Once upon a time, in the land of traditional Western storytellers, where ancient archetypes roamed unchanged for millennia, dragons stood for a certain set of inalienable values. Evil, cunning, armored, avaricious, virgin-defiling, they represented "the ultimate antagonist which a hero faces at the culmination of his career," according to critic Roz Kaveney in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. One would no more imagine taming a dragon, or bonding with one, than one would envision setting up housekeeping with Medusa.
We've come a long way since Beowulf. In the twentieth century, a strain in children's and YA literature offered the humorously conceived cozy dragon, a sometimes bumbling friend and guardian figure. Starting as early as Kenneth Grahame's The Reluctant Dragon, the mode reached some kind of midlife apex with Disney's film Pete's Dragon.
But the character transformation of the dragon in adult fantastical literature surely derives from Anne McCaffrey's Dragonrider series, begun in 1967. McCaffrey's intelligent beasts were actually aliens from the planet Pern, and hence removed from the confining strictures of legend and fable. They could be portrayed freshly as amiable and intelligent partners to humans. Around this same period, Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea dragons, long-lived and conversant in the primal and potent Language of the Making, inhabited a niche akin to that of revered Taoist sages, but such a presentation proved less generative of imitators.
Since McCaffrey's groundbreaking transvaluation, dragons in fantasy and science fiction have ridden a teeter-totter between evil and benign. For every George R. R. Martin and Lucius Shepard, we get a Margaret Weis and Cressida Cowell. At their most cloying, the cozy dragons seem merely analogues to (talking, smart) horses, catering or should that be "cantering"to clichéd conceptions of ponies marketed to children. Somewhere at the fulcrum of this teeter-totter exist the books of Naomi Novik, in which dragons assume a purely naturalistic role, neither inherently moral nor immoral, and certainly not occult. In a way, Novik is concerned with the technic of dragons, examining how the beasts function as an instrumentality of human ingenuity, namely in the pursuit of war. And, like McCaffrey, she endows her dragons with full human-quality sentience, and there's no way around it the capability to form attachments of friendship and even platonic romance with their human "Captains."
Novik's bestselling seriesof which Blood of Tyrants is the eighth installment is began with His Majesty's Dragon in 2006. (The frequent clockwork appearance of new volumes is testament to Novik's talent and dedication, and is marked by no diminution of quality.) With grace and economy and some shorthand borrowings from consensus history she sets her scene instantly: the era of the Napoleonic Wars, with our point- of-view squarely set on British shoulders. Namely, those of sturdy and brave young naval captain named Will Laurence. For a few pages we think we are inhabiting a familiar Patrick O'Brian novel. Then, in the hold of a captured French ship, Laurence discovers a dragon's egg of a rare sort.
A moment's detour here. The back-story to Novik's parallel Earth turns out to be that dragons have been coeval with man forever, domesticated in all lands throughout human existence. Now, the science of writing alternate histories generally holds that the farther back a point of divergence is, the greater the changes that will radiate down the line. Strictly speaking, Novik's assertion that a world full of long-existing dragons will still produce Napoleon and all his contemporaries in the nineteenth century of a basically unchanged continuum is a big illogical counterfactual pill to swallow. But it's plain that she chose this approach because of the sheer storytelling potential involved. Familiarity of culture allied with one alluring inserted novum. "A touch of strange," to use Theodore Sturgeon's formulation. And since the conceit ends up working so well, most readers will gladly accept its unlikeliness.
Back to Captain Will Laurence. The dragon egg is taken onboard his ship as booty. It hatches while they are still far from port, and the odd black male dragon that emerges is instantly and forever bonded with Laurence, who names it Temeraire. Now Laurence's naval career is necessarily over, and he's a fledgling member of the Aerial Corps of dragonriders.
The rest of the book is a pleasing mix of flight academy protocol; growing understanding, love and sense of mutual interests between man and dragon; social tragicomedy (Laurence's alienation from his family; a love affair with Jane Roland); and, of course, politics and warfare, in which Laurence and Temeraire earn their spurs, so to speak. Told with colorful, restrained, yet vivid language, Novik's tale is a delight, full of sharp characterizations, humor, suspense, plot twists and meticulously conceived dragon lore and technology. Of course, the depiction of Temeraire, with his truly alien mind, stands high on the list of attractions. No wonder this debut novel made it to the Hugo Award ballot.
