The girls are bundled up warmly for winter, and Marie, still young enough to be carried, tilts her head up as the first flakes of snow float down and touch upon her face. They should be getting back to the townhouse soon, George thinks. London bustles with movement in every season, but the weather is unseasonable for such a walk as this.
They are staying with a friend for the week, which is purely a selfish indulgence on George's part. He couldn't bear to part from Marie so soon after her birth and fortunately his wife was of a similar mind. As though hearing this thought Elizabeth looks up and smiles. “Snow,” she enunciates clearly, shifting the baby to one elbow to touch her cheek. “Do you like snow, love?”
“I don't,” mutters his eldest daughter, Claire. She pinches at her dress and sighs.
George grins. “We will return, then,” he concedes, and they start to walk back.
They have to pass over the bridge on the Thames as they go. Small boats trundle along underway, and George watches them with a wistful eye. He cannot help but be recalled to his brother Will when he sees any ship of the sea. Will is a conscientious letter-writer, but his news is infrequent and rarely palatable. Still, it is nothing to sneer at, being a captain; and Will knows enough to keep himself from trouble. He has always been serious, responsible, perfectly respectable. George cannot imagine that ever changing.
If not for this war he would never spare his brother a single worry. George sighs.
The passing thoughts make him anxious, as they sometimes do. “Peter, grab one of those papers, if you would.” His eldest son walks over to a nearby paperboy, cheeks stiff with the cold.
The young lad who hands over the paper is trembling in his shoes, rotten thin things, and George looks away when his son passes the child an extra silver. Peter returns and hands it over. George shakes out the paper and reads as they walk. Then he stops in the middle of the sidewalk.
“What is it?” asks Elizabeth, distracted when Marie gnaws on her necklace. Then she sees the section he's reading: “Oh! The war? Has something happened - “
“It's Will,” says George slowly.
“Is he hurt?”
“He's joined the Corps.”
For once, Elizabeth has no idea what to say.
“Mum,” Claire sighs. “It's cold!”
George Laurence was born with expectations. He was the first son of his father, the heir to a title, an estate. He is certain his mother would have adored a daughter, but for any nobility a son is always preferred as the first child. He frets enough about his own daughters to understand why this is so, even with three elder sons to overlook them.
His younger brother Eustace was destined for the Church, as is customary for all second sons in their family. And Eustace seemed perfect for it – quiet and mostly unremarkable, but a good worker and sincerely interested in learning and philosophizing. George could never have stood it, he thought, watching Eustace with his books and religious texts, the little cross swinging around his neck during study. Will was not suited for that life either.
His mother had wanted a daughter by then. Two sons was well and good; a daughter could keep her company as a son couldn't. But she got Will, and there is no tradition in their family for third sons. He would also go to the church. Except when Will was twelve he ran off to the navy, and even years later George cannot understand the impulse to make a man do that.
Except he does understand Will, a little, and when he thinks of the letter he's received he somehow reconciles to the situation. Will saw that his duty, once, was to serve his country instead of propriety – to join the war effort, where he felt suited, instead of wasting away over unwanted prayer. If he has felt the call of duty again he will join the Corps, too, and damn his own happiness.
George can only hope that his brother grows accustomed to dragons.
One favor of Will's shift in fortune is that he sends letter regularly, now, and never fails to remember his family. He speaks perfectly well of the Corps. He says he is stationed in Scotland, later to Dover, and every few sentences he has a comment for a new name, one that George cannot grasp: Temeraire. The dragon that made Will quit the navy. He tries to picture his brother with a dragon - perhaps gunmetal gray, a slightly oversized version of those couriers that land in the towns.
Whatever Will's fondness for the creature it is odd to hear his remarks. George knows that dragons can talk, but he has never imagined that a dragon like Temeraire “has great fondness for poetry”, to the extent that Will is asking for more creative recommendations. Or that any such creature would “continue to make queries into the state of our government; I have been obliged to find several academic texts on the subject, as I fear my own explanations did not satisfy him.”
Temeraire is apparently very fond of mathematics. George tries to envision a dragon holding a quill, scratching out sums, and fails utterly.
It is pleasant, anyway, to exchange letters with Will and be so sure of an response. He cannot call the Corps safer, but there is at least more sure news from them than the navy. And their fighting invariably happens close to home – sometimes very close, as he finds in November.
