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Desaix

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1: Beginning

“Pull!” cried Jack. “Pull like heroes! Pull for the Surprise!”

The cutter’s crew hauled at their oars, their faces indistinct through the gale-flung spray, their arms straining in a rhythm they could not keep up for much longer, exhausted as they were from a mile-long chase and a bloody battle before that. Josiah McBeth at stern oar, who had cracked two ribs in a fall from the mainsail yard a fortnight since, was already gasping like a spent man; Jack plucked him away without a word and took his place on the thwart, pulling as if to burst his chest.

Eight hundred yards to the ship, seven hundred, six hundred, and the sea around the cutter was cut up white with cannonballs crashing across its surface, the stabs of flame from the pursuing gunboats uncoordinated but ceaseless through the driving rain.

Stephen was a dark figure crouched in the stern sheets, clutching the edges of his boat-cloak closed around the sailcloth bag he had been carrying when he ran down from the French fortifications. A lucky shot hit the water not six feet from the cutter’s gunwale, sending up a plume of white, and he looked up at Jack, his face a pale mask of shock.

“It is hatching,” he said. “God in heaven, Jack, it is hatching!”

Jack’s oar missed its purchase; he fell backwards, striking his shoulder against the next man’s handle, but he scrambled to his place and shoved his oar back into its rowlock in time to join the next haul.

“Just keep hold of it, Stephen,” he shouted. “Keep hold of it, and give it a name before it turns feral!”

He hauled again, his lungs burning. The French gunships were gaining steadily, their musket fire almost within range now. He risked one swift glance over his shoulder: the Surprise was riding at single anchor, her yards ready manned and the bosun standing by, axe in hand, to cut her cable the moment the cutter could hook on.

Stephen peeled the wrappings from the top of his sailcloth parcel. “There, now,” he murmured. “Do not mind the noise, my dear. You are perfectly safe with us.” He ducked, his whole body angled protectively over the swaddled lump, as a ball struck the bow oar, destroying it and its seaman utterly.

A thin, reedy whimper came from within the cloak; Jack could not make out any words, but he heard Stephen curse in reply and saw him fling some misshapen objects aside, casting them into the water swirling in the cutter’s keel. They were pieces of shell, Jack realised with a dawning horror: a leathery, reptilian shell, greenish with slime.

The ship was looming close now, a few boat-lengths away, her marines firing from the maintop into the French gunboats.

“A line, God rot you!” roared Jack. “A line for the Doctor!”

As the cutter’s bows slammed against the Surprise’s tar-black timbers and her oarsmen ran up the sides, a whip snaked down from the yardarm to haul Stephen and his burden into the ship. Safely aboard, he paused at the rail and turned, a sudden gleam of gunmetal in his hand, and the French captain staggered in the bows of the nearest gunboat and fell into the sea, a dark stain spreading out from the remains of his skull.

The Surprise lurched as her cable was cut, but she came up nobly, her sails bellying and her stays straining taut as the way came on her, and within a few minutes she was running from her pursuers at a rate no gunship could ever match.

“It is done,” said Jack, clapping the steersman on the shoulder, his voice hoarse with exhaustion. “It is done.”

He cast his sword aside and looked around for Stephen, but there was only Killick, holding Stephen’s stained boat-cloak over one arm, his face haggard and appalled.

“Which he’s in the cabin already,” said Killick. “It hatched, sir. The thing hatched.”

 

2: Infancy

“What in God’s name?” muttered Jack, waking from a dream in which something bony and monstrous had just tried to destroy him by shoving him bodily into the earth. Reaching upwards, he found a dry, scaly form crouched on his chest: the dragonet, who must have wriggled her way into his cot. “Ah,” he said. “There you are. You have let yourself get chilled again, I find.”

“Oh, did I wake you?” asked the dragonet, snuggling more firmly against his ribs and wrapping her tail around herself in a manner she had copied from the bosun’s cat. “I did not mean to. I was only trying to keep warm until Stephen comes back from the sick bay, as he would not let me go with him.”

