Summary: September 1811, Halifax, Nova Scotia: His Majesty's Aerial Corps stand ready to welcome new additions to their number; an expedition late of the Antipodes. SGA/Temeraire crossover. Spoilers for the Temeraire novels, 1-5 (beware ye dragons!)
Author's notes: thank you to my cheer team for all their narrative suggestions and geographic knowledge, and to my wonderful beta for her indispensable work!
Detail of Thomas Jeffreys. A New Map of Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island. Map. London: R. Sayer and J. Benet, 1775. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division. For the complete map, click [here]
There was a light wind that afternoon, north-northwest, briefly carrying the voices of the guards at York Redoubt up to meet them as they flew, skimming above the scrub grass and granite climb to Chebucto Head, all human sound soon lost amid the call of gulls and the rumble of breakers against the shore. "Oh, I do so like this place," said Tripudio, landing gracefully and shaking out her wings before she folded them against her side; when she tilted her head into the sun, her scales flashed aqua, a touch of silver winking at every tip. "But I do not see them yet, Sheppard," she mused, looking over the wide reach of the Atlantic, pressing out toward the horizon. "You do not suppose they are lost?"
"As I told your irrepressible captain, it's far too much to expect any ship, much less one run by His Majesty's minions, to be here promptly, and our time would have been far better spent at luncheon than gallivanting around the harbour and picnicking on a hill," sniffed Dr. McKay, plucking at his carabiner with fingers undoubtedly numb. He had, as was his unfortunate habit, forgotten his gloves.
Captain Sheppard touched McKay's shoulder before he climbed down from Tripudio's back. "Yet you deigned to join us."
McKay made a dismissive splutter. "These are entirely new field conditions. A September flight, after first frost, can hardly be compared to the sorties you've flown in prime summer weather." He jangled his carabiner. "Damn these things."
Tripudio nudged her snout into Sheppard's hand as he came to stand beside her. "It is all in the interest of science," she said with perfect mock gravity, and Sheppard was forced to bite back a smile.
"And has nothing to do with his wager with Captain Dex."
"Nothing," Tripudio said. "Empirical research is his only motivation . . ."
"I heard that!" McKay called, sliding down Tripudio's flank. He landed with a thump - for all his eagerness to marry the theoretical study of flight with that of 'the practical scientific,' months in the air had not yet made him a natural aviator, nor graceful on his return to land. "And yes, yes it is, you impudent young hatchling; I have forty years and two on this earth to match against your wit. Damned rascal - five months out of the shell and you favor us with sarcasm as regularly as I am forced to eat burned bacon. I find, for your intelligence, that neither situation is acceptable."
Tripudio turned her head and nudged his face gently. "I do so enjoy your bluster," she said fondly, and McKay was driven to spluttering again.
A flock of sheep grazed on the hillside, food for those dragons patrolling the Halifax harbour, and with his satchels retrieved from Tripudio's belly rigging, Sheppard gave her leave to select her own lunch. As she fell upon her meal with relish, Sheppard found a well-set boulder at the cliff head, gestured for McKay to join him and offered him a bottle of wine.
"Spanish, I suppose?" McKay asked, reaching for the bottle. "What I wouldn't give for a mere half-glass of good French . . ."
Sheppard raised an eyebrow.
"Please," McKay said, waving his free hand. "I do not seriously regret our continuing war with Napoleon simply because of the wine." He tilted his head. "Although it does constitute the greater share of my ill will."
"Perhaps this will restore your temper," Sheppard offered, passing him a cloth-wrapped bundle before he unwrapped his own.
"A pasty?" McKay said, sounding suddenly young and eager. He sat on the boulder, pressing himself against Sheppard's side, shoulder to ankle. "I had no idea that Penberthy had returned from, oh . . ." He paused to inhale the fragrant steam unleashed as he opened his napkin. "I will never call down damnation on Cornwall again," he promised, biting into his pasty with a will. "Oh," he mumbled. "Beef, an' onion an' . . ."
It was a working man's meal, a miner's talisman against hunger in the dark, yet Sheppard favored the simple pleasure of the pasties Penberthy made and their ready portability to wherever he and Tripudio might fly. It was pleasant, very pleasant, to press a warmed brick into a satchel and take to the air, to take his ease with McKay at his elbow, the prickly but certain companion with whom he had shared adventure and delay in equal measure these two years and more. They were somewhat unlikely friends. Sheppard, second son of an English gentleman, had been sent to the Corps at the age of eight that his "rebellious and insufferable" spirit might be given vent, and managed to rise to the rank of Second Lieutenant before blacking his record and suffering exile to the dragon breeding grounds at Newfoundland. McKay, in contrast, occupied that social niche afforded the sons of merchants, especially those engaged in the Canadian trade. The newness of his money won him few friends of consequence, while his capacious intellect was both envied and mocked. Sheppard often smiled to think of the happenstance that had caused their paths to cross - one pushed, one pulled toward Newfoundland and the dragons that sheltered there.
"Am I to drink from the bottle?" McKay asked, interrupting Sheppard's reverie. He had managed to work the cork from the Spanish wine.
"Do not stand on ceremony on my account," Sheppard replied, permitting himself a small smile of indulgence, watching as McKay tipped back the bottle and made several appreciative gulps.