Throne of Jade takes up the tale of Temeraire and Laurence with an immediacy that betokened the fact that Novik was embarked on one long narrative arc, with novel-ending mini- climaxes along the path. She revealed that Temeraire's Chinese origin involved the beast in dynastic squabbles back in his land of origin. A harsh emissary, Prince Yongxing, demands the return of Temeraire to China, and off he and Laurence go, with some other Brits. There, Machiavellian intrigue besets the visitors (not impeding Temeraire's first love affair with a fellow dragon), but all works out fine.
At the start of Black Powder War, Laurence and company are impelled to return home, but lack ocean passage. They undertake the classic Marco Polo route back to Europe, allowing Novik to expand her portrait of this alternate globe. Arriving at the siege of Danzig, Laurence and Temeraire and some fledgling Turkish dragons offer relief. A whiff of appealing Flashman-like roguishness inheres in a new character, Tharkay, a native guide and friend to Laurence.
A compelling H. Rider Haggard atmosphere imbues Empire of Ivory with an exotic flavor. Safely home in the U.K., Laurence and Temeraire discover that England's dragons are all dying of draconian flu. Off to Africa in search of a cure they go, encountering an odd hybrid tribe where humans and dragons coexist in a strange manner. Edgar Rice Burroughs's Opar never did it better. Layered in is a subplot about the morality of the slave trade, with telling comparisons made to the role of dragons, who are manumitted in China, but not elsewhere. This volume ends with an act of high-minded "treachery" by Laurence. To counter British bio-warfare against the dragons of France, he brings the draconian flu cure to the enemy. A face-to-face meeting with Napoleon cannot dissuade Laurence from returning to England to manfully face the consequences of his actions.
With Laurence imprisoned as a traitor when Victory of Eagles opens, Novik for the first time splits her narration between Captain and steed, giving us a neat picture of dragon society and conversation when humans aren't around. It should be remarked at this juncture that unlike many static genre series which either return to the status quo after each installment or unmercifully pad the storyline, Novik's books maintain a heady and steady progression. They also find her protagonists developing in consistent yet startling new ways, such as Temeraire's growing into his "stud" duty and his insistent arrogation of paid officer status to himself and his fellow dragons. Certainly the major plot leap here is Napoleon's land invasion of the United Kingdom a major uchronic riff in its own right and that campaign provides many stirring battle passages. At the end, thanks in no small part to a reunited Laurence and Temeraire, Napoleon's forces are defeated abroad, but still triumphant at home.
Just when the reader might begin to imagine that Novik has played all her cards, she conceives of a great maneuver to legitimately expand the story's range in Tongues of Serpents. Despite his heroism, at the end of battle Laurence is still condemned for his prior "treason." The modified solution? Criminal transportation to Australia. Of course, Temeraire seen as something of an undesirable pro-dragon rabble-rouser must go too. Some of Laurence's pals come along as well: Tharkay, and a sidekick (important from the get-go yet whom I've failed to mention till now), John Granby and his dragon Iskierka. Down Under, the cast encounter rebellions, smugglers, and vast privations on a cross- continental expedition. Two engaging new dragons Caesar and Kulingile are introduced. The latter's lusty appetite provides a running gag. Indeed, all the dragons are as much concerned with food as hobbits are, and Novik's attention to the utilitarian side of maintaining these enormous beasts is ever on display.
When we encounter Laurence in Crucible of Gold, still in Aussie retirement, his weathered, somewhat aged appearance and reclusive demeanor make us jump, as we recall the fresh faced youth of His Majesty's Dragon. Deaths and disfigurements among the rest of the cast contribute to the sense of loss. It's a frisson richly earned by Novik only after so much deft storytelling. Novik also ramps up counterfactually in this installment, giving us an Incan Empire unconquered by Europeans, where we get a Kiplingesque episode reminiscent of The Man Who Would Be King.