Jack sighed, rubbing sleep from his eyes. “Why, what did you do this time? Have you been eating the Doctor’s pills again?”

The dragonet lifted her head, a hint of indignation in her pale eyes. “Only as a philosophical experiment. He says there has been almost no research into the effects of human medications on dragons: only half a dozen papers in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. Pah, it is absurd! How are we ever to learn what dosages work if we do not try them?”

“That may be true, but the Surprise carries only what she needs for her crew. If you take it all yourself, what must the men do for physic?”

“Most of the pills are nothing but coloured chalk, so I cannot see it would make much difference,” she said, leaning idly out of the cot to watch a rat scuttle along the bulwark. “There is a very large rat over there. Do they make good eating? I am sure I could catch it, and you might have half of it if you liked.”

Jack was still trying to formulate a suitable answer when Killick stuck his head round the cabin door. “Which the cook says he’s got Miss Dizzy’s breakfast chopped up,” he said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder, “and she’s to come and eat it before it clots all solid and he tosses it to the sharks.”

The dragonet perked up at the sound of her name. Stephen, knowing nothing about dragon nomenclature save for a vague notion that French ship names might be acceptable, had in his panic remembered the vessel in which he had been imprisoned the previous year—the Desaix, 74 guns, Captain Christy-Pallière—and the newly hatched beast had agreed. The Surprise’s crew had of course treated this in their usual phlegmatic way by Anglicising its vowels and repeating it at a volume suited to the meanest foreign intellect, and she had thus been “Desaix” on the quarterdeck and “Dizzy” to the foremast jacks ever since. As she spoke French and English interchangeably, and as her chosen captain answered equally to “Stephen”, “Etienne” or “Esteve”, neither of them seemed at all perturbed by this.

“Is it tunny again, or is it mutton?” she asked now.

“It’s porpoise, fresh harpooned,” said Killick. “Come on, Miss Dizzy, rise and shine. We ain’t got all day.”

The dragonet hopped out of the cot and scampered after him, tripping over her wings and righting herself with a squeak. Smiling to himself, Jack pulled his blanket up to his chin and settled in for a precious half-hour’s peace.

 

3: Youth

Jack paused in his daily pacing of the quarterdeck to watch Desaix skimming low over the water’s surface; he had to squint hard to pick out her mottled colouration from any distance against the grey-green swell. Every now and then she would swoop down, sometimes snatching a fish up in her talons and eating it mid-flight, sometimes catching the crest of a wave with a wingtip and pitching violently into the sea in an explosion of spume.

“I suppose it takes a vast deal of practice to learn manoeuvres of any sort, even aerial ones,” he remarked to Stephen, who had wandered out of the great cabin. “I forget at times that she is still only a squeaker, a first-voyager.”

Stephen was silent as he watched Desaix take off in a flurry of bat-like wings and webbed feet, leaving a long trail of churning water in her wake.

“No doubt,” he said at last, “and if Cuvier is correct about the buoyancy of draconic air-sac gases, I dare say she will never learn to dive as well as you, Jack, but she has the great advantage of surprise: the fish cannot see her coming. I should like to see you catch one with your bare hands.”

“Give me a well-stocked trout stream and I might, at that,” said Jack mildly.

“Until the water bailiff—oh!” cried Stephen, stumbling as the Surprise pitched violently. Desaix’s head appeared at the lee rail; she clambered the rest of the way up and settled on the deck, shaking water by the gallon from her flanks.

Jack offered an arm to Stephen and hauled him back to his feet. “I do not mean to carp,” he said, dusting him off, “but your damned beast is as heavy as a carthorse already, and twice as inconvenient. In a rough sea we might be pooped, was she to pull a caper like that at the wrong moment.”

Stephen straightened his breeches, a wicked old pair held up by knotted twine, which Killick had yet to succeed in abstracting and destroying. “I am sorry, my dear,” he said. “Perhaps that is not the most desirable way for her to mount the side. I need not point out to you, however, that certain departments within Government would find it convenient indeed to have a swift, discreet mode of aerial conveyance at their bidding, capable of bringing a man to any coast without attracting undue attention, since a frigate and her crew may venture where a full-sized dragon transport could not.”