He finds it in the morning news before Will ever sends a message. The Battle of Dover, they call it. And there is Captain William Laurence in the papers, all in bold, the hero on a Celestial dragon who saved the fleet and the country. George sends off a letter before his coffee has cooled, and he receives a hasty reply from Will before it has likely even arrived.
Will is perfectly well; so is Temeraire; do not be alarmed by the attack, for the Corps are sure that Napoleon will plot for months if not years before another attempt (George has not even thought about another attempt); and, also, Will is going to China, because apparently the royal family wants Temeraire. On that end, he hints between the lines, there may yet be war with the East.
This is the last George hears from his brother for over a year.
The door is knocked precisely at three and one of the servants rises to answer it. George stays sitting, smiling indulgently at Marie as she plays the piano with her clumsy child-fingers. Elizabeth stifles a laugh behind her hand when their daughter grows too enthused and rushes the last few bars with a huge and ridiculous flourish.
“Lovely, dear,” he says straight-faced. “Much improved.” Claire smiles.
His wife throws him a look which says that he is quite plainly a poor liar.
The servant rushes back in. “Sir, there is an aviator at the door.”
A silence falls immediately. George stares at the man blankly for a moment. Then his senses return and he jolts up. “But why here,” he asks, half confused, and the servant returns his gaze with equal bewilderment. Remembering himself George hurries to the entrance.
A man in a rumpled captain's suit is, indeed, waiting outside. So is his dragon. “We did not mean to startle you, Mr. Laurence,” says the captain, blinking widely at his alarm. “I'm Captain Hollin. I meant to hand the letter to your man, there, but he rushed off...”
“A letter?” George echoes. Indeed, the purple dragon seems to be one of the couriers seen in the city every now and again. Relief sweeps through him. “So this is not about William – Marie, not now, dear.”
Marie toddles behind him and peers out at the courier with wide eyes. The dragon peers back.
“Oh,” says Mr. Hollin. “No, it is not about the Captain, precisely, that is to say - “ George frowns, and the man elaborates; “It's his letter; I just thought to do a kindness, and deliver it directly here instead of to town. I didn't mean to cause a fuss.” Captain Hollin looks a bit embarrassed, and adds, “Captain Laurence helped me get my Elsie.” He glances fondly at the dragon, who perks up. Marie, pouting, making a grabbing motion in the air.
“How nice,” George says automatically.
He surveys the little dragon, who seems to be sniffling a little. He does not know why everyone says the creatures are so frightening. He has never seen one that looks particularly fearsome – although he is sure the talons could be quite damaging – and whenever he finally meets Will's 'Temeraire' he is sure he will be able to be quite cordial.
“So no trouble,” George repeats, accepting the letter.
“Oh, no, Laurence survived all those assassins and bandits with nary a scratch! Good-day - “
“Wait,” George blurts. The letter is clutched in his hands. “I beg your pardon – assassins?”
“Oh,” Hollin says uneasily. The dragon looks between them like she's watching a chess match. “...If you do not know, I am sure it is in the letter...”
George tears open the letter. Scans it. “Stay there,” he commands sharply. Meekly, Hollin does. A moment later he looks up. “There is nothing about any thievery or murder attempt; tell me what has happened.
So Hollin does. The latest reliable reports come from Istanbul, where Laurence and his companions were supposed to make several important purchases for the Aerial Corps on their way back to Britain. Apparently to get there they traversed over a desert, where they were almost killed, and that was after leaving China, where they were almost killed multiple times. And, of course, there were the murder-attempts on the long sea voyage where Laurence had the opportunity to stay in close quarters with his would-be assassins...
George takes several deep breathes.
“Of course,” says Hollin, now mostly speculative, “They think the British ambassador was murdered, and even if they got well out of Turkey all the fighting will be in their path back to Britain... We really don't know why it's taking them so long to get back. They were due months ago.” Then, seeing George's evident alarm; “But I'm sure your brother is fine! They are all fine, it is impossible to say what might have happened... and perhaps Captain Laurence was taken prisoner,” like this should actually be a consolation.
“...Although,” Hollin finishes, “I do not at all know how we will explain matters to China if anything has happened to him, now that the Chinese have just gone to all the fuss of adopting Laurence as their Prince - “
“What,” says George flatly.
George does not breathe freely until he gets a letter from Will assuring him of his safety. There was only a setback in Prussia, Will says; they were caught up in the fighting there, giving aid to the soldiers, but he assures George he is quite well. Apparently they evacuated a great many soldiers and even the royal family, so George can hardly begrudge him that.
