious and unique amalgam stronger than the sum of its parts. But we must not allow ourselves to lapse into self-congratulation- not when there is still so much left to be done.
“Hatred and prejudice is not extinct, nor is it the bygone embarrassing anachronisms we haughtily consider ourselves above, now. Not while Putin's Russia persecutes and brutalizes dragons and sexual minorities that speak out against him. Not while we give the Sultanate free license to harshly restrict dragons and half their population for the price of oil. Not with the growing censorship and wage-slavery in China, or the abduction of eggs by South American guerrillas to force hatchlings to be their living weapons to set loose against innocent civilians. Nor are we so evolved and beyond reproach, with growing wealth inequalities, the simultaneous prosecution and exploitation of immigrants, or the inconsistent legal protections for sexual and gender minorities.
“There will be no fast or easy solutions. Just as Emancipation, suffrage, and landmark court cases were the product of decades of grueling activism and politicking, the challenges today will not be overcome in the span of a news cycle."
Temeraire paused. Cef, Samaritan, and all the thousands breathing around them barely made a sound. He sighed a little wanly. “That sounds a bit harsh, doesn't it? I'm sorry. One tends to get a little pessimistic after a century or two. But speaking to you all, receiving letters, emails, and tweets from so many young people and dragons- to experience your passion, your awareness, all your creativity and new ideas- never fails to restore my optimism for the future. It always seems the way for the old to lambaste the young, to look back nostalgically at times that only seem better with the fog of years and the luxury of hindsight. Things were not so very different back then, and things have changed so very much. I was privileged to know so many remarkable people; called some of them friends. And I can say with only the highest compliment that I see them, and their legacy, in all of you.”
Temeraire's speech lost the carriage of something rehearsed, and was no less eloquent for its raw sincerity. Most of it was familiar to anyone who might have obsessively poured through his memoirs and essays three or four times. There were stories and anecdotes told in places and time periods like scenes from some great, unreleased play.
He had a tendency to downplay his own participation, as if he had been a passenger or spectator that had been thrust into random moments of significance with some of history's big names; portraits and grand monuments into flesh and blood people. There was Napoleon, of course, and the twist of fate that delivered Temeraire's egg out of his hands. “In hindsight, it was a sad irony that a dictator and a war monger did more for dragonkind than the Alliance of 'free nations' that opposed him.”
Or there was Queen Victoria, who was a “strong but very melancholy woman. A bit too proper, if you ask me. The only time I ever saw her smile was around her children, and of course Viviane. I could think of no better dragon to be a Companion to the Royal Family than her.” The likes of Otto von Bismarck was “first man who'd ever beaten me in a game of chess,” and Sir Churchill was “a dragon in a man's clothing, and you can take that as you will.”
There were bittersweet reminiscences of old friends, names that raised eyebrows of recognition: that famous story at a book tour with Samuel Clemens, or a delightful pen-pan in Helen Keller- though their first meeting had the difficult beginning after she tugged a bit hard one of his tendrils. “Oh, it is not that funny,” he chastised the stadium, which of course only made them laugh harder.
There were also the not-so famous, the anonymous and unheard. People whose hardship and lives would have faded into obscurity were it not for the endorsement of a dragon that never forgot his friends. A humble immortality.
One name remained conspicuously absent. The hint of it gleamed silently on Temeraire's breastplate, dented and worn from long years but still devotedly burnished to a pristine shine.
Claws tapped and hands clapped persistently when Temeraire finally thanked the crowd for their time, and kept going even as Professor Ma made her way back to the podium and announced that they would be fielding questions to Temeraire and the other gathered experts. Not being an ordinary venue for a lecture, the stadium was a difficult location for the audience to just stand up and shout. She explained most of the questions had already been asked through emails, tweets, and the event's web page. Perfectly impartial if underpaid TAs, she clarified, had sifted through which ones would be posted up on the jumbo-screen, with Temeraire and the rest of the professors not privy to them beforehand.
Cef had tried his luck, yesterday. Something brief and hopefully not what a thousand other people would ask.
The first was an email from a young Sophomore. Professor Ma read it aloud:
'What is your opinion of Christopher Mackey's latest book where he proposed that the post-industrial advancement of military technology making Aerial Corps obsolete helped contribute to dragon equality by forcing them into civilian roles and integrating them into society?'
“Oh, an excellent starting question,” Temeraire approved.