Blood of Tyrants announces itself to be the penultimate book in the saga whose architectural shape is now becoming clear spanning eight years of Will Laurence's life so far. And it opens unlike any of the previous books, with a major discontinuity in the narrative's resumption from Crucible.
Last seen in Brazil ready to board the Potentate for a government mission to China, Laurence is suddenly revealed at the opening of the new book as a hapless castaway in Japan, partially amnesiac. We soon discover, shifting to Temeraire's nearby coastal situation, that the Potentate has foundered upon the rocks of that cloistered nation, with Laurence gone overboard. Laurence falls in with the locals, acquiring a new companion in a young man named Junichiro, while a despairing Temeraire and company, recovering, sail to Nagasaki, the one port officially open to Westerners. At the same time, we gain secondhand knowledge of developments back in Europe, where Napoleon's star continues to rise. And quite refreshingly, that major blank spot on Novik's map, the USA, gets fleshed out thanks to a meeting with a Yankee dragon named Wamponoag.
When dragon and man are reunited after much adventuring, the mission to China resumes forward motion, though Laurence's memory loss casts an uneasy ambiance over the human-draconian ensemble. In China, Laurence is disturbed to learn of the British involvement in the hated opium trade. Surely Novik is indulging in some wry parallels with our own era when she has one British character say, "'There is scarcely any market here in China for most of our goods, and enormous markets for their goods in the West: the deficit was quite unmanageable, until opium was introduced.'" But this matter must go onto the back burner when news reaches Laurence & Co. that Napoleon's army is heading towards Moscow. Only reinforcements from China some 300 dragons and crews racing overland can help.
Novik wisely elides that long overland trip which would in large part have duplicated the similar trip in Throne of Jade and kicks precipitously off with Temeraire and Laurence already in Russia, getting ready for battle. She is at her rousing martial best in this section yet not neglecting smaller-scale personal matters and the book concludes with the portentous line "Winter had come." Thus are we prepared for the end game of Napolean's quest, which has bracketed and permeated and defined the whole arc of Laurence's career.
Even at this late stage, Novik continues to do new things. We meet Japanese River Dragons and Russian ones as well, these latter exhibiting the classic treasure-hoarding behavior. Alternate-history eyekicks continue to come our way. Married to the Incan Empress, Napoleon has produced an heir: "The new Roi de Cusco, as he had been styled, was by now four months old and reportedly thriving: he had been christened Napoleon Joseph Pachacuti Yupanqui" And we get an outsider's summary view of Laurence and Temeraire after all their seasoning, an estimation that drives home the magnitude of their exploits: "If the world has not heard of you after your adventure at Gdanskor after the plague, we should certainly have heard of you after Brazil. Where you go, you leave half the world upturned behind you. You are more dangerous than Bonaparte in your own way, you and that beast of yours."
But really in a series like this, what counts is continued delivery of the established pleasures, and there is plenty of that. The delicious politesse of the period, the boarding school stiff-upper-lip sangfroid, has always been a draw of these books, and it continues. Here is how Laurence consoles Temeraire when the latter is half- buried under an avalanche and in danger of suffocating: "I hope you know that I do not hold you responsible for my own actions where I have allowed myself to be persuaded, the decision must in the end have been my own. And where apologies between us may have been merited, in the past, and there made, I hope you do not imagine me so unreasonable as to expect you to repeat them."
The major accomplishment of these booksbesides, of course, all the sheer entertainment value they deliver, due to a bumper crop of classic adventures lies in the way Novik has managed to integrate humans and dragons of a distinctively palpable and corporeal sort into a hybrid society, much along the same lines as that type of science fiction which depicts merged alien-human communities. While retaining their own species-specific beliefs and behaviors on the same moral and intellectual lane as humans, her dragons have blended with and accommodated themselves to their partners and vice versa in a true marriage of equals. Laurence and Temeraire, addressing each other continually as "dear," hold out hope for a world where empathy trumps difference.