Not a month later George gets another letter: Will is apparently going to Africa.
He shuts himself up into his office, quietly drinks a few glasses of wine, and rips up the letter without any ceremony.
“Well, at least your brother knows what he's about,” says Admiral Bruton over dinner – he's a brisk, somewhat curt naval man that George does not particularly like. “These dragons all seem to have vanished, but my ships are singing praises of that black oriental fellow he has,” which is how George learns that Laurence is back in England.
He writes up a hasty letter – full of indignant ink-splotches – and then, when he is more calm, burns it and drafts another. He rides into town the next morning to look for a courier. Everyone looks at him dubiously when this request is known.
“No couriers for anything but war business, my lord,” says someone at the post-office. George does not bother to correct the title. “No, and none in any city, neither; it would be faster to send it by horse, or barge.”
“Not to a covert, surely.”
“Especially to a covert.”
George remembers Hollin and little Elsie stopping at his door on nothing but a whim. Surely the need is not so dire? But he can hardly protest. He hands over the letter.
A reply comes a week and a half later, less apologetic than would reasonably be expected. It also comes through a particularly odd messenger.
“My apologies,” says the man – Tenzing Tharkay, he calls himself. “But I could scarcely resist the chance to meet Laurence's brother, and it cannot be argued that we are quicker than a horse; I was heading this way,” he defends, “In any case.”
“Ah,” says George. It seems the thing to say. Nearby a mottled light-weight dragon tears apart one of his milk-cows with vicious glee.
Mr. Tharkay surveys him. “Yes, I think it is in the family,” he says, half to himself. “You have children, yes?”
“...Yes,” George says warily. “Three sons, and two daughters. My eldest is taking class up in Scotland, now.” The youngest boys are with his brother Eustace now, at Lord Allendale's insistence; they will be bent toward the Church early. No sea-faring life for them, and certainly no dragons.
“A large family,” Tharkay says. “That bodes well for Temeraire.” And before George can ask what that means, Tharkay is bidding him good-day and strolling toward the blood-smeared dragon tearing at his livestock. Good-riddance, he thinks.
Only belatedly does he wonders where the man learned to speak like a lord.
The letters continue, and for several weeks George ignores his doubts. But the dragons are still notably absent from the skies. It's a subject of much gossip, and, for many, it's a welcome change.
“I have always said that the coverts needed to find better paths – paths outside the cities, where respectable people needn't see them,” Lady Galman says during an evening function at Wollaton Hall. George remembers her saying no such thing, but he nods politely and hides his doubt behind a sip of wine. The sip is over-long, perhaps; Lady Galman eyes him a bit contemptuously and moves on.
George never looked forward to the prospect of joining his family with hers, although Galman's daughter, Edith, is by far more sensible than either of her parents. It makes no matter now. Edith is married to Richard Woolvey and William is holed up in his covert when he is not flying around the world and being handed crowns. Still, George sometimes wonders if his brother has regrets. He doubts he would have the courage to abandon his life for a dragon, whatever England's need.
His father's gatherings, though they are of course organized by the Lady Allendale, are becoming scarce of late. Society in general has suffered from the war, but George suspects that his father's health is beginning to falter. He keeps a weather eye on the man as he circulates the hall and spares the other half of his attention on his wife while she shifts from one person to another and mingles effortlessly.
He is blindsided when a stranger suddenly tells him, “Sir, let me shake your hand – I daresay, let me shake it – I have heard, we have all heard of what you have done in Africa, and I commend you - “
George has never gone near Africa in his life, so he submits to a stranger's abrupt grasping of his hand – without even the benefit of an introduction – with dumb shock. The man speaks with deliberate volume, attracting stares: “We are all humbled – inspired – by your example - “
“I am sorry,” says George, extracting his hand. “ - Have I met you?”
So the man introduces himself as Thomas Thwilpe, of the Abolitionist Movement, and when the man adds, “And you, of course, are William Laurence!” George cannot help but laugh.
“That is my brother, Sir.” Thwilpe looks disappointed.
“So you did not free two hundred slaves,” he says sadly, “and ransack that terrible symbol of colonialism, Cape Town?”
George pauses. “...No,” he says at last.
That night, he writes another letter.