"Ahhh," McKay sighed happily, swallowing and wiping his mouth on the back of his hand. "I suppose the Spanish are adequate vintners when pressured - perhaps war has proven good for their habits? I swear, Sheppard, if even this avenue of pleasure is disrupted by the present hostilities, I cannot possibly be held accountable for my actions."
Sheppard nodded, chewing thoughtfully. "And what will you do?"
"Well." McKay swallowed from the bottle again. "I admit it is somewhat difficult to exact revenge against those locked in combat some 3000 miles hence, but . . ."
Sheppard eased the bottle from McKay's hand and swallowed a little of the wine, gratefully. "I have faith in your imagination."
"Indeed," McKay said with a nod. "There are certain things that cannot be borne, and wine shipped from the colonies is one of them." He sniffed. "I will be forced to take up rum."
"Heaven forefend," said Sheppard quietly, and sipped the wine again.
Lunch finished, Tripudio stood, shaking out her wings before stepping casually toward them. "I would like to clean myself," she said carefully, "and if there is time . . ."
"I saw the whales," Sheppard replied, amused.
Tripudio shivered with happy anticipation. "Might I sport with them for just a while?"
They were free from responsibilities that day, though their formation was due to patrol the Maine border next evening. Skirmishes had been few lately - the rising tide of invective from Washington had not yet translated into new naval action, saving them combat above the Atlantic, and Sheppard held the faint hope that they might yet avoid more of the volleys shared in the first flush of the Republican Embargo Acts. Still, there were the militias to consider, and the long-simmering resentments between neighbors divided by a loyalty to constitution, parliament, President or King. The quiet of this stolen day could not last long. "While we finish, of course. And should you see the ship approaching . . ."
"I will keep watch!" Tripudio called, leaping into the air, and with a solid beat of her wings she climbed above the Head, pausing for a second before she dived toward the water, wings closed behind her, as lithe as a seal.
"Do you ever suppose we shall know her full ancestry?" McKay asked.
John watched as Tripudio rose from the water, corkscrewing over the afternoon's amiable waves. "That her mother was a Siu Riu is all we can count upon," he observed. "We have too little intelligence on the indigenous creatures of the West; were her father feral or loyal to the people of that country, it would make little difference."
"He was surely suited to the sea," McKay mused. "Her coloring - she may be touched more green than blue upon her scales, but there is no earth-bound camouflage upon her."
"The traders who venture inland tell of seafarers and fishers upon the other vast coast." Sheppard licked a finger clean of savory gravy. "Even here, before illness, there were towns of great size. I imagine dragons too."
"So much we do not know," McKay said, and sipped from the wine again. "Much that we prevented ourselves from knowing by virtue of some ingrained sense of vast superiority, some presumption that. . ."
John held up a hand. "Forgive me," he said, his tone light but teasing. "Does the great Dr. McKay seek to lecture upon the virtues of humility?"
McKay elbowed him sharply in the side. "You know my feelings on these matters."
"I do." Sheppard took back the wine and drank. "And I am in agreement. But we cannot undo what was done by those before us, merely . . ."
"Yes, yes, act as gentlemen now." McKay rolled his eyes. "If only it were always perfectly clear what the act of a gentleman must be."
The remark gave Sheppard pause, his thoughts shifting to the dragon transport which they hoped to greet that afternoon. The H.M.S. Allegiance, late of the West Indies, bore many cargoes - two Yellow Reapers, a Parnassian; perhaps, if rumors were true, a Kazilik - but it was the Celestial it carried, Temeraire, and his captain, William Laurence, whose acquaintance Sheppard was most anxious to make. Gossip flourished as readily in Nova Scotia as in England, and whispers and counter-whispers had circled the covert for weeks - Laurence was a traitor, an explorer, a man of extraordinary courage; he was, said some, the natural born son of the Emperor of the Chinese; he brought dishonor to the Corps; he brought rigor; he was toasted and damned with every second breath drawn. Sheppard let silence spin out around him as his thoughts took their leave; he watched Tripudio soar and dive but truly saw little. "So some have discovered," he said quietly, at last.
"Mmmmhmmm." McKay squinted toward the sun as Tripudio finally took leave of her aquatic companions and glided gracefully back toward the Head, settling down a small distance away and shaking sea water from her scales. "You and Laurence both." He turned his head and offered a rueful half-smile. "Really, Sheppard, your thoughts are quite shockingly transparent."
Sheppard bristled. "I disagree."
McKay's smile grew wider. "That is to be expected. However, I am possessed of the far greater intellect and therefore . . ."
"You cannot always be correct."
"On the contrary, I think you'll find I can."
"McKay, you are, without a doubt, the most - "
Tripudio coughed and ducked her head to interrupt them. "Prime, Not-Prime?" she suggested, her forehead crinkled with amusement. "Unless, of course, either of you fear being proven incorrect by a dragon."
"Hmmmph," McKay offered, but he reached out to scratch her snout as she lay beside them and said only, "102,499."
So passed a pleasant hour. The previous day's dispatches eventually proved correct; it was not quite two when Tripudio spotted the Allegiance at the horizon, her observation confirmed by Sheppard's quick use of his spy-glass.