Author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, and Neutrino Drag, Paul Di Filippo was nominated for a Sturgeon Award, a Hugo Award, and a World Fantasy Award all in a single year. William Gibson has called his work "spooky, haunting, and hilarious." His reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Science Fiction Weekly, Asimov's Magazine, and The San Francisco Chronicle.
Reviewer: Paul Di Filippo
Novik’s eighth and penultimate alternate history novel (after Crucible of Gold) opens with series hero Laurence shipwrecked and taken prisoner in Japan in an extended tribute to Shogun. His reunion with Temeraire, his dragon companion, is awkward, as Laurence has suffered a head injury and entirely forgotten the past several years. As Laurence struggles to regain his health and memories, they journey to Temeraire’s native China for some court intrigue, then fly to Russia to confront Napoleon’s invading army. While each episode works well on its own, the ties between them are tenuous, leading to a less satisfying whole. Surprisingly, the amnesia plot is the highlight of the book; Laurence reflects movingly on how very strange his life has become, while often-self-absorbed Temeraire is humbled by Laurence’s sacrifices on his behalf. Despite the fast pace, Novik does fit in some interesting scenery, with glimpses of a Japan ruled by dragons and Temeraire’s discovery that dragons can be as corrupt and oppressive as any man. Fans will mostly find their appetites whetted for the series conclusion. Agent: Cynthia Manson, Cynthia Manson Literary Agency. (Aug.)
Eighth and penultimate entry (Crucible of Gold, 2012, etc.) in Novik's historical fantasy series that presents the Napoleonic wars as a global conflict whose armed forces include intelligent dragons. Washed ashore alone in Japan, William Laurence finds he has no memory of the last eight years. He recalls captaining a royal navy vessel, but, puzzlingly, he wears an aviator's green jacket. As the guest, or prisoner, of a local lord who serves Lady Arikawa, he finds that he can speak Chinese--a fact that makes the isolationist Japanese all the more suspicious. Laurence escapes, but, oddly, Lady Arikawa--she turns out to be a powerful dragon--makes no great effort to recapture him. Assisted by Lady Kiyomizu, a boozy water-dragon with a taste for Shakespeare, Laurence makes his way to Nagasaki, the only Japanese city that permits foreigners, where he's reunited with his companions, including his dragon partner, Temeraire, but his memories still stubbornly refuse to return. Some officers of the Aerial Corps, an astonished Laurence discovers, are women; even more surprising, he learns that he's an adopted son of the Chinese emperor and that his mission is to persuade China to join an alliance against Napoleon. Unfortunately, the Chinese court is riddled with traitors, and the British are suspected of involvement in the opium trade. Meanwhile, backed by an alliance with the powerful Incan empire, Napoleon has invaded Russia. Novik has a firm grasp of 19th-century styles, sensibilities and manners. Her fantasy extrapolations of real history are both charming and realistic. She writes vivid action prose with a good feel for the fog of battle. Best of all, the dragons are characters as fully realized as the humans. A first-class entry in a remarkable and appealing series; this one's mostly independently intelligible, though newcomers will want to start from the beginning.
From the Publisher
Praise for Blood of Tyrants
“A first-class entry in a remarkable and appealing series.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Novik’s plots and characterizations get more intricate and plausible with each novel. . . . Novik’s re-creation of much of world history based on the existence of intelligent dragons has been so well crafted that all eight books in the series are highly recommended.”—Booklist (starred review)
“Novik combines dragons . . . with period history to achieve a brilliantly realized re-creation of military history laced with the fantastic. . . . Well-crafted.”—Library Journal
“If you’ve never read these novels, now is the time to start.”—io9
“A fun, action-packed read.”—San Antonio Express-News
Praise for Naomi Novik and her Novels of Temeraire
“Novik’s influences run the gamut from Jane Austen to Patrick O’Brian, with a side trip through Anne McCaffrey. Her books are completely involving and probably addictive, their central conceit explored in clever detail with a great deal of wit and historical insight.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“These are beautifully written novels: not only fresh, original, and fast-paced, but full of wonderful characters with real heart.”—Peter Jackson
“A gripping adventure full of rich detail and the impossible wonder of gilded fantasy.”—Entertainment Weekly
“A new writer is soaring on the wings of a dragon.”—The New York Times
“A glorious series whose future status as a genre classic is now assured.”—SF Reviews
Washed up on the shores of Japan after a shipwreck, Capt. William Laurence has no memory of his mission nor does he remember his intelligent dragon mount Temeraire. Instead, he finds himself in a precarious position, especially as the Japanese desire to limit their contact with Europe. The penultimate novel in Novik's beloved series (His Majesty's Dragon) takes dragon and aviator to the brink of Napoleon's campaign into the Russian interior after an exploration of the mysterious lands of the Far East. VERDICT Novik combines dragons—a popular theme in fantasy—with period history to achieve a brilliantly realized re-creation of military history laced with the fantastic. Series fans as well as followers of the similarly timed Napoleonic sea novels of Patrick O'Brian should appreciate this well-crafted historical fantasy.
