PART III - COMBATANT
The King's Head public house in Passyunk Township shared its name with dozens of pubs in Britain and several more in the colonies. Its sign said 'EST. 1723.'
Ever since that date it had been the practice of the pub to decorate the sign with a relatively recent portrait of the King of Great Britain, beginning with a representation of George I after the famous painting of him by Sir Godfrey Kneller. During George II's reign the sign had been updated with regularity and ceremony, the picture raised during the War of Jenkins' ear being particularly lauded for portraying the monarch with a brave set to his jaw and his eyes narrowed with conviction. The artist had thoughtfully reduced the roundness of His Majesty's face and omitted the marks he'd received from smallpox, giving him a particularly soldierly appearance.
The third king from the House of Hanover, despite being much more often committed to canvas (and generally considered to resemble his handsome father, Prince Frederick), had never faired very well on the King's Head signs. The first depiction of him had given him a weak chin that portrayed a certain immaturity – perhaps to be expected in a man coronated at only twenty-two years of age. The second portrayal had granted him his chin and added another two besides, in imitation of Thomas Frye's somewhat unflattering portrait.
In the most recently raised sign at the King's Head, George III (King of Great Britain and of Ireland, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneberg and ruler of the entire Empire) looked like an oaf.
The high hairline had been paired with a forehead that swept back a long way into the skull, as though it did not contain a brain. The mouth was small and smiled uncomprehendingly, as though pretending amusement at a joke too complicated for the listener to appreciate. The shoulders, which were the lowest part of the man on the sign, seemed sloped and unimpressive. Finally, so much red had been used in the cheeks that His Majesty looked as though he might be slightly drunk.
All told, the effect might have been a depiction of an unglamorous, but friendly-looking man, except that some person had quite recently inked a straight black line across the wide neck. It did not stand out until noticed, but thereafter it could not be ignored.
Though not in any color that suggested gore, or accompanied by further disfigurement, the statement it made was clear: "Off with the King's head." Or possibly "Cut the King's throat." No one had bothered to fix it. It would seem that no one disagreed enough to take the trouble.
Calvin was carefully considering this line while Accipiter spoke to him. The dragon lay curled up on the hillside. Night had fallen hours before, but they had only recently returned to the inn. While they were in the sky it had felt to Calvin as though his problems could not reach them.
They were certainly waiting for him here on the ground, however. The line would not let him forget it.
"And also if you go in," Accipiter continued, his bright eyes catching firelight from the building's windows, "You may eat. I am not hungry, but I know that you are, and so I will insist that you have dinner. Otherwise you are bound to become weak and irritable, and not grow as much as you ought to."
Calvin chose not to become upset by this babying. He tried to sort out his hair a bit with his fingers. Going anywhere on dragon back was not easy on a man's queue. He might have liked to hold his hair down with a bandana, if it wouldn't have too closely resembled a woman's bonnet. "All right, I'll go in," he said. "And I'll eat. And then I shall get you your sheep even if you aren't really hungry, because I've got no idea of the next chance you'll have to try one. Besides, I already lied to Admiral Rankin about one thing. I can at least have been honest about this."
"Rankin does not seem worth troubling over much," said Accipiter, with discourtesy Calvin didn't like to hear. Before he could say as much, Accipiter added, "He may well belong to a dragon as impressive as Celeritas, but that is no reason he ought to be able to tell us what to do. And they are both gone for Boston, besides, so it should be of no consequence now."
Calvin thought that in this situation, a proper aviator and captain would try to explain the ideals of duty and service to his beast. However, he was no part of the Aerial Corps, and the events of the day had proven he was totally unqualified to lecture anyone on those subjects. Instead he said, "There is still a middleweight dragon guarding the river, and I would rather be sure we can outrun it than outfight it. Only let me consult these books and ask a few questions, and we can think on our next move."
"All right," said Accipiter. "But you must tell me what you learn. I still do not understand why the letters in books must be so small that I cannot read them – especially since so many people already have need of eyeglasses."
With Doctor Franklin's books concerning dragons tucked under his arm, Calvin entered the King's Head for the second time that day.
When there had been daylight and a breeze allowed in, the pub had been airy and welcoming. Now that the sun was gone, it seemed hot and cramped inside, thanks to the roasting fire. The atmosphere was by no means hostile, but Calvin was conscious of how unseemly such establishments were to be considered at the best of times. Too often they were the bases of operation for gangs of thugs and rabble-rousers, or misguided political associations. In addition, whatever the name 'public house' might have once meant, the main reason that customers visited them now was simply to find drink.
Calvin tried to look nonchalant while he walked past some farmhands who were intensely discussing breeds of cow, and two Negroes at a table, one old and one young. None of these people seemed particularly engaged in sin. In fact, the Negro boy was seated next to what must be an elderly relative of his, and was helping him eat his spoon bread. The man had no teeth, and hands badly mangled by either accident or arthritis. The youth was clearly caring for him, which Calvin could only approve of.
The only thing openly untoward in the room was a young woman seated against the wall, playing the Irish harp. Her dress was rather too low-cut for polite society and one of her ankles was clearly visible, so Calvin tried to look only at her face. She smiled at him and his heart skipped... but then he noticed the handful of boys and men in chairs drawn close to the woman, mooning over her. It was surely her job to smile at everyone.
At the bar, Calvin set down the books and greeted the innkeeper. "Glad to have you back, Captain," the man said. Calvin considered it just as likely that he was glad to see the sheep he'd set aside would be sold.
Calvin listened for a while to the unfamiliar tune that the harpist was playing, likely something of her own composition – DdAGgAFA twice to EdAGgAFA twice, and quickly. She was talented, however she chose to dress herself. Then he cracked open the thickest and most complicated-seeming book about dragons that he had to hand.
The dragon that Captain Colby was paired with had been referred to as a 'Xenica.' This particular volume didn't have so much as a chart of dragon silhouettes to which he could refer, but the name was there, and the description fit. It had powerful forequarters for close fighting, with wings that were very strong for a middleweight, allowing for great speed in short bursts. Temperamental in the extreme, the breed had been thought impossible to harness until the Elizabethan era, when new techniques were developed that, the book said, 'turned its many dangerous qualities to the service of the empire, rather than againft the Aviators who attempted to handle it.'
Calvin flipped to the entry for the heavyweight acid-spitting breed, the Longwing. As he remembered from reading about them earlier in the day, there was a similar notation to the Xenica's. At one time, they might have all been destroyed for their unruliness, but around 1581, a method of harnessing had been introduced that solved the problem...
It didn't say what that method might be. Calvin wondered how anyone inquiring on the subject could be satisfied with so little information. Then he guessed that the new method for controlling the ferocious Xenica might be setting them fierce handlers, judging by the unkind looks Captain Colby had given him on their very first meeting. The man already didn't like him. Refusing to fly the patrols designed to frighten the Colonists would aggravate the situation.
One of the books was more of a history of dragon studies, but scouring it offered a few items of interest to a boy who might be about to unwillingly enter the world of aerial combat.
Virtually all breeds, it said, would instinctively dive when attacked from above, even if such action was not in the interest of the beast or crew. British breeds especially prone to this were the various Coppers (although it could sometimes be trained out of them,) the Yellow Reaper and the Cheq-
"Ho there, Captain!" came a voice. Calvin was clapped on the shoulder so heartily that he worried his stool might tip over. Calvin turned around to find that Mister Marshall the militia organizer and three other men were standing together there. All of them were stout fellows, though Marshall was the only one whose weight was carried mostly in his belly. Despite being indoors, the man hadn't bothered to remove his battered hat with the green feather in it. "Priestly, wasn't it? Pleasant to see you again!"
"Good evening, Mister Marshall," said Calvin. He couldn't imagine any way in which being introduced to three toughs in a bar might make this a good evening, but it wasn't the worst lie he'd told today.