"Let me see," McKay said, reaching for it.
"You have a spy-glass of your own," Sheppard said.
McKay sighed. "In my rooms, as you well know."
"Wait one moment and I will be happy to . . ."
McKay snatched the glass and fixed it to his eye. "Extraordinary," he said, ignoring Sheppard's sputter in favor of training the glass on the seas. "A length of 400 feet, I know, and yet she looks a great deal larger."
"The dragon deck," Sheppard offered, packing the remains of their lunch into his satchels. "Tripudio, if I may?" he asked, before stowing the bags and tightening the cinches on her belly rigging. "McKay."
"Hmm, yes, yes, we should go, I suppose . . ."
"We are precious little help as a scouting party if we do not report what we see," Sheppard offered, climbing Tripudio's harness.
"I am not a scout," she protested, pawing the ground with one foot. "My wings are far longer and wider than any of the . . ."
Sheppard laid a hand on her neck. "My apologies," he said softly. "I meant it only in the most temporary sense."
"Scout," she muttered.
"Voluntarily so, on a day with sun and whales and . . ."
"Hmmpf," she said, conceding just a fraction. "I suppose it was very good of us to offer our service when there were no official claims upon our time."
"Indeed," John said agreeably. "And if Dr. McKay could see his way clear to joining us, we might prove ourselves as useful in our hours of rest as we are in our hours of work."
McKay stood, shutting the glass with a snap, and climbed to his regular spot at Tripudio's shoulder. "Evidence gathering cannot be hurried," he said loftily, snapping his carabiner into place. "A fact which you would, if you paid the least attention to my earnest attempts to educate you on the subject, appreciate as . . ."
He fell silent as, with the tiniest touch from Sheppard, Tripudio leapt into the air.
"They have come?" asked Caldwell, striding across the main courtyard of the covert at Cape Blomidon as soon as Tripudio landed.
"They will dock this afternoon if this wind holds," Sheppard said, waiting for McKay to disentangle himself before attempting to unfasten his carabiner. "Here by sundown."
Caldwell nodded. "I trust the garrison at York was notified of their - "
"Heaven preserve us," McKay said, huffing into his hands before chafing them briskly. "Do you imagine we flew back here alight with the heady spirit of mischievous schoolboys? Of course the garrison was signaled; your orders were quite clear."
"Thank you, Dr. McKay," Caldwell said tightly, his tone of voice warding off further conversation. "Captain Sheppard, if I might trouble you to stand to the tasks assigned to you as leader of your crew? The hands stand ready for your orders." He glanced at McKay, mouth tightening before he strode away.
"Do not antagonize him," Sheppard whispered, pulling off his gloves. "We have discussed this matter."
"I judge him a baboon," McKay muttered back.
"No matter what your opinion, you fly on my crew by virtue of his good graces, and it would be unfortunate if you lost your place in them."
McKay raised an eyebrow. "If he wishes to be associated with my scientific works, and gain admittance someday to the Royal Society, then he will . . ."
"Rodney," Sheppard hissed.
McKay swallowed and tilted his chin. "Very well. I will . . . send a good Spanish wine to his table tonight."
Sheppard allowed himself a begrudging smile. "Thank you." He nodded at his ground crew, gathering at the courtyard's edge, and raised his voice. "Remove the harness if you would, Mr. Campbell."
"And perhaps you might polish my scales," Tripudio put in, turning her head to look down her flank. "I think I may have picked up a barnacle."
"Will do," Campbell said cheerfully. "Jinto - run and fetch the harness master if you please; steady there Ford, careful with that chain . . ."
The orderly din of the courtyard dimmed as Sheppard followed McKay into the main garrison building, their boot heels rapping sharply on the rough stone floors. The faint smell of lye soap rose up from the laundry beneath the flagstones, the corridors growing warmer as they withdrew from the damp outside. "Will you join me for coffee?" Sheppard asked. "I am sure our comrades are eager for news, and since I did not manage proper use of my glass . . ."
McKay sighed dramatically as they swung into the officer's mess and paused just inside the door. "Two Yellow Reapers, as promised," he announced to the room. "A Parnassian; something small and blue; and no - " he said, turning to the tall, young captain who had pushed back his chair at their entering, " - I cannot say for sure if there is a Kazilik aboard."
"Useless," the man said with a hint of a smile. He sat again, sweeping his long, coarse locks back over his shoulders, tugging the lapels of his bottle-green dress coat into place. "Did you not swear, McKay, that you -"
"I would find out, yes, yes," McKay said, stalking to the serving banquet and pouring coffee into a china cup. "And had I been left to my own devices, I'm sure I would have the intelligence for you. My time on lookout was, however, cut short by the punctiliousness of your good friend, Sheppard, who insisted we return the moment a sighting was made. You are lucky I can tell you they carry a scout, and not merely their weight in military might."
"Dex," Sheppard said easily, nodding a greeting before taking the coffeepot from McKay's hand and pouring himself his fill. "Emmagan."
The female captain seated at Dex's table inclined her head. "They will be here soon enough. We shall meet them in due course."
"Well, naturally," McKay said, crossing the room to join them. He dropped into a chair and tugged with irritation at his tie. "But it is uncommonly pleasant to be first."