Read an Excerpt
Water lapping salt at his cheek roused him, a fresh cold trickle finding its way into the hollow of sand where his face rested. It spurred him: with an effort he pushed to hands and knees and then up, to stagger indecorously along the shore and fall again at the foot of several gnarled old pines clinging to the edge of the beach.
His mouth was dry and cracked, his tongue swollen. His hands were clotted with sand. The wind bit sharply through the sodden wool of his coat, stained black with water, and he was barefoot. Slowly, he unfastened the remnants of a leather harness from around his waist: buckles and clasps of good steel, still bright, but heavily waterlogged; he let it fall to the sand. The sword-belt he kept. The blade when he drew it was bright Damascus steel, the hilt wrapped in black ray-skin, the collar the golden head of a dragon. He stared down at it, without recognition.
He rested it across his knees and leaned back against the tree, half-drifting. The empty ocean stood before him: water cold dark blue, the sky a thin grey; dark clouds receded into the east. He might have emerged onto the sand new-born. He felt as empty as the shore: of strength, of history, of name.
Thirst at last drove him onwards, when little else would have served to rouse him. The stand of trees gave onto a road, well-maintained and showing the signs of heavy use, recent tracks and disturbed dust. He walked slowly and mechanically until he found a narrow stream that crossed the road, traveling towards the sea, and he stopped and cupped water into his mouth urgently until the taste of salt had gone.
He held himself braced on hands and knees, water dripping from his face into the stream. The bank had a little new grass, though the ground was still cold. There was a smell in the air of pine-needles, and the stream ran over the rocks in a steady gurgle, mingling with the more distant sound of the ocean, the scent of salt on the wind. He felt inwardly the sense of something urgent and forgotten like a weight on his back. But his trembling arms slowly gave way. He lay down on the grass of the riverbank where he had knelt to drink and fell again into a heavy torpor; his head ached dully.
The sun climbed, warmed his coat. Travelers went past on the nearby road. He was distantly aware of the jingle of harness and slap of walking feet, the occasional creak of cart wheels, but none of them stopped to bother him or even halted by the stream. A small party of men went by singing off-key, loudly and cheerfully, not in any tongue he knew. At last a larger company came, accompanied by the familiar creaking of an old-fashioned sedan-chair. Some confused corner of his mind offered the image of an older woman, borne by porters through London streets, but even as it came he knew it wrong.
The creaking stopped abruptly; a voice spoke from the chair: a clear tenor with the directness of authority. Prudence would have driven him to his feet, but he had no reserves of strength. In a moment, someone came to inspect him—a servant of some kind? He had some vague impression of a youth bending down over him, but not so low that the face came clear.
The servant paused, and then withdrew quickly to his master and spoke urgently in a clear young voice. There was another pause, and then the master spoke again in yet another tongue, one which he could not put a name to and nevertheless somehow understood: a rising and falling speech, musical. “I will not evade the will of Heaven. Tell me.”
“He is Dutch,” the servant answered in that same language, reluctance clear in every word.
He might have raised his head to speak—he was not Dutch, and knew that, if very little else; but he was cold, and his limbs heavier with every moment.
“Master, let us go on—”
“Enough,” the tenor voice said, quiet but final.