Herr Lotharius snorted. “The flimsy conclusions of a scholar who has never seen a real war. Hmph, obsolete! When ships started getting iron plating instead of wood, we just started carrying better bombs to hit them with. I daresay my crew were plenty deadly on the Western Front with a few machine guns- far better than those silly biplanes they sent after us. And more recently- those Vietnamese lightweights. Yes, they became notoriously skilled at knocking helicopters out of the sky.”
“Quite right,” Temeraire agreed. “The thesis only holds together by treating dragons a military hardware rather than soldiers. Many things could be said of Napoleon -and I've said a great deal of them- but he made as many advancements for dragons in European society as he did on the battlefield. Nowadays a thirty-ton heavyweight may not be much use against a jet fighter, but I think it's quite inconsiderate of Mr. Mackey to so completely discount the dragons serving right now as scouts, engineers, translators, peacekeepers, or paramedics. The idea that dragons are only suited for war, and invited to join civilized society only after their use in war ran up, that kind of notion is what I find obsolete.”
A smattering of applause and the murmurs of indistinct little conversations scattered up and down the tiers until Professor Ma called up the next question, this one about how dragon and their advocates were being excluded from the other political movements in Russia.
Dr. Fei Yinghe spoke first, the text on the screen listings her credentials as a sociologist. “Of course, the experience of- for instance- a woman or a gay man in Russia is a very different from the experiences and trials of being dragon in Russia. To mesh them all together would lose the coherency and of each groups' messages, or outright subordinate whole sections of it.”
“A fair point, but I think their reluctance could be more easily boiled down to simple prejudice,” Dr. Holberg suggested. “Either their own prejudice against dragons, which is sadly the norm in Russia, or they are afraid that aligning their causes with something as unpopular as dragon-rights would do more harm than banding together would help.”
Temeraire listened raptly to their back and forth until politely adding a comment of his own. “Both are likely arguments, to be sure. I certainly cannot assume to know the plight of someone in a country I haven't visited in over thirty years. While their experiences and circumstances may be distinct, that is no reason for there not to be some level of overlap and cooperation. The Suffrage of dragons was very different from the Abolitionist cause, and some of them recoiled for fear that association of something so radical as dragons voting would hurt the movement. Still, many others like Mr. Wilberforce were sympathetic, and others welcomed us as well as women into the movement, which even back then was an unpopular decision.
“In any case, if Putin's regime is so intolerant towards dragons, non-heterosexuals, and anyone critical of the government, there stands to reason there are a few non-heterosexual dragons with some strong opinions about Putin, as well.”
That brought out a few laughs among the crowd and the professors.
More questions were fielded to the entire panel, instead of to Temeraire exclusively. The topics were broad in range, and though Temeraire would speak up with his own little observation or opinions, he was also just as content to listen to the other professors discuss and debate with the rest of the audience.
One brought the issue of still classifying dragons by breed. Professor Ma Jia pointed out that in China, breed was about social status and lineage, whereas in the West the word 'breed' could be used interchangeably to describe a dragon or a dog. A not altogether flattering comparison.
Professor Oliván refuted this, to Sam's delight. “Yes, but Chinese culture also treats dragons of mixed lineage with disdain and even with outright pariah status. The word 'breed' may not be perfect, but North American dragons have been pulling away from the tradition of selective breeding for the past century into more natural and diverse varieties.”
There was the overhunting of Pacific Sea Serpents- their aggression against shipping and the fishing industry steadily worsening as their hunting grounds were fished, a very intense debate about the place of dragons in Islam, and the factors that could be behind the recent resurgence of draco-phobic hate groups. “Such sentiment always seems to rear up again during economic difficulties,” Herr Lotharius recalled grimly.
Eventually, the Q&A had to be concluded in the interest of time, Professor Ma said to a chorus of groans. For last remarks, she turned to Temeraire and asked, “Is there anything you'd like to leave us with?”
He'd been quiet for the last few topics, and almost perked in surprise at the question. “Hm? Oh, I do not know. I don't have some easily digestible sound-bite or quotable aphorism to impart. People like to place a great deal of unearned credit on me because I'm old, and did a lot of things most people weren't around for, so they put it all into books and call 'history.' As if the dragons of Europe were lost sheep or ignorant, as if all you have to do is say things to get the world to change.
“All I did was complain with the other dragons at the covert about the herders being late with our meals, and only said how easy it would be if we opened the gate and fed ourselves. Or I said that it was unpleasant to sleep outside, sometimes, or how convenient it would be to have a little gold around to enjoy or even buy things. Some dragons agreed and disagreed, and said things of their own. Our captains said things too, and our crews, and before long the government became very 'concerned' with all the talking that was going on, when before there wasn't.”