Laurence responds assuring George that he ransacked nothing, and anything else is a terrible exaggeration. All things considered, George no longer knows what to believe about his brother. He refrains from saying so. But, in an attempt to soothe any lingering offense, he keeps his next missive clear of anything which could be possibly contentious. It is nearing winter, he writes; it is only September, but letters take awhile to reach their destination, and soldiers must plan ahead. I hope you will find a way to join us this upcoming Christmas; it has been too long since we last spoke, Will, and you have not yet met Claire...
Will speaks vaguely of his obligations, the needs of the war. George will have to spend a few more weeks convincing him, no doubt, which is another reason he wrote so early. Will does say of Christmas that Temeraire remains sadly insistent on the notion that any man so magical as the name-sake of this day must be a powerful enchanter as of Chinese legend (with we playing his vast legions of followers). He could drive any man to blasphemy...
George tries not to dwell overlong on the religious philosophies of dragons.
In an almost ludicrous attempt at normalcy, Laurence asks George about his plans.
He writes back, “My New-Years resolution, Will, will be for you to have a quiet and boring year where nothing interesting happens at all.” He underlines this last part three times. “I beg you, please at least leave off anything exciting until next July, if half a year is not too much to ask of you. Father will collapse from the stress soon.”
Three days later he walks down to breakfast and finds Elizabeth staring at the paper in mute horror. Laurence, it seems, has been convicted of treason. Which is honestly typical.
George Laurence is not a soldier, not a hero. But he is a lord's son, and the true Lord Allendale is abed with illness. So when two boys from the edges of Nottinghamshire come forth – so rural they do not even realize George is only his father's heir – he listens to their stories of French raids, an invasion force, and he acts.
Chickens and small calves are brought into the manor, and men dispersed with warnings and a request for arms. George has several men trained in swords, and he can fence, but murder is another matter entirely. He will not secede to the French willingly, however.
When a knock comes to the door he answers it himself, expecting another local asking for supplies, or perhaps someone begging use of the manor's physician; Dr. Smith has already set out just this morning to tend a broken arm. George nearly slams the door when he finds a Frenchman on his porch.
“Lord Allendale?” The man – a French aviator – does not await a reply. “Your manor and estate has been granted safety by the decree of His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Napoleon.” The aviator thrusts a piece of parchment right into his hands. “In gratitude for the selfless actions of William Laurence, who saved the lives of thousands of French citizens for generations to come.”
Citizens, he thinks, and then realizes; dragons.
George looks at the parchment. The base is signed only with an untidy N, but he does not doubt its authenticity. He wants to tear it, to spurn the offer. Will would not want this, could not, and George does not need this Frenchman's gratitude.
But he stops. Because he has a father who is a lord, and they have tenants, and those tenants have children who are afraid. He has people the French will not treat with generosity. “Very well,” he says, and the word pulls between his teeth and hangs there.
The man waits as though expecting thanks. When none is forthcoming he turns and walks away.
Which is how everyone in the surrounding area ends up crammed into Wollaton Hall. George is somewhat glad, guiltily, that his father is abed; Lord Allendale would see the necessity of this action as well, but it would pain him to see his ancestor's halls filled to the brim with sheep and rows of peasants sleeping on the hallway floors.
More people come every day – millers, smiths, farmers, and even neighboring nobility who have fled their own estates. Some George receives well – like the ladies Susan and Ophelia – and others less so, such as Lord Appen, who left his own tenants to defend themselves.
One day George comes to the door and finds a familiar face. “For Heaven's sake, Will!”
He sends the footman back inside; no doubt the news will be all over the house soon. Then, to his brother: “What in God's name are you doing here? And coming to the front door – you might have a little discretion, at least. Have you – are you hungry, do you need - “
“I have not fled gaol and come to the door to beg; I am paroled, to fight the invasion.”
Will could at least try to lie convincingly.
“Paroled,” George says. He has read the scathing stories they write – continue to write! - about Will in the papers. “Paroled, for the invasion, and here you are in the middle of Nottinghamshire! Whoever is likely to believe such a story, I ask you.” He will clearly need to help Will with the facade.
“Good god, I am not lying to you - “
George ceases to listen. He will bundle off Will with some food, draw him around the manor, and store him in the little house at the edge of the property where none of the rubber-neckers inside will see him; certainly the servants may talk, but no one will judge him too harshly for taking pity on his mad brother and sending the man away so long as he is not known to actually harbor a traitor. In the middle of a war, there may not even be any legal consequences.
Will persists in playing the martyr, though. “I am not here for myself,” he says. “I am here with the Corps; we must requisition the deer, to feed the dragons. There are nine at present, and will be more before morning; I did not want you to be alarmed.”