Marshall didn't seem interested in using his friends for intimidation. He introduced them as Mr. Lake, the well-named employee of a fish seller, and his friend Mr. Waits, a planter on one of the nearby farms. The third man was a mustached, short individual who had the most muscular arms Calvin had ever seen. When he greeted Calvin he pronounced it "Goot evening," and added a nod as though to make sure he was being understood.
"That's Mister Ackermann," Marshall explained with a grin, "Previously of the city of Celle in Germany, somewhere or another. He has a hard time speaking English, but understands it just fine. Saving up money to go join relations of his in the Ohio territory – he carries boxes, and he also boxes. Brilliant at both."
Calvin stood and shook hands with each of them. He was already concocting an excuse to leave (whatever militia or society they were part of would probably only get him into mischief and further trouble) when the front door opened and there entered a man with a face he thought he'd once seen on a bust of Cato. That face instantly took the attention of the men he was talking to.
"The best of evenings to you, gentlemen," this man said, speaking directly to Marshall and company. His gold-topped walking stick reminded Calvin of Benjamin Franklin's, though this one was not of black crab tree wood. "I take it you're aware of the dragon asleep on the hill outside? Either it is new or I have failed to notice it these past few months. I admit either case to be possible."
"It's his," Marshall said, jerking his thumb at Calvin. "This is Captain Priestly. Surely you've heard the news? He landed on the Indomitable and not an hour later it was sailing out of the harbor. We were just about to ask how he achieved so fine an outcome."
Calvin was hoping they didn't imagine he had somehow frightened off the Aerial Corps, especially since the dragon transport had by no means carried all of the troops from the city –in fact, he was fairly sure it hadn't taken any. "I assure you, it was no cleverness of mine that removed them."
"Still!" Marshall said, in a voice that was clearly meant to carry around the room. "There is reason to celebrate! We're leagues better off without the King's dragons threatening to swoop down and crash Carpenter's Hall down on Congress!"
Calvin thought the interruption a bad-mannered one, but most of the patrons raised their voices in assent. Those that did not at least nodded.
Only the short man with the dignified face did not indulge. He looked tired. Besides which, his clothing and white wig marked him as a higher class of person than Marshall and his boys – Calvin was actually surprised to see him in an establishment like this one.
He said to Calvin, "I see you hold books, young man. No doubt you were at study when these good-hearted ruffians demanded your attention? The same has happened to me, on previous evenings."
"It's not a problem," Calvin said, though of course he had just been preparing to quit the King's Head without eating just to escape them. "Pleased to meet you, sir. You have the advantage of me."
"Charles Thomson is my name," the old man said. "I am secretary to the Continental Congress. A position of great utility and absolutely no prestige – as suits me best." Mr. Thomson gave a small, tight smile that also had something of Benjamin Franklin's covert mischief in it – Calvin wondered if the two men might know each other.
"He's modest," Marshall put in, "Too modest. Every Son of Liberty knows of Charles Thomson. It's he who has gotten us the numbers we have today."
Sons of Liberty. Calvin knew the name (though every political group that claimed to represent the values of British subjects would use the word 'liberty' in its name if possible). It was a group – or rather, a collection of groups – that had a hand in every act of defiance taken against the Crown in the Colonies. Or so they would have people believe. Calvin suspected they were more of a club for drinking and complaining – which were both still fine stepping-stones to trouble, in his opinion.
"Perhaps I ought to have restrained myself in the recruitment stages," Thomson said dryly. "I used to be able to find a quiet beer, if I left the city's heart and came out here. Now I have to listen to endless conversation about all the grief His Majesty gives us – which is how I occupy myself all day in the first place."
"If he goot king," Mr. Ackermann observed, stroking his mustache sagely, "He have more quiet king-dom."
"Excellent logic," agreed Thomson, but nevertheless carried on towards the bar, looking as though he wanted to take his mind off of the issue as much as possible, but was not optimistic that he would get the chance. "Captain Priestly. May I hope for just a few minutes during which we can talk to each other at a civilized volume?"
Calvin said "Yes, sir," without hesitation. He might have no aspirations to become a rebel, but this might be an opportunity he needed.
The Continental Congress's authority was not derived from the Crown, but was nevertheless important to the political life of the Colonies. It was seeking to explain the difficulties of the Colonists to Parliament. Perhaps they could represent to Their Lordships or even Aerial Command why Calvin had been morally unable to fulfill the very first orders given to him.
He expressed as much to Thomson, who it turned out did have an acquaintance with Franklin, though not an entirely happy one. "Ah, old Ben. It is very like him to give gifts that engender a sense of obligation in the receiver. He means no ill by it, but through long experimentation he has learned that he can channel people, as he does electricity. Now it is in his nature to do so without considering the difficulties it can cause them. He and I have reduced our association because of it."
"I can only say that I was – and am – in no position to turn away help," Calvin said. Mussels and potatoes baked in the skins had been put before him, but he found himself possessing only a little appetite. "I don't know what they do to aviators who refuse commands, but I imagine flogging is a part of it?" He didn't imagine that he would do very well under the lash. The frail, he'd always been told, ran the risk of dying if their hearts were too weak, or if their bodies were not strong enough to recover from the shock of having their backs flayed open.
"You needn't worry so. I've never heard of the Corps punishing a captain that severely." Thomson made a hand sign to order two pints of beer. "Dragons tend not to appreciate having their handlers beaten. That goes a considerable distance towards explaining why aviators are thought of as libertines... the captains can't be disciplined in the normal military fashion, and there's no way to turn them out of the service without losing the use of their dragons. So who knows what they might dare? Living isolated from normal society by their beasts, they place a much lower value on the esteem of the rest of us."
Calvin had also spent of the great deal of his life out of the reach of civilization, now that he thought about it, but fortunately he was no childish rake. He even examined the beer in the tankard in front of him, trying to determine its color.
He was hoping to figure out if it was darker or lighter than the cup he'd been served at the Harper farm, because it only made sense to his imagination that if lighter, it would be somehow less concentrated, and therefore less spirituous. He couldn't very well refuse it, since Thomson was making a gift of it, but this time he wanted to know what he would be getting into.
"Then again," Thomson went on, "I would hardly say that the men of the Congress are all the most polite gentlemen of their various countries. You would suppose that at least the Virginia delegates would be mild of manner, but if there's a louder man in this hemisphere than Patrick Henry… I apologize, Captain Priestley, do you abstain?"
"What?" said Calvin. "Oh, no, sir. Just examining the color of the beer." It was, fortunately, pale in color.
"Ah, an expert, then. Well, you're our guest in Philadelphia." The secretary raised his glass. "A friend to freedom, if a reluctant one. Expect to have more than a few free drinks passed to you. It's how I get by, being that I perform my clerical duties without payment."
Calvin had to raise his tankard to the man's principle and self-sacrifice. Then he had to raise it again when Thomson called a toast to Accipiter as the first dragon to truly belong to a man of the Colonies – "Rara avis in terris, nigroque simillima cygno!" – and one more time when he wanted to hide his blush from the attractive musician, who had continued to smile at him.
Calvin had manifestly been wrong to assume that the beer would be weak, because all too soon he was wondering if he shouldn't talk to the woman, who was significantly older than him. He was also answering questions asked by Marshall and his friends that would normally have annoyed him, and doing so with gusto.
"He's about to the only friend I have, but he's a good one," Calvin said proudly of Accipiter. "Even if he can't seem to decide whether I ought to be treated like a baby or a brother or a commander. I tell you, though," Calvin added after a sip, belatedly realizing that the tankard had been refilled at some point without his asking, "From time to time, he'll say something or do something that reminds me of my father, that's for certain. The way he touches his chin, his choice of words, and certainly his voice."
"Odd, that," Mr. Lake mumbled, looking vexed.
"Not so odd to be reminded of your father, when a fella protects you," Mr. Waits observed. "Did I ever tell you the story of when my pap saved me from drowning, even though he's only got one leg?"
"I don't believe you've ever told us any other stories," said Mr. Lake.
It was one of those chance occasions when things go quiet in a room at exactly the wrong moment. The harp player had just finished a rendition of "Oh, How You Protest," and the farm hands had finally come to some kind of agreement about cow feed being handled best in one way or another, and were all nodding in silent assent.