Jack stared only a moment before he recollected himself. “Yes, of course. Yes, I quite take your point, Stephen. Perhaps if she could be trained to climb up amidships instead—”

“I am sure she could. Amidships, and on the leeward side for safety.” Stephen paused a moment, looking from larboard to starboard, his eyes narrowed. “Or the windward, as the case might be.”

Desaix, who had been eavesdropping on their conversation without the least embarrassment, quickly swarmed over the break of the quarterdeck, writhed past the backstays and pressed herself down on the windward side of the ship’s boats, tucking herself into as small a space as possible and turning her long neck to peer hopefully back at Jack, her whole being radiating a ludicrous docility.

Jack cleared his throat. “Well, she does at least lie closer to the ground than a carthorse would, with her centre of gravity somewhat lower, and I suppose she might learn to change sides whenever we tack.”

“She might, at that,” said Stephen. “I have already spent quite some time impressing upon her the importance you seamen attach to that sort of thing.”

“So we do, when we are indulged our foibles. I must allow she has a better grasp of mathematics than any of my midshipmen, and I had even thought of starting her on the basics of navigation. It might prove invaluable, was you at some point to be travelling alone and returning to the ship at night.”

“Navigation, is it?” said Stephen vaguely. “I daresay she might take an interest. I have made some study of it myself, of course, but in the darkness anyone may be taken all aback.”

Jack bowed and made no reply; he had known Stephen get lost navigating from one deck to another in broad daylight. Desaix had already proved remarkably adept at her figures, however, and he  thought even spherical trigonometry might not be beyond her. The younger she learned it the better; there was not a moment to be lost.

“Mr Pullings!” he called. “We shall have Desaix washed down, if you please, with all those fish scales to be scraped off, and my slate and pencil to be fetched from my cabin.”

“Aye, sir,” said Pullings. “Miss Dizzy washed, scales gone and slate fetched it is. Swabbers! Swabbers there!”

 

4: Maturity

“From his Britannic Majesty, Lord and Sovereign of the Kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland, Protector of the Realm...” the official read in his droning voice, whilst all around him the courtiers and courtesans shuffled and dozed. Jack looked about with some curiosity at the painted stone pillars of the throne room, its gilded dais, and the intricate, abstract fretwork that divided it from its antechambers. As the reading of the formal missive dragged on and on, he intercepted the Crown Prince’s gaze and for a moment thought he saw amusement flit across the bland complaisance on the young man’s face.

The prince clapped his hands, cutting off the official in mid-sentence. “Good, good, most nobly put, and we are much of a mind to grant the treaty with our British friends, but we shall read the rest later. For now, Captain Aubrey would like to see the royal bodyguards drilling in the courtyard, yes?”

“Indeed, your Highness. I would be honoured.” Jack bowed and followed him out of the stifling atmosphere of the throne room with some relief, straightening his crumpled uniform as best he could.

In the dusty parade ground to which the prince led him, a squadron of soldiers had been drawn up in the blazing heat, swaying slightly and blinking as the flies crawled over them. At the prince’s approach, their sergeant snapped an order and the sweating men stood to attention, presenting arms in near-perfect unison: a creditable display of zeal, although the ragged coats they wore under their fine crimson sashes would have shamed Jack’s own marines, and their arms were mostly pikes and staves, with barely a musket between ten of them. Strategically important though the city-state might be, its coffers were clearly exhausted.

“A fine show, are they not?” the prince said. “Ah, but you should have come yesterday, captain. We had a Frenchman visiting, and it would have been most entertaining for you to meet an enemy, yes? Ha, ha! I jest; he was only a naturalist, come to consult with the Dutch resident at the old government house about some bird or other. We were expecting a full French delegation, but oddly enough they never arrived. However, it is all the better for you that they did not, my friend?”

Jack bowed again. “As you say, your Highness. I take it the naturalist did not stay?”

