Disclaimer: I own the plot and my OCs. Nothing else.
The idea came to me yesterday, while I was writing the first chapter of Changes – the story of Granby's initial reluctance to accept Laurence and his final change of heart. I fully intend to have it completed, but I just had to write this, too.
The third lieutenant's voice was sharp and impatient. Mister Wilshire was ready to snap at him, having found his old suspicion confirmed: Jack Riley did not hold naval surgeons – or at least Mr Wilshire – in high regard. Truly, the lieutenant was always polite enough, but it was clear that he did not have high opinion of Mr Wilshire at all.
Anyway, right now he would not have had the heart to scold the lad, even if his rank had given him this right, which it hadn't. "The captain will make a full recovery," he said. "I think."
"You think?" the young man repeated even more sharply than before. "Don't you know?"
"Lieutenant!" the wounded captain said cuttingly, "such manners are not tolerated here, on the board of Allegiance. Do not make me tell you again."
Jack Riley slightly paled, but nodded, decisively. "Yes, sir," he said and looked at Mr Wilshire. "I hope you will accept my apology. I spoke hastily and I am deeply sorry."
"Of course, of course," the surgeon assured him, "it was only natural. Now, Captain, you need to rest and – "
"I need to supervise the unshipping of the load of this frigate," Captain Tom Riley said, "and – "
"And you need to think of your health," Mr Wilshire interrupted him firmly. "We cannot afford to lose you right now, Captain," he added. Allegiance was hurrying through the north Atlantis to join the British fleet in Mediterranean. One of the Greylings had brought word directly by Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Codrington that Allegiance should reach them as soon as possible. All prospects were that the Ottoman Porte would not agree to accept the Treaty of London and grant the Greeks autonomy. While the British government was unwilling to take sides in the question, the public opinion was too much inclined towards the Greeks, so the Parliament had to ensure the enforcement of the treaty. Which could be done in only one way – the military one. For any captain who had served as long as Tom Riley it was clear that the Ottoman superiority in numbers of vessels and guns was accompanied by inferiority in firepower and crew quality, but yet, it was too great by itself to be dismissed. From the Greyling's captain, they had learned that the allied warships of Britain, Russia and France were 20 or so, while the Ottoman vessels were well over sixty. They could not take any risk that might slow Allegiance, and the sudden deterioration of her captain's health was bound to provide such a delay. The three lieutenants could take perfectly good care of unloading the captured Ottoman frigate.
The surgeon left the cabin, and the captain looked at the lieutenant very sternly.
"I know, I know," the young man said. "I just couldn't stop myself. The man is completely useless. I'd rather have Dorset here."
"That doesn't matter," Captain Riley said coldly. "When you have a ship of your own, you can take as many dragon surgeons aboard as you like and treat your people the way you choose, but until then, you are on my ship, with my people. Good or bad, they are of my crew; when you insult them, you insult me and I won't have it. Do you hear it, Lieutenant? I won't have it!"
Jack took the rebuke without objection – he knew that he had been at fault. As concerned about his father as he was, there were certain formalities that could not be neglected.
Of course, Jack had been brought up in a place where 'formality' was a foreign word…
He asked for permission to leave and went to supervise the unloading of the frigate.
Almost immediately, he noticed the sudden bustle that had started while he had been with his father and Mr Wilshire in the captain's cabin. English sailors were hurrying in and outside the hold of the Turkish ship, their faces red and excited, Turks' faces wore the expression of both hatred and fear, and they were conversing hastily in their own incomprehensible language. Jack slipped on the bloodied deck and wondered what on earth had been the enemy captain thinking. Had he really held the illusion that they could win against a bigger ship with guns that were more numerous and long-range guns? The only reason that his sailors were still alive was that Captain Riley had commanded to disable the Turks' guns, not firing off to kill. And yet, the following fight had been almost as bloody as the gunshot would have been: the Turks had defended themselves with surprising, useless and stupid rage. Do they value their lives so little, Jack wondered. During all his eight years at sea, he had never seen such a meaningless fight and honestly, the only other occasion of such a thing was the often repeated story of Captain Laurence acquiring Temeraire's egg. Thinking about what an extraordinary dragon Temeraire was, Jack could fully understand the poor Frogs.