"I hear Laurence has been sent here as punishment," said Kavanagh from his position at another table. A newer captain, freshly stationed at the covert, he possessed an astonishing dearth of charm. "Consorting with the aborigines."
John sipped from his coffee cup, watching with some approbation as Emmagan raised an eyebrow. "Captain Laurence has been away from Australia for some time, as anyone with the barest familiarity with the Times would know," she said smoothly. "We do ourselves no favors by indulging in flights of fancy more suited to a fevered brain."
Kavanagh reddened and muttered something to his companion, a Captain Niam, late of Ireland, who showed his amusement by pursed lips and an equally low reply.
"Should I ascertain the reach of their honor?" Dex asked gruffly.
Emmagan laughed. "I am yet capable of boxing a schoolboy's ears," she said, apparently delighted and amused by the entire affair. "And I am not in need of a champion, though I thank you."
"How long 'til we dine?" McKay interrupted, having drained his coffee.
Sheppard ignored him. "How does Athos?" he asked Emmagan.
"Well," she said, showing her pleasure with a small nod of her head. "She is fully recovered and we shall join formation tomorrow."
Dex half-smiled. "Good news for us all. Sateda flies better with her at his wing."
"No doubt because your dragon is a most incorrigible flirt," McKay put in.
"Athos enjoys Sateda's attentions," Emmagan said happily. "I believe we shall have an egg by spring if he continues to pay his respects."
Sheppard frowned slightly, despite his best efforts to steel his countenance. "Should we be talking of eggs during war?" he asked, doing his level best to hide the hue of his cheek behind the china of his cup.
McKay snorted softly, and Sheppard grimaced as Dex clapped his shoulder. "I can think of no better time," Dex grinned. "Defense. Strength."
"Hope," Emmagan put in.
"Hope!" McKay said cheerfully. "That I certainly possess - hope that the offspring of a Longwing and a Regal Copper shall provide me with the opportunity to test a number of vastly important theories that will refine our understanding not only of dragons but of the greater share of the natural world . . ."
"Only that?" Sheppard asked, feigning innocence as he found his footing again. "Perhaps you should enlarge your goals, lest you be thought lacking ambition."
"The development of the hatchling's acid, for example, when married to the unusual physical size that cannot help but be a paternal gift will provide opportunity to . . ."
Dex cleared his throat indulgently. "McKay. They have barely begun to discuss books."
"I agree," Emmagan said, patting McKay's arm. "When they come to some agreement on Shakespeare's sonnets, you may consider yourself forewarned. Athos has repeatedly assured me she will not make eggs with any dragon who knows not his mind on the matter of poetry."
McKay sighed and tipped back his head to stare at the soot-stained ceiling. "My talents, hitched to the star of a long-dead playwright who is likely more myth than matter."
Sheppard smiled. "A burden to bear, indeed."
There was much that McKay could say about Shakespeare - much, almost all would concede, that McKay could say about many subjects if provoked, be they topics of his special consideration or not. With the fires of McKay's intellect and hubris duly stoked, Sheppard took leave of the table, claiming pressing correspondence to which he must attend, and ignoring Dex's eloquent glare.
It was not merely for the sport of abandoning Dex that Sheppard withdrew. There were letters to which he should reply, but of more direct necessity was the need to preserve his bearing, to sequester himself away from the sport of engaging McKay; entering into spirited debate; indulging in conversation that could do nothing but feed the ache below his breastbone. The bruise there had been put in place by birth, by the confines of English society, and the perfect understanding that two men could never be countenanced to live as one. There was much satisfaction to be taken from platonic companionship, from the fealty woven through the plain friendship McKay believed they had - but for Sheppard there had long been, on September afternoons when the wind blew fine and the flying was swift, when his fellow officers facilitated argument that carried nothing but affection in each word, when he apprehended change in the order of his small world and could not prevent himself from imagining more, then - a greater affection. Then did the bruise throb and know no consolation but that which could be spun from solitude and willpower and the scratch of a nib against precious paper. His relatives would gain from the situation, at least, and not have cause to give him up for dead.
He passed an hour at his desk, soothed by the company of a low fire and a view toward the setting sun, writing until dusk made such labor impossible. Only then did he sit back in his chair and flex the fingers of his pen-hand, studying the ink upon his fingers, listening to the distant stamp of sentry boots and the call and response of a ground crew finishing their tasks. There was the scent of wood smoke in the air, and the tang of salt laced the insidious drafts that worked beneath the sash of his window - in sum, he felt himself buffeted by satisfaction, his every sense drawing evidence of his belonging, of the sweet luxury of captaincy after so many years of exile upon Newfoundland's shores.
He had undertaken the most base work available at the breeding grounds. As a decommissioned officer, still bound to the Corps, he was made subject to the every whim of those whose shoulders still winked with the gold of a captain's bars. The stench and dirt in which he spent the greater share of his time did not concern him - he was, at least, still in the company of dragons, well-placed to discuss poetry, physics, and the philosophy of flight.