It was because of this that Calvin was able to hear and see what the old Negro did. He was still sitting with the boy who took care of him, and said something half-audible to him while making a gesture.
A characteristic of the way he moved his hand, the rise and fall of the palm, was familiar to Calvin. Despite the gnarled fingers he could detect the reverence in the movement, the expectation of feeling warmth and smoothness that was something like petting a fine horse. But the arc had been all wrong for that, and few men got such a profoundly tranquil look on their face from considering even uncommonly valuable horse flesh. Calvin thought he knew what it was.
The old slave was pantomiming petting a dragon to himself, and he knew what he was about. That interested Calvin.
Calvin left his place at the bar to approach the old man. "Pardon me, Uncle," said Calvin, using what he understood to be the proper form of address in this situation – he had met very few Negroes in his life. "But might I ask what you were just saying?"
The old man remained impassive, but surprisingly, the boy next to him started and shuddered. "It's, uh, it's nothing sir," said the boy, "He meant nothing by it. Please don't pay it no mind."
Calvin looked at them, one and then the other. This was not what he'd expected to hear, and he knew enough about the ways people spoke to understand that the young man was trying to cover something up. He decided to continue talking to the old man. "What's your name, Uncle?"
"He can't speak, sir," said the boy. "Not our language, I mean. But Jacob, he live most his life in Africa. I mean, he lived most of his life in Africa. He don't know better, he-"
"Tell me what he said," Calvin hissed. He was surprised by the vehemence in his own voice, but alcohol and a sense of being rootless, with no idea of what tomorrow might being, had rendered him prone to extremes of mood. Right now he could only be of good cheer or bad temper, and the pendulum was swinging rapidly from one to the other. "Tell me."
The young man was older than Calvin and a head taller, but it didn't change how frightened he looked to have someone who was white demanding information of him that he preferred not to give. "I'm not like him sir; I swear I just help him eat. I can give a good account of my faith in Our Lord."
This was taking on a dimension Calving badly disliked without even fully understanding it. "You'll tell me now, slave!"
Calvin instantly regretted talking down to the man in that way, even if he was dealing with a Negro who was someone's property. Perhaps the same look of fear had been in his own eyes while he'd begged for his life, shut in that cave. It was unworthy to instill that kind of fright in someone who'd offered him no offense.
Failing completely to meet Calvin's eyes, the slave boy said, "He... he is Sotho, and I know some of his tongue from my mother. I translated your story, of your father dying and your capture. Jacob was saying... he says wishes that he might touch his own father's scales again."
There seemed to be no sense that could be made of this, so Calvin only said "What?"
"Don't take the blacks' superstitions seriously," Charles Thomson urged from the bar. "Only the other day one told me that some spirit or another should be given an offering when I visited the cemetery. They are simple folk; they mean no harm by it."
"No," said Calvin, "What is he trying to say about my father? About my dragon? I won't have them insulted in any language!"
Calvin had become loud enough that people – nearly everyone, in fact – had stopped what they were doing to listen. The slave boy put his head in his hands but would not dare the consequences of remaining silent.
Calvin was staring into Jacob's unafraid, cataract-clouded eyes while the boy said, "He believes that our ancestors come back to us as dragons. He… he thinks your father's spirit must reside in your dragon, sir. To watch over you."
It was only shock at the inappropriateness, the absurdity of this that kept Calvin from crying invective at the old Negro. Behind him Marshall was saying, "Who owns him? He should have sense beaten into him."
"My father's soul," said Calvin under his breath once he had collected his thoughts enough, "Is in the glorious hereafter with my mother's, and if you say otherwise again so help me God I will fetch a musket again and I will-"
Calvin was, at this point, interrupted. He was beginning to wonder if he'd ever manage a complete conversation in Philadelphia; the trouble with being in a city where something was always happening was that your attention was continuously pulled away from whatever you meant to focus on.
The boy who'd rushed in was surely too young to be up so late, and really had no business being inside of a pub at all. Nevertheless, he presumed to call everyone's attention to himself, crying "The dragon is going to eat the sailors!"
Calvin, who had been getting ready to say that he was dealing with a slave and had no time for rude children, became abruptly and painfully sober. It was a bit like trying to find one's way to the pot late at night, groggy and dazed, and then having a toe slam into the corner of a cabinet or chest. The old slave's nonsense was a meaningless foible, the interruptions of city life were necessary evils, and the only thing that mattered was seeing to it if something was wrong with Accipiter.
He sprinted to the window, cupping his hands to try and see through the reflections in the glass. His heart started beating again. Accipiter was there and unmolested, looking with interest at the stars. He was likely trying to find the constellations they'd discussed on previous nights – his favorites were Draco and Rangifer.
"Master Lefebvre," said Charles Thomson to the boy, "You must explain yourself."
The child, who has run in barefoot and panting, took a huge breath in, tried to speak, failed then had to breathe in again before making a proper go of it. "Harbor! The dragon will see the ship sailing out of the harbor!"
Looks were passed around, and Mr. Lake said, "Well, what if it does?"
Calvin's fists were clenching. How could they not know? "The harbor is under restriction, as of today. Nothing is to go in or out. Ships leaving without permission are to be fired upon." Hadn't Admiral Rankin's word been spread?
"Well, this is the first I've heard of it!" Cried Marshall at the top of his voice.
"Of course," said Thomson, shaking his head. "They would have an excuse to fire a shot across someone's bow and frighten them – why trouble to make an official announcement when they could frighten everyone more than they already have? It is what they hope will work."
"Benjamin Franklin heard of it!" the boy announced, pleased to try to keep himself the center of attention. "He was very upset! You could tell, because he was polishing his glasses when he did not need to, over and over."
A chill touched the base of Calvin's neck. Strange to feel, in this hot room. "Did he send you here?"
The boy nodded and then said, "He asks that, uh… wait, I know it… oh, that Accipiter and Captain Priestly fly to Mud Island and beg the garrison there not to fire on any ships, or to sic their own dragon on the ship which is now sailing!"
"What's a ship setting sail for at this hour?" Calvin asked the room at large, although he felt sure that he already knew the answer.
"It'll be one of the coastal smugglers," said Marshall, as though nothing in the sentence was untoward at all.
"It is the Cornelia," the boy said, boastful because he was in the know and all these adults were not.
"Is that bad?" Calvin asked.
"The captain thinks he's in charge of the bloody Aquila," said Mr. Waits, shaking his head. "He's liable to try escaping the guns and the dragon."
This was a terrible idea, of course. Even a ship that could make fifteen knots would be under the same wind as the wings of a dragon pursuing it.
Calvin was rubbing the bridge of his nose. How had these willful colonists not gotten themselves all shot to death yet with their wildness? How had His Majesty's government imagined that any man in possession of pride and fortitude would tolerate this level of mistreatment? Somehow he had blundered, on the back of a dragon, into a situation that was threatening to turn into a rebellion at least on the order of the revolt in Boston. The savages had been terrible enough!
And yet, there was a great deal in the balance. He could do something about it, even if it was only to warn the Cornelia off of its collision course with ruin.
... he wasn't sure that he would, though. So it was what honor asked of him. So what? Calvin's father had, once or twice, talked about the way certain officers would sometimes insist on the brave and noble course, even if it was not the most sensible, even if it meant that good men would die. That was how he felt now; like he was being compelled by what was 'proper' towards action that was impossibly foolish.
Maybe Christopher Priestly had talked a great deal more about doing the right thing under any circumstance, but Calvin was having trouble recalling those lessons right now. Not putting himself in the line of cannon fire seemed vastly more important, the kind of thing any boy's father should teach him to do.
Some of the Sons of Liberty were already looking at him, expectant. They wanted him to speak. Charles Thomson saved him by asking, "How long shall the Cornelia take to reach Mud Island under the present wind?"
There was some fast conversation and figuring done around the room, more details acquired from the messenger, and soon it was established that the Cornelia would be sighted and have a warning shot fired at it inside of the hour.
