Actions

Work Header

Yellow Emperor

Work Text:

George is the one who has it first; where he gets it from Laurence never does learn.

“Luck is important on the sea,” he says, as though this first son of a lord should know any such thing. “If you are determined to run off, you will need luck.”

Laurence does not think much of luck – not at this point in his life – but he thinks much better of the sincere well-wishes of an oldest brother. He takes the proffered gift with thanks.

It is a pearl – shining, white, perfectly oval. Preposterously large. It cannot be real, Laurence thinks, but if he imagines George has been taken as a fool by some merchant he does not say so. “I will treasure it,” he says honestly.

And when he flees to the Navy a year later it stays tucked away in his pocket. Sometimes he imagines, on the darkest nights, that it almost feels warm.


 

Some of the men in the Navy make odd comments about Laurence. “Too fancy for the ocean,” is a common grumble; but there is no trouble, because his hard work, his sharpness, makes up for the time he labors over the neatness of his uniform. Even if the midshipmen do look at him askance, the strange cabin-boy with his neatly pressed shirts and multitude of cravats.

He enjoys the crow's nest, which is a boon; not every sailor has the head for it. Laurence wasn't sure he would, either. He's never enjoyed heights, though he isn't a coward either. But many things are different since he joined the navy. Sometimes if he leans out and stares over the rolling waves it feels like he's flying – like the swells will rise up and break over the horizon, consuming the whole world.

Laurence feels that, if they did, he could outpace them.


 

Receiving pay is a strange thing. Laurence is no stranger to money, or conversely to restrictions – Lord Allendale is not a man to spoil his sons, despite his great wealth – but dealing with his own finances is new, despite the training of his youth. When the ship docks for the first time after setting out Laurence meets with a banker and withdraws part of his pay. Then, after seeing the coins, he withdraws more against the advice of the clerk. He withdraws everything.

He toys with the gold and silver while walking through town, half-dreamy. Pride is not a trait he has had often, nor vanity. But the gold is very nice, and he is not sure why he has not noticed before.

“'Ello,” someone says. “Is that for us?”

He looks up, startled.

Which is how three men pull him into an ally, pushing him against a wall and taking the pouch of money. One pats down his pockets as Laurence elbows, tears, bites – fails entirely at fighting properly, in other words. He has had some training at fighting but it flees his mind in an instant, and his body feels wrong and small. He twists his neck and catches a man's arm in his teeth; the taste that blossoms in his mouth is like honeyed ham, something flavored by bad wine and coated with the greasy burn of smoke.

They leave him bleeding in the alley, left to pull himself broken and broke back to the ship and the dismayed exclamations of his crewmates.

In more prudent days he decides his funds will do quite well sitting in the bank; it will grow better like that, accumulating interest, and the bankers assure him it will be safe. Laurence tries to think of this steadily-growing pile of gold as a concrete image. Tries to be satisfied with it.

It is never quite the same, though.


 

The itch under his skin comes and goes. For a week, a month, half a year, Laurence talks politely with his crewmates and inquires after their families, asks about the politics in England, plays cards with the midshipmen and ignores when the ensigns try to smuggle by an extra ration of grog.

Then one day, quite abruptly (there are cannons, fires, hot rice in a shop and a stern merchantmen under a foreign banner) he tilts his head at a fellow sailor who struggles with the many buttons of his coat. He asks, “Whyever should men not wear dresses? Simple ones. It seems much more sensible, and more like...” He pauses.

The man gapes at him. With a moment of disconnect, Laurence is appalled at himself. He apologizes, moves away. Forgets the incident.

The next day he is granted liberty and spends it sleeping half-tangled up in the ship's rigging, the sun beating down on his bare face, while sailors scuttle around the deck beneath like a fine orchestra.


 

The Shorewise is a beautiful ship, with sleek angles and ropes well-worn but clearly cared for. Her officers are prompt, efficient. It would be a decent posting if not for Captain Barstowe.

Barstowe hates, hates, hates Lieutenant Laurence. Laurence met him with perfect civility, hand outstretched, bowing his respect, and somehow this was worse than if he had spat in the man's eye. Gruff friendliness is the manner of the ship. The officers work well but not necessarily professionally, which is no horrible loss – but Barstowe takes it as a personal attack when Laurence bows, when Laurence smooths his neckcloth, when Laurence tucks his sleeves.

Laurence will not, however, compromise himself for one man's pettiness.

So when Barstowe sets him on the deck for two days in a gale, shivering in the crow's nest and 'watching for enemy vessels' without break or food, he does not complain. When he is sentenced to fifteen strokes for 'insolence' upon providing a course-correction, he merely nods his head and thanks the quartermaster for being gentle.

He catches a rat the third day after his rations are cut and it is small enough to fit into his mouth whole. He doesn't think about the act until it is done, the rancid fur thick and muffled against his tongue; by then any natural distaste for the action is overwhelmed by curiosity.

He wonders inanely what Barstowe would think of his 'manners' if he saw this, and the thought prompts him to continue until the rat disappears.