Maybe because he was thinking about Temeraire, he was not at all surprised, when, going past the excited sailors in the hold and wiping his forehead from the sweat of the burning coal-stove, he bent over the big chest secured to the floor and the walls and, amidst many layers of silk and straw, saw the well-known glitter of an enormous eggshell. "Bloody hell!" the murmured disbelievingly. Was that the way the great nations acquired dragons now – rocking them here and there on a small frigate that could fall prey not only to an enemy ship, but to any fierce storm?
"This is a dragon egg, isn't it?" someone asked.
The question was directed at the first lieutenant, but he was too shocked and unsure how to deal with an egg, so he only nodded briefly and opened his mouth to prevent Jack from touching the egg – no one could know how thick the shell was and whether the weakest nod wouldn't be enough to break it.
Jack Riley, however, paid no attention to him. His fingers moved with deftness that he had thought long gone in the gestures that had been so natural for him for the first twelve years of his life: he stroked the shell, then very carefully tapped it, putting his ear on the opposite side to hear the resonance; and finally, he rubbed gently to feel the density with his thumb and forefinger.
"Great," he muttered. "Just great, damn it."
The other members of the crew looked at each other uneasily. None of them had been too enthusiastic to have the captain's son aboard as a lieutenant. Such things were not common in the British Navy, since they raised too much chances of favoritism, but since their original third lieutenant, Grayson, had been wounded in the arm just before they left Gibraltar, they had to accept whoever the Admiralty would give them, and Jack Riley had been the only one available in such a short notice. Still, the boy seemed capable and determined to follow his father's command, as was anyone else. And yet, sometimes he made notions that were simply unacceptable for s gentleman, and Captain Riley was a gentleman. How came that his son wasn't one?
Finally, the young man looked at them. "I'm afraid we must rearrange our plans, gentlemen… as well as our supplies. As you know, we're at least three weeks from the nearest harbor with a fair wind. Unfortunately, the egg will hatch sooner than that. I'd say that we have between one and two weeks at best."
Startled cries rose among the men. Still quite numb with shock himself, Jack Riley gave orders to move the egg on the deck of Allegiance – the busiest part of the ship – and went to report to his father, leaving the others wondering how on earth he seemed to know so much about dragons and yet, not questioning his authority: there was something in his behavior that told them that he knew what he was doing, better than any words.
Jack found his father paler than he had left him, yet his cheeks were burning; he was starting a fever, the young man realized with concern.
"Come in," the captain said, directing him to the chair opposite his cot. "Don't look at me like that, Egg, I'm not dying," he added roughly, and his voice and the sound of his old nickname told Jack that he would not be making a report to his captain; instead, he would talk to his father.
"There was a dragon egg in the hold," he said, without preface.
His father's face paled a little more and sighed softly. "It's always like that," he murmured. "I take it that it isn't far from hatching?"
"Yes, but – how do you know?" Jack asked, astounded.
"It's always like that." Riley's eyes turned inquiring and piercing. "I suppose you'll be the one to harness it?"
The question startled Jack. He had not thought of that – he had given up the dream of his own dragon as soon as he had grown out of childhood. No, it was even before that, he thought with a sudden, forgotten bitterness. It was when I realized that I'd never be as important as Nora. It was only natural, of course. Nora would one day succeed their mother as Lily's captain.
Yet, at the time, it had hurt.
Instead, Jack had given himself to the marine life, all but forgetting about his childhood dreams of a dragon of his own. He had served to two ships before Allegiance and he was a good and competent sailor. He would have his own ship one day. He was happy with his life, and he did not want to change a thing.
But what could he do? The size of the egg told him that the dragon would be heavy-weight; the Corps simply couldn't lose it. And just because Captain Laurence had adjusted so well to Temeraire, that still didn't mean that they should turn such accident into frequent events. They could not risk losing the chance of handling and training the dragon properly. And Jack was the best man for the job – he knew about dragons and the Corps more than the rest of the crew combined.