He heard orders given in the unfamiliar language while darkness stole over his vision; there were hands on him, their warmth welcome. He was lifted from the ground and slung into a sheet or a net for carrying; he could not even open his eyes to see. The company moved on; suspended in mid-air, swinging steadily back and forth as they went on, he felt almost as though he were in a hammock, aboard ship, swaying with the water. The movement lulled him; his pain dulled; he knew nothing more.
“William Laurence,” he said, and woke with his own name, at least, restored to him: out of a tangled dream full of burning sails and a strange weight of despair, a sinking ship. It faded as he struggled up to sit. He had been lain on a thin pad laid upon a floor of woven straw matting, in a room like none he had ever seen before: one solid wooden wall, the rest of translucent white paper set in frames of wood, and no sign of doors or windows. He had been bathed and dressed in a robe of light cotton; his own clothes were gone, and his sword. He missed the latter more.
He felt adrift, robbed of place and time. The chamber might have been a solitary hut or a room in the center of a great house; it might be set upon a mountaintop or the seashore; he might have slept an hour, a day, a week. A shadow abruptly loomed on the other side of the wall furthest from his bed, and the wall slid open along a track to furnish Laurence a glimpse of a corridor and another room across standing half-open, indistinguishable from his own, save for a window which looked out on a slim cherry-tree with bare dark branches.
A young man, not very tall but gangly with recent growth, perhaps sixteen, came through the opening and folded himself into the low-roofed chamber while Laurence stared at him blankly: he was Oriental. A long face with a sharp chin, clean-shaven and softened with the last remnants of puppy-fat; his dark hair was drawn back into a tail, and he wore an intricately arranged set of robes, creases as sharp as knife-edges.
He sat down on his heels and contemplated Laurence in turn, with an expression bleak enough to be aimed at a plague-carrier. After a moment he spoke, and Laurence thought he recognized the voice—the youth who had wished him left by the road.
“I have not the least notion what you are saying,” Laurence said, his voice sounding hoarse in his own ears. He cleared his throat: even that much struck his head with fresh pain. “Can you speak English? Or French? Where am I?” He tried those tongues both, and then hesitating repeated the last over in the other language which the men had spoken on the road.
“You are in Chikuzen Province,” the young man said, answering him in kind, “and far from Nagasaki, as you must well know.”
There was a sharp bitterness to his voice, but Laurence seized on the one familiar name. “Nagasaki?” he said, half in relief, but the momentary gratification faded: he was no less bewildered to know himself in Japan, the other side of the world from where he ought have been.
The young man—too old for a page, and he wore a sword; an equerry of some sort, or a squire, Laurence could only guess—made no answer, only with a curt gesture motioned him off the mat.
Laurence shifted himself onto the floor, with some awkwardness and pain: the ceiling was too low to have permitted him to stand unless he had hunched over like a toad, and he ached in every part. Two servants came in at the young man’s call; they tidied the mat away into a cabinet and offered Laurence fresh garments, baffling in their layers. He felt a clumsy child under their valeting, thrust one way and then another as he put his limbs continuously in the wrong places; then they brought him a tray of food: rice and dried fish and pungent broth, with an array of startling pickles. It was by no means the breakfast he would have chosen, his stomach unsettled, but they had no sooner put it before him than animal hunger became his master. He paused only after having devoured nearly half the meal, and stared at the eating-sticks, which he had picked up and used without thinking of it.
He forced himself to go on more slowly than he wished, still queasy and conscious of being under observation, the young man regarding him coldly and steadily the whole of his meal. “Thank you,” Laurence said at last, when he had finished, and the dishes were silently and deftly removed. “I would be grateful if you should give your master my thanks for his hospitality, and tell him I would be glad of an opportunity to repay it.”
The youth only compressed his lips together. “This way,” he said shortly. Laurence supposed he could have not looked anything but a vagabond, when they had found him.