Laurence is summoned to the captain's cabin three months into his service with the man. The captain paces to and fro; outside, in the quiet evening, all the sailors have largely been dismissed.

“I have heard the rumors,” Barstowe says at last. In his pacing he turns around the room and twists to place himself between Laurence and the door.

“Sir?”

“The rumors – they all tell me, they all know - “

“I beg your pardon, Sir. I do not know what you mean.”

“The mutiny. I know about it – what you are doing – I know you are planning to oust me, to be rid of me, to – to - “

And this is when Laurence realizes that Barstowe is actually insane.

He registers the thought calmly. He takes a step back when Barstowe advances – not from fear, but wariness. The man continues to ramble. “I will not allow it, I will not – you upstart, think you can come here, you - “

“Sir, you are unwell.”

“I will kill you first.”

Then Barstowe has a knife – he is lunging, he is so very large, and Laurence feels irrationally angry. This man thinks he can kill him, for – for what? Existing, being better? Being more?

Standing straight, he roars.


 

“Well,” says the Ship's Surgeon. Behind him the First Lieutenant is shaking his head, keeping back a press of gawkers. The surgeon presses his hand over the captain's bleeding eyes, touches his oozing ears. “Well,” he says again. “Did you see what happened to him?”

And Laurence has no answer.


 

At the Battle of the Nile the British have thirteen ships, the French seventeen. But it takes all of Laurence's efforts to focus on his duties. Above the sea dragons spar in wild bursts of talons and teeth; the Turkish Kaziliks pull away from the greater French numbers to swoop over the enemy fleet, flames roaring behind their maws.

“Good lord,” someone says, horrified. “Have you ever seen the like?”

“I have never seen so many dragons,” another says. “I have never seen such fearsome dragons - “

“That must be the strongest dragon ever.”

Laurence looks around, twisting his body. But there are no more dragons; just the Kaziliks, a Longwing, and some other common British breeds. And the French beasts, of course, who he completely disregards.

Then he realizes the speaker is watching one of the Kaziliks. That? The strongest dragon ever?

Laurence returns to his work, and he cannot explain even to himself the anger, the wrongness, seeping through his bones.


 

On the Reliant, Laurence understands immediately that the black dragon will ignore Carver. Carver is nervous, insignificant, weak. Carver is not -

“Come, Huangdi, be glad; one day we will rule together, and make the Empire great - “

- Carver is not meant to be an aviator.

The black dragon rears his head and blinks his wide blue eyes. His talons are perfect, his wings strong and straight. He has the bearing of a prince, and even something more.

So why is he here, then, on the ocean?

And why does Laurence know him?

The black dragon looks at Laurence unerringly. He speaks, and for some reason his cultured English makes a vice close around Laurence's heart.

“Why are you frowning?”


 

Laurence designs a great platinum breastplate for Temeraire and visits a jeweler. In the very center, cold and shining, he puts a well-worn pearl that has stayed with him for over eighteen years.


 

The conditions at the coverts are truly abominable. Laurence tells himself that the aviators know what they are about, but somehow this is little comfort with men like Rankin strutting about and lecturing on the 'proper place' of dragons.

Temeraire is more concerned that they will be separated. “I do not like the tricks they keep pulling. Again and again they try to keep us apart – you had best stay right by my side, and I will bite anyone who tries to take you,” he decides imperiously.

“That is hardly a lasting solution, dear.”

“But then you shall certainly be safe,” Temeraire says, as though this decides the matter.

“Temeraire, I am not a - “

- a shell bursting like porcelain, shards clinking on white tiles, a thin snout peering out of the darkness. Yellow eyes look upon the world, and the world is an opulent palace.

“You do not look like the others,” says the dragon to the prince.

“Laurence?” asks Temeraire.

“...not a child,” says Laurence finally.


 

“Sometimes, Laurence, I do not think we are in the right place at all,” Temeraire says. “But when I say as much everyone looks at me so very queerly, and only asks where else I would be.”

Laurence is quiet a moment. “Sometimes I do not think we are even alive in the right time,” he says.

“Yes,” says Temeraire. “Yes, Laurence, that is it exactly.”


 

They race forward as Napoleon's forces labor toward the English coast. The French dragons bear a tremendous burden with their huge wooden transports of soldiers and cannons, but the escorts around the channel – and how Napoleon has mustered such a force of dragons, Laurence can only wonder – do quite well enough to harass the English.

Then Temeraire sweeps forward. Temeraire, his sides trembling, swelling, the skin of his back growing taut. His neck straightens. Laurence, perhaps, is the only one to understand what is happening – the only one to recognize in some dim way the same force that led to a man's death not so many years ago.

When Temeraire roars, they roar together.


 

The room swelters, and Laurence eyes the Chinese ponderously. Several of them look familiar; he has never seen them before in his life. The admiral is sweating, thick drops rolling down his skin. At Laurence's side the man named Arthur Hammond prattles about travel arrangements, preparations, and how grateful England is for an opportunity to show their respect to the Jiaqing Emperor.

One of the Chinese men turns to another. “These Englishmen can scrape, at least,” he says mildly.