“No, no, he could not, but must be off to search for more creatures out in the hills. I do not mean to offend you, Captain Aubrey, but sometimes Europeans can be exceedingly strange. Oh, but you have not yet seen my cannons! Come, come, we must have the cannons fire.”

The guns were brought into the parade ground, dragged by two oxen apiece. As the prince and his sergeant fussed over them, Jack’s wandering attention was seized by some tiny figures in the distance, far beyond the palace, trudging up the hills outside town. He could just make out two mules and their riders, and in the sky behind them a dark shape that might have been mistaken for a particularly large vulture, circling, circling, and finally descending to meet them.

He turned back to the guns, nodding and smiling politely as the five-pound balls were carried in and the pieces were prepared with excruciating slowness for firing. When at last he could risk another glance at the distant hills, the skies were empty and the mules were plodding back towards the town, one of them now riderless.

“Godspeed, Stephen,” he murmured. Turning away, he followed the prince back into the palace to go over the precious treaty once more.

 

5: Onward

Jack was checking watch-lists by candlelight when he heard the hiss of webbed feet skimming across water and then a heavy splash in the Surprise’s wake. The deck under his feet rocked gently as Desaix clambered up the oversize beams bolted to the ship’s side, and by the time he had bundled his lists away and straightened the cabin, he had caught the marine sentry’s greeting and Stephen’s muted reply.

“Come in, Doctor,” he called, setting an extra cushion on the window locker. “There you are! I was beginning to suppose we must have missed you this time.”

Stephen entered, looking thin and weary beyond measure. “Here I am indeed,” he said, with the ghost of a smile. “Here, just as agreed, but I am concerned to find it four days past our rendezvous. Will you not be in bad odour with the Admiral for outstaying your orders?”

“No, no, and even if I am, it don’t much signify,” said Jack, waving him over to the cushions and passing a box of biscuits. He was quiet for a moment, watching his friend eat and remembering the many occasions over the past decade when he had kept lonely vigil in his cabin, fearing Stephen captured, betrayed, perhaps even outwitted. “Old Harte will be relieved to hear you safe, in any case,” he said. “The Admiralty would have had his head on a plate, was you lost.”

Stephen helped himself to another half-dozen biscuits, slipping them into his pocket. “Not this time, although to be sure I was very nearly undone by that fool of a guide. Would you have any meat or fish to spare for Desaix at all, Jack? I would hesitate to ask, but she has not eaten for two days and we must be off again as soon as we can.”

“Tom Pullings will have seen to that already,” said Jack, handing Stephen the bread and a wedge of cheese from the table; from the look of him, he had not eaten for at least as long as his dragon. “All my officers have standing orders, and in any case they would not let her go hungry, even if they had to give up their own rations to see her fed.”

“Thank you, soul. I am sorry to have to rush so.” Stephen took a bite of the cheese and wrapped the rest in his handkerchief, stowing it with the pocketful of biscuits. “This wretched Spanish business should be concluded in a week at most, provided I can meet with the necessary people. There is a headland a little way southeast of here, so they tell me; may we fix a rendezvous of, let us say, a mile from its furthest promontory?”

Gathering up the rest of his supper, Jack packed it into a canvas bag along with a bottle of wine and hung it around Stephen’s neck. “A mile west of the point,” he said, tugging the strap straight. “I shall be waiting.”

Stephen got to his feet and started for the door, but then paused. “Jack, I beg that you run no risks. If I am taken, you must assume the ship’s presence is known. You must assume it is not safe to stay.”

Jack set his jaw. “A mile west of the point,” he repeated, in the same tone as before.

Stephen gave him a tired smile and opened the door. “A mile west, then. Farewell, my dear.”

His footsteps retreated, and there was the sound of distant voices: Pullings and Bonden bidding him clap on hard to his harness and mind his bearings. The jingle of harness rings, the crack of leathery wings beating the air, and then the ship shuddered violently as Desaix took off.

Jack watched her from the stern windows as she circled the ship, climbing higher and higher. For a minute or two he could still make out her mottled skin and the tiny, dark-clad figure of her captain, just visible in the moonlight, and then they were gone.