His talons absently fiddled with his breastplate. “Perhaps things would have turned out differently, might have made the conversation different, had I not been there. But that is a very different than suggesting it would not have happened at all.”
Temeraire swept his head around, and for a split second, Cef felt as if those hunter's eyes- deep blue and with black slits- were fixed squarely on him. “You cannot change the world,” Temeraire told him. “No one can. Not alone. So go out there and do more than just talk. Join the conversation.”
The applause was deafening. Human and dragon voices cheered, booming loud and dragging so long that they all almost missed the announcement that Temeraire would be staying to sign autographs and take photographs.
No surprise, Sam was ecstatic and leapt at the change to meet Temeraire in person. Maybe even have him put his mark on the copy of his book Sam had indeed packed away in his vest. Called it.
Cef's pessimism won out over his excitement. Ushers and stadium security restricted them to a slow march from their seats through the concrete bowels of the stadium, where a crew was busy rearranging the stage. A queue of over three hundred dragons and people was already forming on the football field. He did the mental math, factored-in the steadily growing line, a conservative thirty seconds to a minute of time with Temeraire to cherish per-person, and checked how much time was left before the stadium officially closed its doors.
At least he was more prepared when the users counted down the queue, made a hand chopping hand motion like they could sever the crowd, and declared that the cut-off point for autographs was a good twenty meters ahead of where Sam and him were waiting. This was why Cef hated math.
Poor Sam was inconsolable. “It's not fair! If only we'd gotten downstairs a little faster!”
Sam bumped his forehead into him. Cef sighed and cradled Sam's head, which was almost as large as a man's torso, to his chest. “I'm sorry runt, I know how much you were looking forward to this.” He stroked his fingers on the softer scales just under his jaw. Cef's heart thumped against Sam's head while his huge nostrils huffed tickling breath on his stomach.
“Awww. How come you never cuddle me like that, Cloud?”
“I'm saving it for the day I plan to accidentally crush you. It will be tragic.”
Cef nodded to Ash and Cloud Chaser, trying to play casual with a moping dragon snuffling into his shirt. “Hey guys.”
“Didn't make the cut either, huh?” She guessed.
“No.” Sam mumbled despondently.
“Yeah,” she shrugged. “Us neither. Still worth it though, just to see him.” Cloud Chaser hummed agreement.
“Are you guys going back to Denver right away?” Cef asked.
Cloud Chaser shook his head. “We were hoping to find a cheap hostel, maybe a hotel. At least stay to tomorrow night and see the city a little.”
“How about you guys?” Ash tilted her head fondly at the spectacle Samaritan was making them.
“Knowing Sam, we're probably going to Chinatown so he can eat half his body weight in comfort food.” The invitation was there, a dryness on his lips. This time, he couldn't blame Sam for being too forward. “You're welcome to join us, if you'd like.”
Her grin said the answer before she even looked up. “What do you think, Cloud?”
“I think food.”
Los Ángeles at night was a grid of bright lights and roads like circuitry flowing beneath them. Sam flew leisurely for Cloud Chaser to keep pace, his mood already somewhat improved by the altitude and the view.
Downtown LA and Old Chinatown made for strange neighbors. Towering glass spires and skyscrapers with hanging balconies for dragons to perch like gargoyles adjacent to low, slanted roofs, cobblestone streets, and pavilions that went as far back as the first Chinese settlers a hundred-and-fifty years ago.
They landed in a bustling square, the roads wide enough to allow two heavyweights to comfortably walk abreast. Even on a weeknight the avenues were crowded with humans and dragons, the background chatter of Mandarin, Spanish, English, and First Nation tongues mixing in the air with the aromas of roasting beef and huge cuts of pork sizzling on dragon-sized grills.
Cef loved coming here. His grasp of Chinese approached something resembling passable, but with the abundance of polyglottal dragons the language barrier was never much of an obstacle. He went for the atmosphere, a piece of old world China that had been transplanted and grew into something unique all its own, even after the original had been swallowed by modernization and revolutions. Everything was spread out, open to the air, bathed in neon and hanging lanterns, free of exhaust and absent of anything motorized that was larger than an electric scooter or the occasional cart.
Ash passed by stands and storefronts that had evolved specifically to ensnare hapless tourists. “Whoa, check out some of these dragon statues. Hey Cloud, think John or Wild-Tail might like one of these?”