The corridors of the house were not so stooped as the chambers. Laurence followed him to a back-chamber with a low writing-desk of some sort set upon the floor: another man sat behind it, working smoothly with brush and ink. His forehead and pate were clean-shaven, with a queue of his back hair clubbed tight and bound down doubled, over the bare skin; his garments were more ornate than the young man’s, although of the same style. The young man bowed to him from the waist, and spoke briefly in the Japanese tongue, gesturing towards him.
“Junichiro tells me you are recovered, Dutchman,” the man said, laying aside his brush. He looked across the desk at Laurence, wearing an expression of formal reserve, but with none of the dismay the young man—Junichiro?—had aimed at him.
“Sir,” Laurence said, “I must correct you: I am an Englishman, Captain William Laurence of—” He halted. Hanging from the wall behind the man’s head was a large and polished bronze mirror. The face which looked back at him from it was not merely haggard from his recent ordeal but unfamiliar: his hair grown long; a thin white scar running down his cheek, long-healed, which he did not remember; and lines and wear accumulated. He might have aged years since he had seen himself last.
“Perhaps you would be so kind as to explain to me the circumstances of your arrival in this part of the country,” the man said, prompting gently.
Laurence managed to say, reeling, “I am Captain William Laurence, of His Majesty’s Ship Reliant, of the Royal Navy. And I have not the least notion how I have come to be here, except if my ship has suffered some accident, which God forbid.”
Laurence did not much know what else he said afterwards. He supposed they saw his confusion and distress, for the questions stopped, and a servant was called to bring in a tray: a flask and small porcelain cups. His host filled one and gave it to him; Laurence took it and drank blindly, glad for the intensity: strong as brandy though light on the tongue. His cup was refilled promptly, and he drank again; the cup was small enough to be a single swallow. But he put it down afterwards. “I beg your pardon,” he said, feeling acutely that he had lost control of himself, and all the more awkward in the face of their carefully polite failure to notice it. “I beg your pardon,” he said, more strongly. “Sir, to answer your question, I cannot tell you how I came to be here: I must have been swept overboard, is the only possible answer. As for purpose, I have none; I have neither business nor friends in this part of the world.”
He hesitated, yet there was no help for it; he could not help but recognize himself utterly a beggar. Pride should have to be sacrificed. “I am sorry to be so bold as to make any further claims on your generosity,” he said, “when you have already been more than kind, but I would be glad—I would be very glad indeed for your assistance in making my way to Nagasaki, where I may be reunited with my ship, or find another to return me to England.”
But his host was silent. Finally he said, “You are yet too ill for the rigors of a long journey, I think. For now, permit me to invite you to enjoy the hospitality of my house. If there is anything you require for your comfort, Junichiro will see it is done.”
All that was courteous, all that was kind, and yet it was a dismissal. Junichiro silently moved to hover behind Laurence at his elbow, plainly waiting for him to leave. Laurence hesitated, but he could not much argue: there was a low hollow thumping in his head, like the sound of bare heels coming down on a deck overhead, and the liquor already had thrown a further haze over his sight.
He followed Junichiro out and down the hall, back to the small chamber where he had awoken. Junichiro drew open the door and stood waiting; his face remained hard and unfriendly, and he fixed his eyes past Laurence like a grande dame giving the cut direct, though he said with cold hauteur, once Laurence had ducked inside, “Send for me if you should require anything.”
Laurence looked about the chamber: the empty floor covered with straw mats, the bare and featureless walls, the silence of it; both the siren’s promise of immediate rest, and confinement. “My liberty,” he said, grimly, half under his breath.
“Be grateful for your life,” Junichiro said with sudden venom, “which you have only by my master’s benevolence. Perhaps he will think better of it.”
He all but hurled the door shut, the frame rattling on its track, and Laurence could only stare after his shadow disappearing on the other side of the translucent wall.
The green, glassy wave broke against the shoals but flung itself rushing on even as it crumpled. The cold foam washed ferociously up Temeraire’s hindquarters and left a fresh line of seaweed and splinters clinging to his hide as it finally fell back, exhausted. A low groaning came from the Potentate’s hull where she strained against the rocks, pinned and struggling; all around them the ocean stood wide and empty and grey, and the distant curve of land was only a smudge in the distance.