"We must act fast, Captain Priestly," Mister Marshall said. It was not within the scope of Calvin's experience to have a grown man implore anything of him, but it was happening now. "We cannot let our countrymen come under threat!"
"I believe the Cornelia is out of Annapolis," someone pointed out.
"Nevertheless!" Marshall raised his hand. "Even Marylanders are our brothers in this struggle. The King's Navy grows by leaps and bounds, paid for by our tax money – just to patrol the Channel in peacetime, they're building the largest dragon transport in the nation's history. I ask you, how shall the Queen Gloriana keep us safe? What do we care for sailing the Channel? We can't even leave our own harbor, and that's down to them!"
Even though Marshall was the one who had made this extravagant speech, all eyes remained on Calvin, and people were nodding and agreeing with the statement he had never made. He cleared his throat, trapped. "I… will need to get on my dragon."
"Are we to get in a fight?" Accipiter asked with far too much eagerness. "I suppose it is about time we started earning you victories."
"I sincerely hope not," said Calvin under his breath. "And you are certain that you can voice your instructions loudly enough with just roaring? The Cornelia needs to be told to turn back as soon as possible."
"It will be easy enough to test once we have reached the ship."
It had actually taken some convincing to keep the core group of the Sons of Liberty off of Accipiter's back. Calvin would have sworn that not a man among them would have been comfortable with the idea, but they were either liquored enough or incensed enough for this not to be the case. Still, seeing men so openly unafraid of dragons confused him – even if they'd still been uneasy about the idea of flying on one.
"I bet you two shillings you fall to your death before I do," Mister Waits had said to Mister Lake.
"And how do you plan to collect if I'm dead and you're still on a dragon?"
"Well, I'm sure to fall soon after; I'll get them then. At the gates, you know."
While wondering which of two sets of gates these might be, Calvin persuaded the men that he'd make better time without them as a burden, even if they were entirely comfortable with the idea of flying without wearing personal harnesses. They had ridden off with lanterns to the docks, to watch what would happen from their saddles.
Calvin swallowed hard, still considering ordering Accipiter to fly away at best speed, to escape this insanity. But everyone would know it, if that happened. Charles Thomson could tell the entire Continental Congress. Benjamin Franklin might print it in this week's Gazette that Calvin Priestly was a coward. Accipiter would make his own judgmentsm, too – as strange as it was, he didn't want to let the dragon down. He wasn't sure that he could live with that.
Lastly, Margaret – Margey – would know. Maybe it was the beer sloshing around in there with it, but that particular idea would not rest easy in Calvin's stomach.
Accipiter took off from the hill so fast and turned so swiftly that the stars swirled overhead. It was a bright night, and once they had the altitude they could see everything for miles around. The city, the harbor, the river. The ship. "There, Accipiter," said Calvin, "Do you see her?"
"Is it a 'her?'" Accipiter wondered. "Is there some way to tell, with ships?"
"It, then. Do you see it or not?"
"Yes, Calvin. It is the two-masted sort of ship there, in the middle of the river."
That was an accurate description. The Cornelia didn't quite make a third-rate in terms of size, but that by no means made her a small ship. She was giving excellent speed, in Calvin's inexpert judgment. Sooner than he'd have liked, she would be passing Mud Island and the fort.
"We must get there immediately," Calvin urged, though what he actually wanted to do was cover his eyes and pretend it wasn't there. "Forget begging the fort; we shall have the ship turn around. Can you put on more speed?"
"I can," said Accipiter. His wing beats quickened, but he also added, "The other dragon may arrive there before me, however."
"The… the what?!"
Calvin saw it even as he asked. The shadow became an outline and the outline was streaking over the water, its wings pumping back and forth strongly and evenly, propelling it in bursts. Oh, no.
"I believe it is Rixator," observed Accipiter, and no sooner had he said this than the other dragon roared at the ship. A flare went up from it almost at once, the standard procedure when approached by a dragon at night, but that was all. What else could they do? Would they dare to fire on the King's dragon?
Calvin thought not, surely. The Cornelia would now have to come about and return to port; the dragon frightening the crew was a better option than a warning shot being fired, at least. The aviators, he surmised, must have known this and come out to ensure the same result with less naked animosity involved. He should thank them. They'd shown more foresight than he would have.
His mind was changed for him. Rixator flew by the sails at high speed, and in the sinking light of the flare Calvin made out the shape of a claw flickering away from the dragon's body, only for a second. In that second, the main sail was torn, not in half, but given a great rent horizontally across its middle. It was done cleanly, expertly, and the ship was close enough that Calvin heard screams of outrage and horror.
Rixator's crew was shouting something at the ship using a speaking trumpet, and something was shouted back as the dragon circled wide. The Cornelia's momentum was failing and she was likely full of panicked sailors, men who were at present far more interested in hiding from yards-long claws and scythe-like teeth than staying at their stations. If the ship was being commanded to turn by her crew, it was an order made with half a voice, impossible to carry out with a damaged mainsail.
"Are they striking?!" Calvin cried, not to Accipiter, and not even to himself, really. He could see that the flags were not coming down. But was it because the captain refused to surrender, or because no one could reach them to reel them in? Even if the frightened men were willing to expose themselves in the face of a dragon attack, the ensign was hung from the yard of the damaged mainsail. It could be unsafe to try. Calvin was not well-versed in these matters.
Nor, it seemed, was the crew of Rixator. The dragon kept pulling circles as tightly as possible around the ship, the aviators bellowing God-knows-what while the creature's back bristled with men who were no doubt carrying plenty of loaded rifles…
"I do not know if the ship can turn back, Calvin," said Accipiter. "I could not catch enough wind to fly, if one of my wings had been torn so."
Surely if a dragon that had never so much as seen a rowboat before yesterday could make that determination, Captain Colby would as well?
Calvin had hoped for too much. Rixator made another pass at the Cornelia and the jib became a ragged mess. They were near enough now that the shapes of men on the deck could be made out, moving, hurrying, standing together and gesticulating at each other.
One of them was holding a pistol. He had it raised as though about to go riding with it, and it was not aimed – but the threat it represented could not be missed. A shot fired here and now would not be seen as a fool misunderstanding the rules of a blockade – one which was in turn being enforced by overeager officers. It would be an act of rebellion.
Calvin did not think before he was pressing his heels on either side of Accipiter's neck, as though spurring a horse, screaming, "We must get them to stop! Now!"
"Ah!" Accipiter answered. "Very good!"
It had seemed that they were moving at the limits of Accipiter's speed before, but now the dragon's wings snapped to his side and all his altitude was vanishing as he dove down, towards the ship and the dragon. It was not far, but they moved fast; Calvin felt sure that this sort of falling must be as fast as a human body could go without falling apart – his vision became queerly darkened for a moment and he clenched his mouth, hoping that the contents of his stomach would not try to escape.
Rixator was growing larger and larger in Calvin's vision and then with a twist of his tail Accipiter was rolling right over the other dragon's head, so that for a moment Calvin was inverted, craning his neck to look down at a handful of astonished aviators who had evidently not imagined that the maneuver was in the offing. Hadn't they seen Accipiter coming? Had his gray-streaked belly and the bottoms of his wings made his silhouette different to make out against the Milky Way? Had they been too busy terrorizing their smuggler prey?
Well, they could certainly see him now – once the roll was finished Accipiter was flying directly alongside Rixator, needing a few extra wing beats to each of his to keep pace, but managing it admirably.
The crew might be stunned by the nimble maneuver, but the huge dragon they rode only snarled at the surprise appearance. He had not seen Accipiter coming at all; Calvin wished he had. Perhaps he would have dived involuntarily and put a stop to his harassment of the Cornelia.
Accipiter ignored the snarl. "My captain," he said, his reedy voice cutting through the wind, "Says you are to stop harming that ship at once!" As though struck by an inspiration, he added, "And if you do not, I shall make you!"