“Look at the fat one,” is the response – a reference to the admiral, though the speaker does not glance at him. “He will give us anything, if we are clever.”

“It is neither clever nor polite to insult your hosts in front of them,” Laurence says, temper flaring at this new insult. The men fall silent. The entire room is silent, in fact. Hammond turns to Laurence in astonishment.

“Captain,” he says. “I did not know you spoke Chinese.”


 

The Chinese mean to take Temeraire away. Laurence knows it; Captain Riley knows it; Hammond, Granby, and everyone on the ship can see what is happening. Laurence does not much care. Prince Yongxing is a fool if he thinks Temeraire will ever let such a thing happen.

Still, the insult rankles. Each day at noon the prince comes to the deck with some new Chinese entertainment, apparently designed to entice Temeraire like a child with a bauble. “I will show you Chinese poetry,” he says one day. “Your captain knows no poetry, I am sure.”

Laurence answers,

“At rise of day we sacrificed to the Wind God,

“When darkly, darkly, dawn glittered in the sky.

“Officers followed, horsemen led the way;

“They brought us out to the wastes beyond the town,

“Where river mists fall heavier than rain,

“And the fires on the hill leap higher than the stars.

“Suddenly I remembered the early levees at Court

“When you and I flew to the Purple Yard.

“As we rode our companions up Dragon Tail Way

“We turned and gazed at the green of the Southern Hills.

“Since we parted, both of us have been growing old;

“And our minds have been vexed by many anxious cares;

“Yet even now I fancy my ears are full

“Of the sound of jade tinkling on your riding-straps.”

When he falls silent Yongxing is staring. “That is a translation,” he says. “From a poem from the Shih Ching.”

“Oh, it must be older than that,” Laurence says.

“Much older,” says Temeraire in Cantonese.

Yongxing looks between them and then walks away.


 

The sea-serpent that attacks the Allegience is insensible, enraged by its own private demons. It is also a fearsome foe; even while sailors hack at its spine it threatens the ship. And Temeraire.

The Celestial has a difficult time attacking the sea-serpent without upending the whole vessel, and from his spot on the deck Laurence can see that he is trying. When Temeraire aims for the creature's head, trying to distract it from an attack of several sailors, the serpent turns and latches onto one of Temeraire's wings.

Laurence does not recognize the sound that comes from his own throat.

“Yuwang!”

Temeraire beats back the serpent and tears away. The spindly beast shrieks with pain when its spine is severed, its brilliant orange eyes flickering like dying candles. Laurence looks at the sky again.

Temeraire spirals around the ship in slow, uncertain circles. When he looks down, the sun catches behind his ruff and illuminates his head like the shining edge of a halo.

Or a crown.


 

The Jiaqing Emperor is a grand figure at the end of the hall, splendidly surrounded with all the trappings of state; the throne, the Imperial guards, the rich tapestries and murals. Laurence notices none of these things. He looks at the old Celestial behind the Emperor, then grimly assesses the man.

“You are the Son of Heaven,” he says. “ - a descendent of the Flame Emperors of old?”

Beside him Hammond begins to sputter apologies. Laurence ignores him. After a moment of silence, the Emperor raises his hand and Hammond falls into a petrified silence.

“Yes,” says the Emperor.

“Then you will fulfill your obligation,” says Laurence flatly - and he understands at last why he never argued against coming to China. “Temeraire, give him the pearl.”

Huangdi, oh, do not be sad; I will find you in the next life.”

“Then I will die first again, and grieve a second time.”

“Perhaps not; what if we go to B a í Z é and ask if he might know how to avoid that fate - ?“

The pearl is meant to be unclasped. Laurence takes it from Temeraire's breastplate and holds it forth. An inhale runs around the room. Even the highly-trained guards lean forward. “A dragon pearl?” demands Yongxing.

“Something far more special.”

Hammond is red in the face. Protocol is broken; protocol does not apply. Laurence turns to the Emperor. “This skin is not mine – it has not been mine for decades and millenia. Get rid of it.”

The Emperor looks him in the eye. Slowly, he reaches out to touch the pearl.


 

“Is this very wise, Huangdi?”

“Even death shall not separate us, Yuwang. Not forever. And when it does we shall leave the world as equals.”

The yellow Celestial dwarfs the human party, the Jade throne, even Temeraire and Lung Tien Chu. He tilts his head, swiveling his neck like a man might twist to crack his bones, and then leans back on his haunches. Black striations run up and down his wings, over his belly; the ruff around his head sparks bright orange-gold.

“Oh, Huangdi,” says Temeraire. “You finally look yourself.”

The Emperor and all the guards fall to the ground in kowtow; Hammond falls over for a very different reasons. The yellow dragon reaches forward to nuzzle his young companion with satisfaction.

This is not quite the route he expected to take; but he is with his dearest friend again, with his dearest friend always. And that is enough.

“But how will we remember, Huangdi?”

“I do not fear in the least; only if you are born first, Yuwang, promise that you will find me.”

“Only if you will find me, Huangdi.”

“I will find you, dear friend, if I must search all the oceans in the world.”