It was Tripudio who altered his fortune, the hatchling of an egg brought east by the Indian trade, viewed with some suspicion by those who considered the worthiest bloodlines to be rooted in European stock. For weeks he had tended to her needs, stoking fires and speaking to her shell, recording the egg's weight and measurement as instructed by McKay during the long midnight hours of their increasingly forthright conversation. With perspective afforded by hindsight, Sheppard could not help but wonder if McKay had known the likely effect of his work - for when Tripudio hatched, she looked upon the face of First Lieutenant Kenmore, said, "Oh, I do not think you will do at all," and searched Sheppard out, declaring, "This is who I want."
"Name her, goddamn you," Keeper Landry had snapped.
And Sheppard had offered, "Tripudio," with his hands balled into fists that they would not shake.
"Oh! Delicious!" she had exclaimed, seemingly well pleased as she shook out her wings, which was when McKay had slapped him on the back, suggested it was time for a hearty celebration, and told Landry where he might send Sheppard's papers of reinstatement by sundown, if he were a man who knew his worth.
With Tripudio thus brought to mind, Sheppard stood and pulled on his topcoat and located his gloves. In mere moments he was crossing the courtyard, empty now of bluster and toil, and he lowered his head against the evening breeze as he wound a path toward the great stone shelters built against the province's winter storms. The air warmed as he drew close, heated by braziers installed at the Crown's command, that no dragon should feel the bite of Nova Scotia's bitterest seasons; warm too were the bursts of conversation that ebbed and flowed toward him, the dragons gathered in before nighttime maneuvers, exchanging gossip and conversation, flirting, arguing, and holding court just as their human companions were wont to do over an evening meal.
"I should have thought they owed some loyalty to the Crown they threw off," said Tripudio as Sheppard entered the shelter. She licked at her claws, her main meal already done. "By mere fact of past association, if no stronger tie."
Athos chewed thoughtfully upon the remainder of a sheep before replying. "I do not see how any tie might survive Revolution," she offered. "Surely that is the point of such an uprising - to choose actions without the oppressive constraint of history?"
"Is Napoleon not oppressive?" Sateda asked, his voice a bass rumble in the enclosure. "Do they not choose an association that is more detrimental than allegiance to a past master?"
"But to choose one's oppressor," Athos said. "That is perhaps all the freedom they require."
"Freedom," Tripudio sighed. "What a perplexingly complex subject, folded inside a small word." She finally noticed Sheppard, who had drawn closer to her pen. "We are discussing the Americans!" she said brightly. "As they are most distressing creatures who took potshots at Wilberforce earlier this evening."
Sheppard raised an eyebrow - he had not heard the news. "Is he badly hurt?"
"A small scrape," Sateda replied. "His second lieutenant is shaken, but Captain Lorne is unhurt."
"And it was nothing but sheer luck that the American made mark!" Tripudio said, ruffling her wings and tucking them back against her side. Sheppard laid a hand on her flank and hid a smile - her pride in the Corps was quite fierce.
"I am sure you are correct," he offered. "Still, I should consult with Major Lorne about the nature of the confrontation before we fly on the morrow."
Tripudio lowered her head and nudged his face affectionately. "I should not like to be shot by a Republican," she agreed. "Although I am much faster than Wilberforce."
Sheppard nodded solemnly. "Is there anything I should ask of the crew in preparation for our flight?" He had swiftly learned - by Kavanagh's contrary example as much as by instruction - to consider Tripudio the best oracle of her own needs; guessing at her wants when she was capable of instructing her crew as to the best measure of help required was a foolish waste of time.
"I have already asked Campbell to see to the loose links on my right hind chains," Tripudio replied. "All is in hand. We mean to pass our evening with Paradise Lost, and perhaps cause Decus to rant at our disrespectful nature as we hypothesize as to why the text has only one devilish dragon, and how the inclusion of more, of greater nobility, might have improved it."
Sheppard laughed softly. "I do not doubt that Milton could have learned much from you all."
Sateda crunched on a bone. "Truth," he offered, as taciturn as his Captain.
Their conversation was suddenly interrupted by a flurry of activity in the courtyard outside. "The newcomers," said Athos, quivering with excitement. "Oh, how splendid!"
"Let them first find their bearings before you pounce," Sheppard counseled.
"Of course!" she replied, tossing her head, but the glint in her eye spoke of mischief and no small amount of glee. "There are many hours yet to the evening - we shall have time for all things."
"That is exactly what I am afraid of," Sheppard confessed to Tripudio, who nudged his face again.
"Perhaps you should go make welcome," she suggested. "So that we might all become acquainted."
Sheppard ducked his head, and scratched a heated spot at the back of his neck. "My manners are rusty," he said. "You are right, madam. I stand in error. Thank you for the reminder."
Tripudio watched him with approbation. "And perhaps tomorrow morning you could tell me what you discover at the dinner table, tonight?"
"It will be done," he acceded with a smile. "I take my leave, friends. I trust you will have a pleasant evening." He was almost sure he heard Athos snicker as he headed to the shelter's west side.
The garrison's five new dragons stood patiently in the courtyard, still and watchful as their crews dismounted and first attempts were made to remove their great plates of armor. In the courtyard's center stood Caldwell, consulting with a man Sheppard could only presume to be the most senior of the captains new-arrived. Around them was bustle and noise - the clang of metal, the rattle of chains, the fractured ring of carabiners snapping shut after their owners disconnected from their dragon's rigging.