I didn't say that part! Calvin thought, and he was about to yell as much when he realized that he needed to be quiet. He had to hear the words echoing at him from a lieutenant holding a speaking trumpet – finally, a man who was trying to put things in order. This was an excellent excuse to give the Sons of Liberty and Charles Thomson; Calvin could simply bring back whatever he said to shore and spread it.
The lieutenant was drowned out by a roar from Rixator so loud that Calvin would have sworn in court it made his brain rattle against the inside of his skull. There was force to it, the force of wind and heat, but for Calvin the roar also carried the primordial fright of being prey for a creature fashioned almost perfectly to kill clumsy, awkward boys. It made Calvin cry out involuntarily, surprised.
That sign of discomfort being experienced by his captain was all the provocation that Accipiter needed. He returned the roar with one of his own unearthly, hissing screeches, and the situation was thereafter understood by all parties. A challenge had been laid down from one beast to the other, and now taken up. Things must take their course as surely as if the animals were adherents to the code duello. The only question was what form the contest would take.
This had not been in the books Calvin had browsed. There had even been some notation about dragons of disparate sizes being naturally disinclined to fight one-on-one. But, Calvin supposed, even if Rixator's powerful forequarters made him much the heavier dragon, they weren't so very far apart in overall length. How was that sort of thing judged, at any rate? How could an aviator be sure when his dragon was completely outclassed?
It didn't seem that Accipiter considered himself to be at any disadvantage. His head darted out at one of Rixator's wingtips to bite it, but the older dragon was by far the more experienced fighter. He changed the rhythm of his wing beats so that Accipiter's teeth snapped shut on nothing, and then Calvin was hearing, muffled by the wind, "Present!" An order being given to men with guns. He'd shouted it often enough himself, as a child at play.
"Stop!" Calvin cried before the call to fire could come, and in truth he was directing this at Rixator's crew of riflemen, barely twenty yards away through the air. But whether for obedience's sake or of his own accord, Accipiter did stop, flaring his wings and greatly slowing his forward motion.
This proved to be an effective maneuver. The rifle volley that was snapped off from Rixator's side had been aimed at their previous location, and missed completely. The white smoke formed a cloud that Accipiter carried through, now in pursuit of the larger dragon.
"They might have shot you!" Accipiter exclaimed, sounding deeply affronted, as though the possibility had never before occurred to him.
Calvin did not need this pointed out in the least: he wanted to scream that they should turn back right now, for safety's sake. He'd put up his hands to deflect the wind and smoke from his eyes, and now wished that he owned some flying goggles like Admiral Rankin's. The air made speaking difficult, let alone giving Accipiter an audible command, but it also carried the sound of someone with a high voice screaming from Rixator's back, "I said hold fire, you fools! Hold all the bloody fire!"
That order couldn't restrain the man on the ship's deck with the pistol. Despite a distance of hundreds of yards making the act utterly futile, he fired a shot in response to the ones he'd already heard. No doubt it was aimed in the general direction of Rixator.
The noisy pop of that single pistol shot rang in Calvin's ears as long and loudly as if it had been fired right next to his head.
That was it, thought Calvin, the ship has fired on them – that's how they'll see it. Even if the crew of the Cornelia did the sensible thing and tackled that idiot to the ground, every party here could be said to have committed an act of violence already. Everyone but Calvin, perhaps – and yet, he was Accipiter's captain. What the dragon did was his responsibility, and his dragon had challenged the other. He needed to make some kind of choice, here, because if it were up to Accipiter's bold and innocent nature, things would only get uglier.
He could barely make the next shout from Rixator's back as the Xenica eased into a turn that would set him up for another run at the ship. But Calvin got enough of it to hear, "- the bombs!"
It was exactly what he'd been afraid of. The Cornelia had marked herself out as an enemy vessel by firing that single shot, and now the Corps would sink her. In their view, they had every right to send scores of fathers and brothers and sons to a final rest at the bottom of the river. It was just as mad as the idea that the Colonists had some kind of right to smuggle goods just because obeying the law would cost them money.
As far as Calvin could see, the parties deserved each other. And yet, who else was in a position, here and now, to save those sailors' lives?
"Stay on him!" said Calvin, ducking his head in the hope that it would cut down on wind resistance. "If you can keep him away from the ship, do it! Hurt him if you have to!"
"Excellent," said Accipiter, with a relish in his voice that Calvin was not happy to hear. "I shall use my fangs on him."
Calvin didn't need to ask if Accipiter would be trying to bite with his paralyzing venom. "All right," he said, mostly to himself. "All right."
Accipiter clearly understood what maneuvers to use better than Calvin. Why wouldn't he? He was the one who could fly. Rixator was the faster dragon, but Accipiter could corner more tightly, using the fins on his tail to corkscrew his entire body and change direction all at once. It was badly disorienting to Calvin and would have thrown the aim of any gunners that Accipiter could have carried on his back – no wonder, then, that the Indians didn't give their dragons any crews. With the way they flew, the men might be useless for shooting.
Exactly as Calvin has said, Accipiter found a heading that would put them between Rixator and the Cornelia. Rixator's immense forelegs stretched out as though reaching for the ship, his wings trying to repeat that earlier burst of speed, but it was no good. Passing by the stern of the ship, Accipiter dropped while throwing his head back, below the range of the other dragon's rifles, but still trying to puncture his belly with those curved fangs full of poison.
He missed. Accipiter had dropped too low, and Rixator swept through the air just above, unhurt. A cadet in the belly netting looked down at Calvin and his horned dragon in complete terror, a frightened child well aware that he was in danger of death.
Calvin hoped he wasn't sending the same look right back.
"I shall keep on him," said Accipiter, doing his utmost to match Rixator's pace as the larger dragon flew back over open water.
"Stay below their guns!" Calvin warned, thinking that the aviators must feel freer to shoot now that they were under direct attack.
Accipiter had figured this out on his own. Rixator was flying above the level of the ship's rails, gaining height, while Accipiter continued on lower down. Various curses and whoops were coming from the Cornelia. Calvin wanted to shout at them to stop acting like an audience and work on sailing away, but there was little chance they would hear it and less that they would take the advice.
Rixator dropped intensely just ahead of them, wings tucked close to the body. The movement confounded Calvin for a moment, but he saw now that all four of the dragon's laws tore at the surface of the water, casting up an explosion of spray. Accipiter flew directly through this, with Calvin getting smacked in the face by both blinding mist and a sheet of water.
Accipiter's nictitating membrane had protected his eyes from the splash, but it had still been surprising, and the dragon shook his head like a dog's – it might just as easily have blinded him, if not for the peculiar nature of his eyes. "He is clever," the dragon said, no doubt meaning Rixator, whose wings were spread and flapping again to renew the lost height.
"He is," said Calvin, imagining that the trick had been the captain's idea. Regardless of which of them might be correct, it had been neatly done and shown considerable ingenuity – not to mention flying skill. Accipiter was going to be badly overmatched in a direct engagement if they ever actually caught the enemy they were now chasing. Might it be that only the presence of the Cornelia was keeping the straight fight from happening?
That could be the case. Rixator was avoiding passing the sides of the ship where the guns could conceivably blast iron straight through both dragon and crew – he probably didn't want to slow down, since speed was what kept a dragon from being an easy target for a shipboard cannon.
They hadn't fired yet, but now that he thought on it, Calvin should be worried that they might. It might not be clear to the crew below decks that he and Accipiter were trying to protect them…
Now they chased Rixator past the oaken masthead of the Cornelia, which was carved into the shape of a long-limbed girl with flowing hair and oddly-shaped wings. Possibly it was a botched attempt at an angel. Accipiter's wingtip passed within inches of her nose, and then she was left behind as the chase continued, back in the direction of the dark shore.
It became clear to Calvin that if they flew out of range of the Cornelia, they could be sure that Rixator would turn around and offer them a fight they weren't prepared for. He was on the point of asking Accipiter to give up the ill-advised chase, but first ventured, "Can you do nothing like that roll again? The one that surprised them? Is the moment not right?"
Taking this to be another sort of challenge, Accipiter said, "I think it can be," and followed it with another high-pitched roar.