“Nine - “
Of course Will is not lying; George should have known, should perhaps have understood his brother better.
George almost feels disappointed. Which is ridiculous, of course.
He sends Will off with food; giving him entrance to the house, in its condition, would be polite but not really helpful. The windows at the top of the house blaze with light. George wonders what rumors are flying already.
He returns inside, to the useless fretting and worrying, as the servants cart out the meals for his brother's comrades. He walks to one of the back windows and fancies that he can see shifting black shadows like gleaming wings against the forest's walls.
Will does not return to Wollaton Hall, but George cannot fail to hear about him. England is victorious because of the dragons – because of Temeraire in no small part. Will has become a controversial subject, now, a hero or a villain depending on who you might ask. It is not difficult to determine who holds which opinion; George suddenly finds that his list of acquaintances has grown short, his friends awkward, while new and obscure members of society scramble for an introduction.
Will's freedom, it seems, was a temporary reprieve only granted for the necessities of war – George is indignant to hear that he is being shipped immediately to New South Wales where doubtlessly the Government hopes he will be quickly forgotten. It spurs him, uncharacteristically, to approach his wife about holding yet another gathering near the end of the season. “With as large an invitation list as we might manage, without offense - “
“And I suppose,” Elizabeth asks dryly, “I should also search for introductions so we might invite admirals of the army, and the Corps, and members of Parliament too?”
“ - I suppose the Corps is probably busy,” George mutters, thinking from Will's letters that those admirals probably support his brother already. Elizabeth laughs at him.
Marie and Claire are far too young to attend, but he finds himself longing for their mirth amid the strained atmosphere of the gathering. Less than half of the invitees arrive, which is hardly a surprise. However, some of the names that come forward are unexpected. One arrival – a man he invited only due to courtesy – downright shocks him.
The Duke of Wellington seems to see no need for introductions; he approaches George and shakes his hand right in the middle of the floor. “I decided I should keep an eye on you,” he says bluntly. “Your brother was trouble enough; I thought to amass a second army when I heard there was another Laurence in the area. Well, do you have some love of dragons?”
George admits he has no knowledge of the creatures.
Wellington proclaims himself disappointed. Apparently he's being hassled by a female dragon, Perscitia, about taxes and land-rights and all sorts of things. The dragons have lately been seen in the cities and private estates bartering their services to help with construction and farm-work. This, Wellington tells him, is due to a deal made with Will for the help of the ferals and retired dragons during the invasion. Or, rather, a deal made with Temeraire.
George somehow fails to be surprised.
“Of course it is all rot; but at least the work is going faster,” Wellington admits. “See if that placates the lords, though – well.”
George has had no word from Laurence for weeks. He cannot bear to imagine his brother on a prison-barge – or a dragon-transport, as the case must be – bound for his indeterminate fate. “Perhaps there is something I can do,” he says.
Wellington looks at him.
In Will's memory, at least, Nottinghamshire will not forget the Corps.
Marie thinks that Moncey is the most darling dragon she has ever seen – though, she says loyally, Temeraire is probably more impressive. Indeed, every dragon they meet is ready to sing praises of “Commander Temeraire,” talking in admiring terms of his cleverness and his daring and his great epaulette; George never knew that his daughter was so interested in the military.
The larger dragons – there are, George has realized with apprehension, dragons far larger than couriers – come by now to help the tenants with their farms. George takes a personal hand with the negotiations to ensure that no one, on any side, is cheated or intimidated. There are good uses for dragons, and the dragons seem thrilled to fly around the estate and chat with the brother of “Temeraire's captain”.
Marie accompanies George one day when Moncey takes him to survey the latest crops in the wake of the Invasion. The lightweight airily insists that it is no trouble at all to carry George around the farms, although he hints that free use of Lord Allendale's forests may make this task easier on the stomach. It is Moncey who first notices the Longwing in the sky, a blot of orange and blue streaks that looms larger, larger, until George feels his breath rattle. Marie shakes his arm.
“Oh,” she says. “He's so beautiful, father!”
It's not the word he would use. Moncey lands and the Longwing follows suit.
A woman meets them on the ground.
“Madam,” George greets her unsurely.
“Lord Allendale, is it? And little Miss Laurence.” The woman sketches an exaggerated bow to Marie, who bows back instead of curtseying. George doesn't bother to rebuke her. “I am Admiral Roland – and I hear you've requisitioned a good number of our dragons.”