"What, ho, there!" yelled Campbell, directing a team of young groundsmen to help the crews. "You'll have someone's eye, there, master Jinto. Caution if you please. Grodin - heave to, heave to . . ."
There could be no mistaking the dragon standing closest to the west doors of the shelter - Sheppard had seen Celestials only in books, but Temeraire's dark scales and regal spikes would have communicated his uncommon heritage had Sheppard been ignorant of all dragonlore. The brazier flames reflected in the deep gold of his chest plate, and despite his years and the scars on his flank, he had the air of a young hatchling still, apparently fascinated by the commotion around him, sniffing the Nova Scotian air. Sheppard shook himself - he was staring - and made his way to the man who could be none other than the infamous Laurence. With the polish his Great Aunt had so industriously insisted he perfect, he made his leg. "Captain Sheppard at your service, sir. Most glad to welcome you."
"Sheppard." Laurence made his leg in return, and nodded as he stood once more. "Captain Laurence, late of the South American expedition."
Sheppard raised an eyebrow. "We understood you to be coming from the Antipodes."
"We have had many adventures since we left those shores," said Temeraire, lowering his head to gain a better vantage point. "Hello."
Sheppard made his leg again. "Captain Sheppard."
"I am Temeraire. It's very nice to meet you."
Sheppard smiled - he could not help but respond to the warmth in Temeraire's voice. "And you also. It is a great honor to meet you both."
"Oh! How nice of you to say so," Temeraire replied. "Sometimes people do not give Laurence nearly as much praise as he deserves. I do not mind for myself, but . . ."
Laurence laughed softly and stroked Temeraire's snout. "My dear, please. I am all sea-legs, yet already you cause me to blush."
"Nonsense," Temeraire said with a huff of warm breath. "Perhaps, Captain Sheppard, you could show Laurence where he might eat? He has dined mostly on biscuit this . . ."
"It would be my honor if you would join the table I share with those captains of my formation," Sheppard said, interrupting before Laurence could wish too hard to be swallowed whole by the cobbles of the yard. "And I would be glad to see you back here after we dine, that you might check on the arrangements made for Temeraire and his crew."
Laurence acknowledged the invitation with a courteous incline of his head. "If that suits you?" he asked Temeraire.
"It suits me very well," Temeraire said happily. "Do I smell cod? I hear the fish in the grand banks are uncommonly large . . . "
They were very clearly dismissed.
Despite his disdain for Spanish wine, McKay had already uncorked two bottles by the time Sheppard and Laurence reached the dining room. "Sheppard!" he called cheerfully. "Sit down, sit down, there is honest to God beef on the menu and I have heard tell of port-wine sauce. Unfathomable blessing, you'll agree. And - " he squinted at Laurence then rolled his eyes and stood, waving a hand in apparent dismissal of his own backwardness. "Of course, you must be Laurence." He extended his hand. "Dr. Rodney McKay."
Laurence bowed his head and shook his hand. "Of the Royal Society?"
McKay grew an inch in height and smiled in triumph at Emmagan and Dex. "I am he."
"I have read your work. Temeraire will be most pleased to make your acquaintance - we have debated your theories at length on past voyages."
McKay grew another inch. "I would be honored to discuss anything you or he chooses," he said, a flush creeping up above the collar of his shirt. He sat down, all but glowing with good cheer. "My word."
Sheppard did not tease him, though the want was very great; instead he gestured to his other companions as they stood. "Captain Dex, Captain Emmagan, partners to Sateda and Athos respectively."
"Captains." Laurence made a short bow and sat as John gestured to a chair, Dex reaching to fill a wine glass and set it at Laurence's right hand. Laurence sipped. "This is very pleasnt," he said at last, risking a small smile. "After much time at sea - it has been some time since we could spare wine for anything but medicinal purposes."
"Barbaric," McKay said, filling his own glass, then Sheppard's too. "I hope it was the least of the inconveniences incumbent upon your journey?"
Laurence's countenance underwent a series of swift changes before he mastered his expression. "I fear not," he said slowly. "But if it please you - perhaps you might tell me of this place, that I could share details of our voyage at some moment when the memory is not so pressing?"
Emmagan raised an eyebrow and shot John a look weighted with significance. "You are tired," she said generously. "We should not tax you after such a journey. And McKay is tolerably fond of holding court so . . ."
McKay tilted his head and offered a quelling glare that had no effect upon Emmagan at all. "How very droll."
Emmagan smiled. "I am entertained."
"What would you know?" Sheppard asked, leaning back from the table a fraction as one of the housekeeping staff laid a plate in front of him. Beef, as McKay had predicted, in port-wine sauce, with vegetables picked before the frost. The cook was liberal in his use of butter - the potatoes, in particular, swam under its effects.
"Whatever you might tell me," Laurence said before drinking again. "I know little of this place. Halifax was considered as refuge for the King early in these present hostilities, I recall, but it was my understanding that such an undertaking would require the significant restructuring of His Majesty's forces. I did not know such a large garrison as this existed for the Corps."
"Expansion," Dex replied.
"Newfoundland was the primary locale for Corps activity after the Peace," Emmagan explained. "With the colonies newly organized into a Republic, and their internal affairs so . . ."