“I think I would like some food in me before you drag me around to see every shop.”
Activity blurred around them. Some teenagers crowded together for a selfie in front of worn qilin statue standing guard at an old temple. People ate at noodle stands and gossiped, old men played xiangqi while older dragons hovered over them offering commentary. A man and his pine-colored companion haggled with a vendor in mixed Spanish and Serrano while three excitable hatchlings with sturdy cords attached to their harnesses were pulled along by their mother. On the street-corner, a red-scaled police officer gave directions to some tourists. A Japanese Azure, her elaborate kimono made from hundreds of square feet of fabric, walked elegantly down the road without a centimeter of it brushing against the ground.
Cloud halted, having spotted a small dragon utterly dwarfed by her wings, which popped with gorgeous white, orange, and black patterns like a butterfly.
Cef noted his interest. “Those aren't tattoos, she's a Mariposa Major. Her wings are naturally like that.”
Sam turned down the street into an alley that was narrow by Chinatown standards. They had to step aside for an ultralight in a handicapped harness, chatting with the young girl on his back.
The end of the alley opened to a hexagonal pavilion, dragon-scratched cobblestone ringed by raised wooden flooring and tables as long as each of its eight sides. A woman came up to them and bowed, making inquiries in heavily-accented Spanish. Sam answered her in Mandarin. The woman bowed again and led them to an open table. Cef and Ash sat down on wooden floor, feeling undersized at a table over ten meters across. Its size became much more practical once the dragons settled down on the cobblestone floor on the table's opposite side.
“If you like, I can order for the both of you,” Sam offered Ash and Cloud.
“By all means,” he nodded.
Their waitress was patient while Cef stumbled through his order and hoped he didn't mangle his pronunciation too much. Samaritan ordered for their guests and himself with courteous efficiency. After the waitress bowed and left, Ash asked him just how many languages he knew.
“Oh, I learned English, Mandarin, and Spanish in shell. At school I took some Chumash, and I'm working on Japanese right now.”
“He won't be happy until he can pester everyone he meets in their native language,” Cef said. Sam stuck out his long, forked tongue at him.
They chatted a bit, as they waited. Ash and Samaritan were more avid fans of Temeraire himself rather than the two hundred years of the history and politics he had to his name. They stuck with discussing dragon breeds, Samaritan proudly boasting a tangled lineage of five or six completely different breeds, while across the table Cloud Chaser and Cef resumed one of the night's debates that had been cut short; no less spirited in its second wind until it was again put on hold for the arrival of their food.
A small team of men had to heft the dragons' food onto the table. Saucers of steaming tea, bowls of rice porridge large enough for a person to climb into, an entire side of beef glistening with savory orange sauce, and cowheads prepared and served separately, as a special treat.
Conversation was put on hold as the dragons devoured their meals. For having never used them before, Ash got the hang of chopsticks remarkably fast.
It wasn't any harder than surgery, she explained breezily. Back in the States, she was a physician at an inter-tribal dragon clinic and was perfectly comfortable discussing blood and open wounds as she picked at her rice. “It's a good thing I love the job, because it's a bitch and a half. You ever try to get a fifteen ton sick dragon to do something they didn't want to do?” Cef plainly raised his eyebrows at the prominent scars on her arms. “Oh, they don't hurt anyone on purpose. They're just so big, it happens on accident, no avoiding. Everyone's always worried about the talons and the teeth, when they should be paying attention to their wings. Even getting clipped by them can crack a rib if you're not careful. And don't get me started on their tails, the twitchy bastards.”
Cef was intensely curious about how Cloud fit, but it would have been beyond rude to ask if they were companions. A dragon was free to carry an ordinary friend on their back without assumptions being made.
Cloud was the one to volunteer some tidbits, finally coming up from his dinner and swallowing noisily. He was a ranger, something like a sheriff and a caretaker for one of the large preserves on the outskirts of Denver. “She was standing-in for one of my usual tattooists. My wings needed touching-up and people told me she had the steadiest hands in the business.”
“Kinda have to, when you're handling someone's wings,” Ash said humbly. Cloud added, “Even maintenance is a bit time consuming, and when you're stuck together for a few hours, you either sit quietly or find something to talk about.”
“But enough about us,” Ash propped her elbows on the table. “What's the story with you two?”
Cef tried his best to preempt him. “Sam's sire is an old family-”
“He's my Captain!” Sam said cheerfully.