As though compelled by instinct, Rixator turned his head in mid-flight to respond in kind. This fractionally reduced his speed, and in the brief moment where it was possible, Accipiter closed the gap between them. It wasn't a matter of fully catching up to the dragon, but it didn't need to be. With another flip of his tail he was barrel-rolling underneath a surprised, uncoordinated rifle volley that Calvin heard rather than saw, with Accipiter's entire spinning body blocking it from view.
Accipiter's fangs were out, his long neck had sprung forward, and quick as a thought it was back again. Calvin was holding in a scream as the world turned itself over and over, finally flattening out with them back in the position of trailing behind Rixator.
"I have gotten him!" Accipiter announced. "He did not expect me to try that!"
Calvin hadn't, either. He would never have been clever enough to think of baiting the beast with a roar or using the turning over trick twice, to become harder to hit. "Where did you…?" he began, but there was little point in asking. The location of the paralyzing bite Rixator had received was already obvious.
The middleweight dragon's left wing had become stiff. It no longer moved in time with the right one, and was not expressing its full range of motion. Rixator kept having to struggle to hold it out at all, and was desperately pointing his nose towards the nearest land – back towards the city harbor.
"He cannot fly!" Calvin exclaimed. "You've finished it! You've beaten them!" He so little believed it was possible that the words tasted strange in his mouth.
But rather than any words of commiseration, Accipiter paused and then gave a worried, "Do you know... I think he cannot reach the ground."
Perhaps if Accipiter had known to use the word 'shore' Calvin would have understood faster. As it was, he needed to look twice and think three times before it got through. "Oh."
The way Rixator was flying was too slow to keep him aloft for long. He could glide passably, but had only one wing with which to flap and try to find altitude. Each time he would do this, it would queer his direction, and the voices of his crew could be heard to urge him to stay level, not to tempt fate. But there was no other course; the dragon was falling fast, with only the water to catch him.
The realization might have bothered Calvin a great deal less had he not stood in the company of the dragon, captain and crew that very day. That the situation was of the men's own making did nothing to ease Calvin's conscience; his own choices had played into it just as much, or more. He was responsible for this. "Can dragons swim?" he asked.
Accipiter didn't know any more than he did. The point was of little consequence at any rate. What if the poison reached the dragon's heart and stopped it? What if, in striking the water, the aviators in Rixator's belly netting – including that scared cadet, who was so very young – all drowned?
It was becoming increasingly more apparent that the Xenica's strength was failing, unable to struggle against the seizing up of all those wing muscles. He would not reach even the longest stone jetty for a crash landing. He wouldn't even come close.
"We must-" Accipiter began, but Calvin was ahead of him.
"Take hold of the wing!" he said. "They might shoot us, but by God, it won't be our fault if they won't have our help!" He was trying to tell himself that it could work, without ripping the wing out of its socket. He almost believed it. "Hurry!"
"You understand, then," Accipiter said, as though he hadn't been sure Calvin would be inclined towards mercy. "Good."
It was not a difficult matter to catch up to Rixator this time, but that wasn't the frightening part of the operation. Calvin cupped his hands around his mouth, trying to remember the right words, and yelled, "Ahoy the wi-" before the snap of a rifle being fired made him stop.
Calvin heard the ball whizz past his head, giving way to a threatening screech from Accipiter which led into him saying, "I shall not save you then; you all ought to drown!"
"No!" said Calvin. "They don't understand. You must tell them what you mean to do. My voice isn't loud enough!"
This Accipiter did. In the starlight it was just possible to make out the terrified faces of men realizing that they were completely at the mercy of an enemy they despised. Calvin wondered if they might try something like a boarding action while Accipiter worked to hold Rixator aloft, simply to save their own skins from the risk of a water landing. Certainly he didn't have any means to repel boarders with; the only weapon he had for close fighting was his bone-handled Indian knife, and that wouldn't be any bar to a crew of grown Aviators with swords and pistols.
But there was no netting to cling to on Rixator's wing, and there was no telling what would happen to it once it was held in Accipiter's claws. It would very likely become the most dangerous place to be, and none of the men looked eager to seize more risk than they already had ahold of.
"I am taking hold," Accipiter announced, "Or you shall not make it. Try to keep him calm!"
Rixator himself had breathing too labored to speak with, and his brightly-colored eyes were half-shut. He could not respond to any of this on his own, using all of his remaining energy in trying to reach that broad jetty in the distance, which he would soon fail to do. It would all come down to seeing if Accipiter, a dragon an entire weight class below him, would make up for the uselessness of a wing.
Nearly at Rixator's head, wearing a coat of long flying leathers that whipped in the wind, stood Captain Colby. A signal ensign was showing one flag that Calvin did not know the meaning of and another that was all white, indicating surrender, but it was the solemn nod from the captain that told Calvin that the commands were understood and accepted.
"Do it!" he cried, and Accipiter's curved black talons were piercing the muscular portion of the wing, tearing the membrane, gripping the bone.
Calvin pinched his nose at the unfamiliar, metallic stink of dragon blood, but soon wished he'd plugged his ears instead. Rixator no longer had the lung power to roar, but he could choke his way through a wail of pain. It was an awful thing to hear; it was the sound Calvin had always imagined dying men on a battlefield must make, but a hundred times louder and deeper.
It must be all the more horrible for the other crew and captain. Calvin deliberately avoided looking at them, instead leaning over to peer down at the water. Accipiter was working his wings furiously at first to find balance, and then tried to beat them in time with the one Rixator could move naturally. It had not lifted the wounded dragon, but he was at least no longer falling.
Not that this meant the water was far away. "Keep going! It's working!"
"I know!" Accipiter said. He was trying to hide the strain in his voice.
"I think-" Calvin pointed, though Accipiter could not see it, "I think we are meant to aim for the lights."
It was hard to be sure, but it looked as though a group of lanterns had gathered in the dark, on the docks. The glow they gave off was swaying, in the way a farmer might make the sign to a far-off shepherd to come in for the night. It was like watching a dozen fireflies swirling around each other with their illumination never dimming.
"I have him," Accipiter said, but he was holding his breath, between words "And we shall make it. But… grip something, Calvin."
Calvin felt almost sure that they were flying too low, that Rixator hung down and would smash into the side of the harbor's construction. Accipiter seemed to suspect it as well; he pulled hard with his legs, to little effect, admitting for the first time, "I am not sure this will work!"
It did work. Barely. Rixator's tail did not clear the edge of the jetty, thumping loudly into its stones and shattering a stack of empty crates while it flailed. The hold Accipiter had on the frozen wing proved harder to extricate than he had imagined, so even Rixator had slumped heavily to the ground. Accipiter was stuck to him, flapping and trying to free himself. He came loose and slid to a halt, with Calvin surprised that he did not immediately fly away.
This was, now that Calvin had time to think on it, the scene of a crime. Here was the heroic Aerial Corps crew and their proud dragon, who had been wounded in the line of duty; here was the Colonial rebel and his venomous beast from the wilds, who had attacked them. Marauders in the night.
Calvin wanted to shout, to tell himself and the world that it was the case, "I'm not a rebel!" But he resisted. There was the more pressing matter of escape to think of "Accipiter, we really ought to-"
Rixator gave another moaning cry that cut him off, and then riders were approaching. Marshall and his Sons of Liberty, Charles Thomson included, were on the docks. It was their lanterns which had shone out into the darkness as beacons. He should have thought as much.
Calvin expected Marshall to say something stupid, perhaps to congratulate him on the 'victory.' But instead the man was gesturing hard, with his hat in his hand so that the green feather waggled comically. "Go! Go, Priestly! We must do it before they can mount a proper resistance!"
"What?" Calvin asked, blinking.
Charles Thomson was somewhat bowed in the saddle, but his cane was tucked under his arm as though he'd been using it as a riding crop. Certainly he'd gotten here in good time. "You must accept the captain's sword, sir. To complete their surrender."