"Disorganized?" McKay suggested between a mouthful of green beans and peas. "Disastrous? Unimaginably complicated and wholly directed by ruffians, lawyers, and slave-mongers?"
Sheppard narrowly avoided spitting wine into his lap, and held his napkin to his mouth until he was sure the moment had passed.
"Disorganized will suffice," Emmagan conceded. "The Crown felt it had little to fear from border raids or expansion - and with the debts it had itself accrued, there was nothing to be done but to maintain the minimal presence that could be afforded. The breeding grounds at Newfoundland provided an excellent tactical location from which to monitor the situation and . . ."
"The Americans got rich," Dex interrupted. "Napoleon. Sold them half the country."
"Sold them his promise not to interfere in that place," McKay corrected. "The land does not belong to France any more than it belongs to England, America, or Spain. Natural title still resides with the indigenous groups of the continent, and any attempt by a nation to expand into the interior must necessarily be accompanied by negotiation to extinguish that title if the nation in question wishes to lay claim to honor." He stabbed at his potatoes.
"You will find our conversations regularly embrace . . . " John tried to think of the proper way to describe McKay's discursive practices. "Segues. Of imaginative character."
"Please," McKay said. "He brought up Louisiana."
"And so," Emmagan said smoothly, "the Crown found itself in the position of needing new defenses, lest the Republicans find their appetite for an increase of country swelled further yet."
"The fort had five, perhaps six dragons in oh-five," Dex said. "A dozen by oh-seven. We stand at four companies now."
Laurence nodded. "We anticipate war?"
Sheppard pushed a spear of carrot across his plate, a frigate amid an ocean of port-wine shallows. "We do," he said simply.
"And isn't that a terribly uplifting topic of conversation?" McKay asked. "I rather think we should turn our attentions back to a full consideration of how my work was read by this gentleman on his voyage across the globe, in the company of a most excellent Celestial."
Emmagan laughed softly. "It seems there is always something new we might discuss in relation to your work," she observed.
"As it should be," McKay nodded. "There is so much of it, and it is so very superior to all the other material published."
Laurence laughed - and John was glad to hear it; he would fit in well if attuned to the humor innate beneath McKay's soaring words. "Surely you have more questions?" he asked, refilling Laurence's partially empty glass.
"Tell me anything," Laurence said, and Sheppard noted that his shoulders had lowered a fraction - he was finding his ease. "Tell me whatever you think I should know."
"An excellent approach," McKay said. "First - "
"McKay." Sheppard raised both eyebrows and tried to telegraph his thoughts with nothing more than a look.
"The good captain has asked, and I stand ready to answer his call," McKay said smoothly. "Do not worry, my dear Sheppard. I will not recite the tale of your much-maligned undergarments at this first meeting. Oh! Oh, except . . . oh, I am sorry . . . " He grinned mischievously.
Sheppard considered flicking a potato at his head.
Laurence coughed, apparently choking on a pea. "I am quite all right," he said, waving a hand as Dex moved to pound him on the back. "Merely unprepared."
"As are we all when Captain Sheppard's undergarments are involved," Emmagan said, setting Laurence off into a fresh wave of coughing that could only be quelled by the application of more wine.
"We," McKay said, talking over Laurence's respiratory distress, "are quite the best formation within this branch of the Corps. We are also unabashed misfits and social outliers of the first water."
Laurence eyed him over the rim of his wineglass. "Oh?"
"Yes, quite," McKay said, leaning back in his chair. "If you would rather cultivate relationships with those destined for a career in Parliament, or a hope of making it to the Admiralty, you will find them sitting as far away from this table as possible. Here sit the intellectual interlopers," he gestured to himself, "the Captains brought in from the West Indies," he gestured to Emmagan and Dex, "and the Captain possessed of the second most impressive black mark in Corps history, saving your own, of course."
Laurence's mouth twitched. Sheppard revised his plan for flicking potatoes at McKay; actual cutlery might now be required if he were to create a blessed quiet.
"Forgive me," Laurence said, addressing Sheppard directly. "I was unaware of your situation. Yet I know how these things can often arise from . . ." He gave a rueful half-smile, "complex circumstance." The effects of his own rebellion against the Crown were readily apparent in the tanned hue of his skin and the grey hair at his temple.
Yet already the whistle of night-air was too loud in Sheppard's memory, the snap of twigs and scrape of branches still raw upon his skin. He nodded politely at Laurence. "Exactly so," he said quietly.
"Please," McKay protested. "There was nothing complex about your act." He leveled his gaze at Laurence. "Second lieutenant, 1805, a scouting expedition as Napoleon regrouped his forces after Austerlitz. A French Fleur-de-Nuit came close enough to board, and in low-flying battle . . ."
"Aboard!" Mitcheson yelled, as if there was need when the Fleur-de-Nuit was close enough to touch, to smell - carbon and remnants of fresh beef; blood at his claws - the air thick with battle cries in French and answering curses in every dialect of the Isles. Sheppard slid a hand beneath the leather straps of Honestius's rigging, prepared for what must come next - a mid-air spiral, the dragon turning over and about, French and English tumbling from Honestius' back where carabiners were not secured or straps had been cut.