“I beg your pardon,” George says. “My understanding was that the unharnessed ones were free to find work - “
“Shush, now, I'm not scolding you; we are glad to have the dragons doing something useful and not lazing about. But Parliament is not sure whether to call you a genius or a plotter, you see, with your last name. Most people are running scared, so it's a bit queer that your folk are accepting present company so well.”
“They are accepting us?” A voice asks suddenly. It's the Longwing, his great head swinging around; George startles slightly to see great spurs sticking from the bottom of his mouth. “They are not afraid?”
“They were at first,” George admits. “But I arrived with the dragons, every time – Moncey helped. We made the arrangements for the work and most everyone is used to it by now.”
“Ah,” Roland says; she sounds smug. “And now when the lords bluster about, I can tell those good politicians and generals that common peasant girls are working with dragons while they cower in their offices. I love that. Would you mind if we fly around a bit, Lord Allendale?”
“The Corps are always welcome here,” George says. He's a bit surprised at himself, to realize that the words ring true.
George next meets Admiral Roland in the fall when the sheep are gathering thick coats in preparation for the winter. By now he knows enough to be more wary of such a personal visit; polite society does not gossip about such a venerable and martial lady, if only because they prefer to pretend she does not exist, but dragons hold no such compunctions. They hold her in considerable awe, even the ferals, and that is enough to make any man hesitate.
Moreover, Longwings are not couriers. She comes holding a piece of parchment. “Good god,” George blurts when she lands. “Tell me he is not - “
Is it news of Laurence, he wonders, has something happened, is he – has he been -
George reads the paper.
“He has been pardoned?” he blurts.
“And then,” Moncey says, “They wanted me to carry two cows at once for them – two! As though I were a Regal Copper!”
“Could you not do it?” asks George, who has been listening to this rant for ten minutes and just wants it to end.
“I – well, of course – but one does not want to strain oneself, and anyway, it was presumptuous,” Moncey swells.
Marie giggles. She climbed up onto Moncey's legs without hesitation when he landed, and now she lies lounging over his shoulders like a dragon-lady in some ancient painting. Claire, on the ground, keeps sneaking glances at her and plucking at the lace trimming of her satin gown. Finally she picks up the hems with dainty fingers and curtseys to Moncey. “Mr. Moncey,” she asks when they finish talking, “Since you are so strong, would it be quite alright if I came up on your back, too?”
“Oh! Yes, I would not feel you at all.” And as though to prove it Moncey lifts her right up. Claire gasps tightly but makes no sound. A second later she's sitting next to her sister.
“Would you like to fly?” Moncey asks. “Humans ask to fly quite often, you know, now that they are less afraid. It is really quite silly, because some of them just like to do it for fun even though they were so afraid before. I think we could start asking for payments,” he concludes thoughtfully.
Marie is nodding. “No,” says Claire quietly. She strokes the soft hide under her fingers, a wondering expression on her face. “ - But, thank you, Mr. Moncey.”
No letters arrive for a good while – not from Laurence, at any rate. There is the usual affairs of taxes and small business, petty complaints from tenants, arguments to sort out and trades to arrange. George and Elizabeth organize a small gathering to thank the dragons for their work during the winter months, and though he largely leaves this work to his capable wife George is obliged to help with the seating and the invitations due entirely to his own familiarity with the creatures.
A missive finally arrives in the winter. At first George mistakes the pale green dragon on his lawn for a local. Then he takes a good look at the wings, crimped like a fan and fantastically long. He has seen sturdier cart-houses than this delicate creature with her little silver necklace and silken sash.
She lands on the ground and pulls off a small pouch with her tiny talons. Then she lowers her head before it in a mute bow and remains there, unmoving. George hovers for a while before finally asking, “Are you here with a message, then?”
“wǒ dài gěi nǐ yì fēng lái zì huáng shang de ér zi diàn xià wēi lián · láo lún sī tài zǐ de xìn.”
“Alright,” says George agreeably.
He definitely catches the name William Laurence, so he bends down and picks through the satchel. He reads the missive – a long, scrawling letter written on a bound scroll and tied with silk – with increasing tautness. He sighs.
Will had amnesia. Will no longer has amnesia. Will, and the rest of his formation, are flying to Russia to fight Napoleon.