Calvin had heard of this being the custom at sea, where one ship could make prize of another, but he wasn't familiar with it being practiced by aviators. It made sense, of course; the bond between dragon and captain meant that only personal surrender by the beast's companion would be final. The captain needed to admit himself fully at the mercy of the victors to end matters.
"Come, come," said Mr. Ackermann, and Calvin was concerned to see that the German was dismounting his horse with an entire splitting axe in his hands. He was looking around. "We haf cannon? Cannon for point to dragon?"
Oh, Lord, though Calvin, unbuckling himself from the harness. "There's no need for that!" He wouldn't put it past this half-drunken rabble to find one of the harbor's small defense guns and wheel it here. The last thing they should have control of was a charge of gunpowder. "Accipiter, we must go there. Protect me, will you?"
"You know that you need never ask," Accipiter told him.
He and Calvin hurried down the dock to where Rixator had fallen, and Calvin found that without thinking about it he had pulled a musket from his harness bag. It wasn't loaded, but he carried it as though it was, finding that Mr. Lake was nearly at his shoulder, a pistol at the ready.
"I'll blow a hole in the first one who raises a hand against you, sir," Lake told him, and Waits echoed the sentiment just behind him.
"That won't be necessary," Calvin repeated, hoping it was true. He wanted to believe that the white flag still counted for something, once everyone had hit the ground.
It didn't seem that it would matter. It turned out that he aviators were much more concerned with tending to their wounded than taking the fight any further. Some had broken bones from the impact; one or two had been thrown completely free and were lying about, moaning. The captain himself was being lowered down from the harness by a few stout men, one leg limp and clearly hurt in some fashion.
"Put that man down, here!" Mister Marshall said, as loudly as he had previously addressed the bar. "And the rest of you line up while you lay down your arms!"
"We can see to your wounded after that," Charles Thomson added in.
Calvin recognized now how exposed he was – there were still several green-coated riflemen here capable of shooting him dead. Yet they had given surrender, and must realize that Calvin had not let them die. Besides, Accipiter was nearby on his haunches, looking down at them all. Killing his captain would only send him into a rage against them, one they had no defense against.
Rixator groaned his way through another hard breath, barely getting upright on one leg. Accipiter said to him, "Well, it is your own fault that this has happened. That ship was not yours to tear the sails of, which I shall have you know made it unable to retreat. They need sails, to catch the wind. How should you care for it, if I had done that to your wings?"
"You bloody well did do it!" a very young child among the aviators yelled, before he was pulled into line by one of the officers.
"Hm," said Accipiter, seeing the justice in this, "Well, it was still a poor-spirited thing of you to do."
The wounded Captain Colby was laid on his back on the stones, and it was only after the rest of the aviators had begun disarming themselves and laying their weapons down that Calvin approached him.
"Your sword, sir," said Calvin, but the captain was already unbuckling his sword belt from the side opposite the weapon, rather than drawing it. He was careful to give no impression that it was being reached for to launch some kind of last-moment attack. The fellow didn't put down the weapon but rather removed it from the belt and tossed it towards Calvin, who somewhat awkwardly caught it by the sheath.
Calvin was just feeling that he had a good grip on it when he nearly dropped it again, the ground shaking so that everyone about wobbled on their feet. Rixator had just hit the ground for a second time, unable to keep any of his limbs under himself. He now lay nearly splayed across the jetty, almost too big for it.
"Rixator!" the captain screamed, his voice high and shrill, tinged with all the fear of someone who thought a member of their family was about to die. He didn't just move towards his beast; he tried to hop to his feet and run, the action causing his eyes to bug out and his teeth to clench, and he fell back down.
The action brought Calvin around to recalling that the situation was still precarious. Dropping his unloaded musket, he pulled the sword out of its scabbard.
In his entire life, Calvin had never held a real sword, only the sticks and toys that boys play with to pretend. Even his father, the soldier, had not been an officer or of the gentlemanly class, and so had never owned one. The weight was strange to lift, being almost nothing at the tip, but the handle felt about right for his palm. There was gilding on the guard with details he had trouble seeing in the dark, but for the moment the blade was what was important. It was three feet of bright steel, conspicuously tapering after the fullers to give it an unusual appearance. He knew this to be called acolichemarde, the kind of sword only an officer would own. It was probably the single most expensive object that had ever been in Calvin's hands.
Calvin had no idea how to look imposing holding the weapon, so he stepped closer to the wounded captain and discouraged the man from rising by pointing the sword just under one of his red cheeks, not more than an inch from his neck. He resolved that he would kill Colby if he tried to move again. Uncomfortable, but necessary.
"Damn you!" said the Aerial Corps captain, as though the sword were not there at all. "You've killed him!"
"I have done no such thing," Accipiter explained from nearby. He had been inspecting the men of the Corps, no doubt to compare their states of dress and appearance with those of his own captain. The metal buttons on their coats seemed to be of particular interest.
"Gentlemen," Calvin said to his allies, more steadily than he thought he could have made his voice at the moment. "Please inquire if any of their crew is a surgeon, or otherwise capable of-"
"Irons!" the wounded captain bellowed from the ground, with enough authority that he still seemed in control of the situation. "They'll let you treat him! Get to it, you bloody fool!"
Calvin didn't appreciate that someone he had just captured was still giving orders, but at least they were ones of which he could approve. He hardly wanted the dragon to die.
"Finally!" came a cry, and then someone was jostling past Mister Ackermann, holding a surgeon's bag.
It was a woman. A woman in a pair of loose breeches and wearing a leather apron, with flight goggles on. Her blouse was stained by gun smoke.
Calvin's jaw clenched and unclenched by reflex. He looked again, just to make sure, and almost called her back to confirm it, but there had been no mistake.
What the devil, he thought, What in hell?
Why had there been a woman on a dragon's back in combat? And for what possible reason would she be holding medical equipment, and coming forward when the call had been for a surgeon?
It made no sense, and his stomach churned at the idea that he had, by offering combat, been endangering the life of any woman… even if she seemed willing to break the laws about clothing and go about in men's breeches. Well, he had to allow that were probably the only safe thing to wear on a dragon performing maneuvers. Could she have been forced into it? She must have been; what woman's temperament would even allow her to ride a dragon?
Yet she was drawing huge balls of cotton from her bag and stuffing them into the bite-wounds on the bleeding wing, and next drew out a cup for listening to the heartbeat. She ordered a young midwingman to check the strength of the beast's breath, and did it all with practiced authority.
Perhaps she was a midwife, who had been the only person available to take into combat with some medical skill? Did that make sense? Yes, that had to be it, there was no other logical explanation, no one would be so lacking in decency as to directly throw a woman into harm's way, except in the case of most extreme need. And even then, they had to be conscious that they'd done something immoral, and expect to face a court martial. They deserved nothing else.
Their Lordships in the admiralty board would not allow a crime like this to go unpunished. A middleweight dragon was not a ship, which might carry passengers and have no means of discharging them before an engagement; its purpose was combat. No one should be allowed on one who could not be reasonably asked to risk their lives.
Calvin was thinking all of this while looking down with disgust at the defeated Captain Colby. He had selfishly allowed such a passenger, and yet spent no time looking properly ashamed. Instead he devoted all his attention to watching the woman minister to the dragon, while calling for a hot bar to cauterize something-or-other.
The captain was clearly quite young, but that was no excuse. Calvin was even younger, and he would never knowingly put a lady in harm's way. He was about to say something to this effect when found himself noticing another thing.
It was the middle of the night, but the surrendered captain was completely clean-shaven. Even Calvin, who was not old enough that he needed to use a razor every day, had a few hairs poking out of his chin by this hour – but this man didn't. There was not a trace of stubble, and in fact Calvin could not really envision that jaw line being hairy. Something about it did not fit properly in his imagination. It curved the wrong way to support a beard, or it came to too fine of a point, or...
He nearly jerked back his sword at the very idea he was having, but instead muttered, "If you would look at me a moment, sir?"