"Yes," he finally said, "I suppose I will."
His father's face had turned slightly gray. Was in pain, or disappointment? "You were brought to the life," he said. "You are prepared. Far more than Laurence was, at any rate. You'll do well, Jack. Very well."
His eyes closed. He looked as if he had suddenly fallen asleep. Jack sighed and left the cabin. There were too many things to be done.
Eight days later…
Everyone aboard, from the first lieutenant to the last apprentice of the cook, had come out to watch the intriguing spectacle – everyone but Jack's father. Captain Riley was worsening: the wound received during the fight was not healing as nicely as it should and he could not leave his cot, let alone the cabin. That was a source of never ending concern for Jack – as if the other thing he had on his hands were not enough!
The egg was glistening under the sun – greenish-blue, with golden speckles that seemed to dance along with the sunrays falling on them. Jack had never seen such an egg at the Loch Lagen covert and the thought about a dragon of an unknown breed gave him not a little reason for concern. It was not likely that the dragonet would have any specific abilities, but it was not impossible either and here, on the board of Allegiance, such stuff could do more damage than at Loch Lagen, where there was full of trained aviators and servants who would know what to do. Jack knew only too well that a single spurt of Lily's acid could take the whole ship down, if it landed on a crucial mechanism, and a single flame of Iskierka could set it at fire. And he knew that dragonets did not have nearly as perfect control over themselves as adult dragons.
Anyway, it was too late for that. He told the crew to stand aside – not that any of them was eager to be too close, anyway – and touched the shell again. It was hot, as if it was burning inside. And it was moving. Even as Jack watched, a long crack appeared along the side that was most exposed to the sun. Jack almost gasped. He had witnessed a hatching twice and he had heard more first-hand accounts than he could remember, and yet, he felt as if he didn't know anything. Of course he didn't. He was a sailor, for Heaven's sake! He was not an aviator!
Another crack followed, and startled cries from behind Jack's back. He paid them no mind, his whole attention was focused at the end of a tail that appeared through the first crack. It started moving, spreading bits of shell everywhere. A loud hiss, and the egg burst out and the dragon emerged, jumping over the bottom of the shell and trying in vain to unfurl its still damp wings for a first time, then losing balance and landing straight into Jack's outstretched arms.
"Hello," the dragon said, tilting her head to regard him, and Jack took a deep breath. Until now, he hadn't realized how much he had feared that the dragon would talk not in English, but Turkish – she had been in their hands for barely eight days!
"Hello," he said, examining her just as carefully ash she did him. He had been right – she was of no breed that he had seen or even heard about. She had no spots – neither on her belly, nor her wings, when she finally managed to stretch them out. Her entire body, from nose to tail, was greenish-blue, with different nuances, glistening under the sun. Her jaws were big, but her tongue looked asymmetrically small. Her body had hollows, seven on each side, that were darker than the skin around them. She had black eyes with vertical yellow pupils. Jack desperately tried to remember hearing anything about South American dragons – for it was where the Turkish ship had come from, - but nothing like her came to mind.
"Hello," he said again. "My name is Jack Riley. Will you tell me yours?"
The dragon's eyes narrowed in frowning consideration. Her wings furled dejectedly. "I don't have a name," she finally admitted. "At least, I think I don't. Would you like to give me one?"
"Yes, I – " Jack froze. He had chosen a name and everything, the problem wasn't that he didn't have a name at the ready. It was that a typical dragon name would not suit her at all. She was a very unusual dragon and so ought to be her name. And Jack should think of it. He knew hundreds of names. Thousands. Why couldn't he think of one?
"Jack?" the dragon prompted.
"Yes, just a moment, I – "
And then it suddenly came to him. He grinned broadly. "Nerys," he said. They were in the middle of the sea and the name of Nereus, the sea deity, seemed very proper for a dragon whose colouring resembled the sea.
The dragon nodded and nosed his hand, gratefully. The crew gave cries of alarm, but she paid them no notice. "Yes. Nerys. My name is Nerys." She nuzzled his palm again. "I'm hungry."
So? What do you think this far?