The details, Will says, cannot be entrusted to a letter. George does not particularly care for the details of the war. He tries to imagine his brother with only memories prior to six years beforehand. Will would remember George, surely, and their family – he would not have remembered Marie. Or any of his fellows at the Corps. He feels sick at the thought, and yet it is not so unimaginable. Nothing Will says can surprise him again. George finds he resents his brother for removing his capacity to be alarmed.
After a moment he looks down. The pale green dragon has not moved.
“I don't suppose you know any English?” he asks gloomily.
“No, I imagined not.”
Napoleon is defeated, and William is a war hero. Who is definitely not going to be arrested by anyone, he assures George several times.
“Although it would not surprise me,” Temeraire mutters after, “If the Government were to turn on their word, and do something very ridiculous anyway - “
George receives this news, uncharitably, with a bit more amazement than the pardon, the amnesia, or the introduction to Temeraire's daughter. Temeraire himself is rather larger than George ever imagined, but very polite; Lung Tien Ning, on the other hand, makes him feel exhaustingly nostalgic for stiff games of whist at the gentleman's club and verbal sallies with his father's allies in Parliament. She is too tricky by half, especially for a dragon.
Will makes for polite, if distant company. He disappears frequently for business reconciliating the dragons with the shifting Parliament and at other times flees with Temeraire into the air. Finally George catches him alone.
He finds Will on the edge of the paddock, overlooking the horses with a peculiar eye. “I used to think well of horses, though I had few chances to ride in the navy,” he says suddenly. “It is difficult to view them the same when I have watched so many eaten.”
George doesn't know quite what to say to this. “They have grown timid of late, but the stablehands tell me their temperament is improving.”
He cannot expect Will to avoid his meaning. “Everything is changing,” Will says. His voice is flat, but again there is that odd look – he taps the fence, fingers clenching over the aged wood.
There are many things George has wanted to discuss with Will; this is not one of them. “I rather thought you would have enjoyed the thought.”
“It benefits me, certainly.” Which is not an answer. Will wraps one hand around the fence, bowing forward, and folds the other into the pocket of his coat. A simple brown coat; he has foregone the aviator's uniform today. In fact Will has not worn it for weeks, George realizes. “Yes,” Will says. “ - I suppose change is best.”
“It is,” George agrees abruptly. Will looks at him. “ - You have been here weeks, Will, and you have yet to see how your nieces have grown. Claire is pining to show you her lessons on the piano. I think she has one in half an hour.”
Will finally steps back. “I should be horrified to miss it.”
George keeps out an eye, but Will makes no more mentions of any doubts. Certainly his commitment to the rights of dragons is whole-hearted and fierce. But it should not be strange that he worries over the future when the present is in such turmoil.
George is guiltily glad, nonetheless, when Will leaves to settle with his particular friend in Scotland. He will happier there anyway, with Temeraire embroiled in politics and Will himself far away from the hassle of society.
He tells himself this is only reason he is glad.
Claire, in fine temper, throws open the doors to the foyer and stalks into the entrance. Elizabeth and George pause their discussion to watch as she flounces dramatically down to her room, dirt clinging to her white gloves. They exchange glances.
“I believe it is your turn to calm her,” says Elizabeth. George sighs.
But that moment Marie runs inside. Her satin dress is damp from the knees down; mud splatters the hem and her sleeves are rolled to the elbows. “Mother, oh, there was cat trapped under one of the fences, look,” and she holds up the mangiest, most dirt-smeared creature they have ever seen. It may have been white once.
Elizabeth shakes her head slowly. The source of an argument – there is usually an argument – has become clear. “I see that, dear. But you are tracking mud; the poor maids will be working forever.”
“Oh, I will help clean it, I assure you.” Marie beams at the ugly creature.
“Oh,” Elizabeth sighs, but she is smiling a little. She turns and murmurs, “Whatever will we do with her, George?”
George watches his daughter. Claire, he thinks, is everything expected of a lord's daughter; feminine, and graceful, and eager already to dream of marriage. She has a decent head for numbers and social graces and the little things that all contribute to the running of a household. One day she will make a good and happy Lady of some fine household. Though she is only six he cannot imagine Marie settling to marry for politics, and he can imagine her as a housewife even less.
“My dear daughter,” he says. “I am going to write a letter soon – would you like to come with me, up to Scotland, to visit Temeraire and your uncle Will?”
Marie drops her cat immediately. The poor creature darts from the room and leaves grimy paw-prints in its wake. “Oh, yes father,” she breathes. “More than anything in the world!”