"Giles, Martin, down," came a shout, then the welcome cry of "pow-dah!" as Bates launched the flash that would enable them to see their enemy. Sheppard readied himself, his pistol primed, and squinted into the midnight sun of their advantage, downing the first of many French who had their sights upon the captain. Above them, the Fleur-de-Nuit shrieked in pain as her eyes burned from the light - she bucked her captain's commands, straining toward darkness, but she would level and return, Sheppard knew, trained to overcome pain as every man, woman, and dragon among them. He holstered his gun, climbed Honestius' harness, clipping and unclipping his carabiners in swift progression. "More powder!" he yelled. "Bates, again!"
But there was no answer, no rapid-fire reply, only a fainter call after one moment, two had passed - Ford's voice, shaken but determined. "Powder, sir!" A pause before a flare shot once more into the dark.
It was only then that Sheppard saw the tussle at Honestius' right shoulder, Sumner's sword drawn, his footing unsteady as he fought, an eager Frenchman meeting each thrust, though his coat already showed a quantity of his blood. Sheppard growled low and reached for his second pistol, took good aim and fired while the flare grew dim in the heavens. The Frenchman fell - harnessed yet, he thudded into Honestius's side; the dragon groaned and shuddered, hauling left as he corrected for the swinging weight. Sheppard pulled a knife, his shot spent, and lunged as more of the French crew pushed forth. In darkness all was imprecise, certainties few save for the location of the captain at Sheppard's back, the man he must protect. Above the howls of fighting men, the roar and clarion call of dragons engaged, the backwash of wind from the Fleur-de-Nuit's wings there was yet the exchange of order and accession from dragon and captain, flying low to the ground, close to village and farm where light might yet provide advantage against their foe.
The shot that took Everett in the shoulder flew by Sheppard's ear, and there was barely a second to consider for whom the bullet had been meant, or whether Sheppard might have anticipated the shot and shifted to take its brunt. Everett collapsed against Honestius's neck, the dragon roaring with anger as he craned his neck to try to see his captain's injury, flying at such an angle as to dispatch more French into the pastures below and cost Lieutenant Sumner his footing. Sheppard moved quickly, securing himself at Everett's side, probing his wound; he was much relieved to hear the old man groan and realize there was life here that could yet be saved; the French would not take this man, nor Honestius. "Fly low, as he bid you," he called to the dragon. "Fly low, and we might yet save those of our men who have fallen."
There was a violent curse to Sheppard's right - Sumner, cut across the shoulder, one arm rendered useless and his other tiring as he fought a new interloper, come from the rear. "Home," he yelled. "Fly and damn them, Sheppard!" His face, illuminated by the dim lights of a village Sheppard could not name, contorted with determination as he hacked at the Frenchman who had engaged him. It was a chance of timing that Sheppard saw Sumner's dismay as the Frenchmen slashed at his anchor-rope, his expression frozen in the split-second before he fell. By instinct Sheppard responded, pulling Honestius into a steep right-ward dive dispatching the Frenchman and his sword to the air.
"Powder!" yelled Ford from the rear - another round; likely their last - and the echo of shot, the shout and bellow of man and beast, all became a thunder to accompany the wind that buffeted their progress toward the earth. Sheppard looked behind him, saw combat but no close intruder, set his boot-knife between his teeth that he might use it if there was need. "Set down," he yelled to Honestius. "Circle and set down!"
But the first flush of horror had passed and Honestius shook his head, sensible yet of the crew still aboard. "Home," he called back, and there was grief in his voice.
"Sumner may yet live," Sheppard called. "You saw where he fell!"
Honestius shuddered with the burden of his loyalties. "My captain . . ."
"Is well! He is injured but well and we will carry him home, see to his needs, bind these wounds, but we cannot, we cannot, Honestius, leave our men behind when . . ."
Honestius roared some deep, reluctant agreement, some desperate misery, and circled back to retrace his route, skimming treetops, searching for the men he might save. His descent was unsteady, his energy all but spent, but the lights of the village kept the Fleur-de-Nuit at distance enough to make the journey almost practicable. Sheppard peered into the darkness, heart and soul engaged, barely hearing the "Pour L'Empereur!" behind him, turning by luck, swift enough to see his attacker, to throw his knife and hear the gurgle of blood rushing into lungs.
There was a tug at his sleeve - Everett, injured but conscious. "Home, Sheppard."
But Sheppard, eyes locked upon the Frenchman who had sought his life and was losing his own, could not turn.
"John. The Fleur-de-Nuit leaves - she will call for fresh forces. We must . . ." Everett coughed, pulling in an agonized breath.
"We will fly with all speed," Sheppard murmured, watching as the Frenchman slumped to his knees, then fell in awful rest upon the leather of Honestius' harness. "As soon as - "
"You should not need my order," Everett said, his voice low and words clipped despite his wounds. "You should not need to be told to leave those who have fallen. You will - "
"I see him!" Honestius called.
They landed in moments, Sheppard's conscience burning painfully as he slid down Honestius' flank and ran to the figure lying broken amid a peasant's portion of trampled wheat. The remnants of dinner rose to Sheppard's throat but he swallowed, willed the acid taste of failure back to a likely resting place, and bent to gather Sumner's body, his greatcoat staining with the officer's blood.
Part 2 of 2