“Stop telling people that,” he groaned. God, how embarrassing. His face felt hot as Ash giggled and Cloud rumbled a laugh. A dragon captain, who even said that anymore? Hopeless Temeraire fanboys, that's who.
“It's not like that,” Cef insisted. “Sam's sire and my bisabuelo flew paramedic runs together in the war. After they came home Eli sort of...stuck around and became a member of the family.”
“That's how I got my name!” Sam said proudly. “Dad named me after the hospital ship they served on, the Samaritan .”
“A dragon named after a ship,” Cloud Chaser mused. “I wonder where I heard that before?”
“Don't look at me, I didn't choose it. Well,” he amended, after a thought. “I suppose technically I did, but Dad was the one to suggest it.”
“So you guys have known each other your whole lives?” Ash asked.
Cef shook his head, as much as it felt like his entire life. “I was a teenager when Eliphalet showed up at home with his egg. Thirteen, I think?”
“Twelve,” Sam corrected. He leaned conspiratorially to Ash and Cloud. “He used to read to me when I was still in the shell.”
“Oh my God Sam stop talking ,” he hid his face in his hands to the indignity of Ash's cooing 'Aaaaaawwws.'
“It's the privilege of family,” Cloud Chaser said with old fondness. “My brother and I were the same way.”
Ash went quiet, as if shocked he had brought up the subject. Sam tilted his head inquiringly. Cef knew that many tribes had wider definitions of family; Cloud Chaser's brother could have been a dragon with a shared parent, a dragon of no blood relation, or even a human. To them there was no difference. The use of a past tense though, that made him uncertain to ask.
Cloud saw the unspoken question. He hooked a necklace that had been lost amid the straps of his harness and pulled it into easier viewing. It was made of rows of roped beads, some unremarkable but colorful, along with a scattering of brightly polished rocks, pearls, and silver, fringed with what looked like feathers from a bird of prey. A gift from a Companion. “He died before any of you were born. We made it through that mess in Korea together without a scratch, and it was those damn cigarettes that got him, instead. Stubborn idiot.”
“I'm...so sorry. Really.” Cef said. “We lost my great-grandfather when I was little.” He reached into his hoody and pulled the ringing dog tags out to join Cloud's memento. “Eli gave these to me, instead of keeping them for himself like any other dragon would have. Its been years, but you can still tell how hard it is on him.”
“Yes,” Cloud said wanly, and gave Samaritan an unreadable look. “One never really gets over the first, do they?”
After dinner, Cloud Chaser picked up the check, insisting it was the least he could do. Emails and phone numbers were exchanged, with nascent plans for Cef and Samaritan to make the journey across the Mojave visit them so they could return the favor. The humans shook hands, Ash hugged Sam's neck, and Cloud Chaser nudged him with fondly with his nose.
At the end of the narrow alley, they hit the main avenue and turned in separate directions.
Sam was uncharacteristically silent on the flight back to the dorms. Cef supposed that without the bulwark of extra people, the night's disappointment was still a bit tender. The glitter of LA was behind them, and the roads thinned of light and traffic.
He had to land carefully in the parking lot, with only a few measly street-lamps to see by. Cef slid off, lingered on tying Sam's scarf the way he liked it.
“Sorry again we couldn't meet him.”
“Hmm?” Sam looked down at him distractedly. “Oh, it's quite alright, I'll get over it. It was still nice to see him, and we made some new friends to boot.”
“That too.” Satisfied that the scarf was in place, Cef gave his neck a parting pat. “Are you busy Saturday? We can catch a movie, if you want.”
“I'd like that.”
“Cool, I'll see you then. Fly safe, okay?” He turned to go, made it nearly to the door when Sam called out to him.
“Cef? Could we really- I mean, when summer comes around. Could we really do that trip? Not just visiting Cloud and Ash in Denver, but spending the whole summer flying cross-country together, just the two of us?”
“It sounds like it'd be fun, but it's also so late that it's...tomorrow, right now. And anyways, summer isn't until seven months from now. We got time.”
“Oh. Yeah, I guess so.”
“You okay? You're acting weird. Er.”
“I'm fine. Really. You're right, we have plenty of time. Go get some sleep. I'll see you on Saturday.”
Cef wasn't entirely convinced, but gave Sam a last parting wave before heading back into his dorm. Then it was the heavier echoes of his weary feet in the concrete stairway, blinking in the hourless florescent of the hallway, and wrestling with his keys.
It was only when he got to his dorm and fell into bed that he finally heard his window rattle with the departing flaps of dragon-wings in the night.