Colby, who had been paying attention only to the wounded dragon, looked up. The hood and the darkness made it hard to tell, and Calvin felt the wrongness of the action even as he used his sword to prod the aviator's hood out of place. He shouldn't have a blade so close to that face, shouldn't be threatening it at all.
The sandy hair was cut so short that it was hard to tell, even when looking straight into those wide, angry eyes - but there was no mistake. The supposed captain was a woman.
"This is a trick," Calvin said under his breath. It was only shock that kept him from pulling the sword away at once, but he started to do so after a moment. Then he remembered that he needed it where it was, so as to keep the situation under control for now. Pointing a weapon at a woman who was on her back – what could excuse such an action?
The woman – or girl, because at her age she could not be long out of the schoolroom – gave him a contemptuous look, did not answer, and went back to watching her dragon, paying close attention to every shallow movement of his chest.
"Mister Ackermann," Calvin managed to say, "Please... keep the prisoner there a moment." The big German's hatchet was shaking in his hand – he had clearly seen the truth as well – but he nodded and moved closer, the captive woman remaining in place on the ground.
Calvin stumbled over to edge of the dock, stuck his head over it, and was painfully sick into the water.
"Some dragons," the young woman explained patiently, evidently well-practiced at breaking the uncomfortable news, "Prefer female captains."
Her name was Wilhelmina Colby, and she insisted that her captors call her "Captain Colby."
None of them had yet found it within their power to do so. They had also not been able to bring themselves to tie her to the chair in the office of the harbormaster they had broken into, though there was plenty of rope to hand. So there she sat, with her hands folded on her lap, in men's clothing.
Her hair was cut so short that it could not even have been tied back at all. Calvin had never seen a woman with such short hair; he kept staring at it, like he was just looking at it from the wrong angle to get the full, proper effect.
The crew of the captured dragon Rixator was outside, bound, and with all their own guns trained on them by Sons of Liberty. There seemed to be no chance they would try anything, however, while their supposed leader's life was in danger – in danger as they saw it, anyway. It was causing Calvin no end of distress to think that he was keeping a woman hostage against their good behavior, even if it was not through any choice of his own. His stomach being empty now didn't stop it from complaining every time he looked at her.
Instead, he had his back turned on her and was examining her sword – now his sword. He knew that the polite, soldierly gesture was to return the enemy commander's weapon once they'd surrendered, to show respect. The same tradition probably held true for the Aerial Corps. But he just couldn't bring himself to do it. Women shouldn't own such things. This one had the emblem of the Solingen wolf on it – and if it was a fake, it was a very high-quality one, made for dueling and combat, not just for show.
"Well, to Perdition with what dragons prefer!" Marshall said with a clenched fist. "I'll not believe that they would put women in the way of such harm simply to satisfy the whims of an animal!"
"It's nothing so trivial," Colby said with an icy voice. "We do it to defend the Empire from the likes of you."
"You mean to tell us about defending the Empire, little woman?!" Waits hissed, finding words for the first time in Colby's presence. Like many of the men, he had been shocked into silence. "I've never gone for a long walk with my father because of the service! It's down to the Empire that he's only got one-"
"Mister Waits, enough," said Calvin. He was uncomfortable with stopping a man a few times his age from speaking, but it worked, and he was glad of it. This was a time that called for cool heads. Calvin was surprised to find that he had one, even if he was not remotely at ease about what was going on. "Miss Colby-"
"Captain Colby. If you don't believe I have the rank, you may ask any of my crew – or my dragon. Who I wish to speak to at once."
"He isn't speaking yet," said Calvin. Since the decision had for some reason been put into his hands, Calvin had allowed the woman in charge of the dragon's health (Irons, the 'surgeon') to remain with the beast. She had announced that he would need to have air pumped into his lungs with several of the largest bellows available, and eventually these had been located. Accipiter had expressed doubt that it was even necessary, so Calvin was optimistic. He hoped that no one would die as a result of tonight's events; it would make putting things in order infinitely harder.
"Young lady," said Charles Thomson, who was somehow the least alarmed by the presence of a woman in the uniform of a military officer. He was speaking to her as though she were exactly what she was dressed as. "You must understand that regardless of its legitimacy, we will need to make your position public. I do not know if you obtained your rank by a continuous subterfuge over years – which is very doubtful – or through secretive choices by the Admiralty Board. In either case, the public will not stand for it, especially not if what you say is true and there are other women serving with dragon crews."
"We captain every Xenica and Longwing in the service," said Colby without the least hint of shame. She even sounded proud. "The corps will not give us up to pacify any level of outcry. The dragons are too valuable to sacrifice to any childish notion of chivalry."
"Well," said Marshall, "It'll serve them right to have an outcry about something on their hands, even if not about how they're treating us. We'll have to get some nice etchings of you to spread around with the facts of the matter, to blacken their eyes."
Colby shrugged at him, with no sign of feminine deference at all. It was a little like taking to Margaret Harper, except that now Calvin found the frankness terrifying rather than engaging. "Fine, if you think anyone will believe you. If you imagine the Corps won't claim that you killed Rixator's real captain, dressed a woman in his uniform and made them out to be rascals who send girls to do their fighting for them. That sounds like what a bunch of Colonial bumpkins might think up, imaging that they were clever. Yes, it'll play well in London; Yankees Frame Lady for Imaginary Crime! I've always wanted to feature on a broadside. Be sure to get me from the best angle."
The men in the room all looked at each other doubtfully, trying to puzzle this out. Only Charles Thomson kept his full attention on Colby. "Tell me, Captain, do other nations give women charge of their dragons? Is it a common practice?"
"I'm sure I don't know," she said, "And I don't care, either. My duty is to King and country, something you evidently know nothing about."
Thomson nodded solemnly and looked to Calvin, saying, "You must accept this woman's parole, Captain Priestley – we cannot free her, but we shall need it if we are to keep her out of a common prison."
"I…" Calvin had little understanding of these matters, but as he had it, surrender was something offered by a military officer to another military officer. Captain Colby was a woman dressed in the wrong clothes, who had somehow been given charge of a dragon... and, apparently, its crew. He was himself the accidental companion of a beast that he seriously doubted his own ability to control; certainly he had no right to accept a parole in this situation. "… sir, do you think that's wise? I am involved in no..." he groped for the words, "… command structure. And we would be legitimizing her…"
"My good Captain," said Charles Thomson, reaching out to put a hand on Calvin's shoulder. "We are in a difficult situation; I see it as plainly as you. We have captured an officer and a dragon. That is what matters and that is what shall be put about. If all the facts are aired it will do no one any good… least of all us and our cause, which already has innumerable difficulties before it."
Calvin wanted to say that he still didn't understand this 'cause,' and wasn't sure that he cared for it, if it meant concealing something so wretched when the truth ought to be known. But at the same time, he didn't think that Colby deserved to be imprisoned with whores and thieves for what the Aerial Corps had made her do, or had made her into. Placed in a sanatorium, perhaps, but not imprisoned.
It would also be the best way to keep her dragon under control until it could be determined what should happen next. Perhaps if he took her parole, she would abide by it, and even if they ended up releasing her Rixator would no longer be permitted to harass Colonists – that was the nature of the practice. She would need to give her word of honor that she was out of the conflict for the duration.
"I am going to draw up papers for it," said Charles Thomson, "It is, I believe, within my power as Secretary of the Continental Congress, if I can speak to the President and enough delegates. We shall identify her as 'Captain W. Colby of His Majesty's Aerial Corps' and no one shall know whose assistance is not necessary." He looked at each of the rest of the Sons of Liberty in turn. "Is that understood, boys?"
He got a smattering of begrudged agreement before tapping his cane on the ground, hard and saying, "This is for freedom, do you understand that? If we are serious about the matter, then let us be serious about it!"
The men responded well to the rhetoric and it was decided among a core group who would have the privilege of guarding the woman at which times of day; Calvin had already decided that if he was going to accept anyone's parole – which he could hardly believe was his right – then he would not be leaving their side, either. He would need to watch the woman and her dragon. There would be no sleep for him tonight.
Colby was staring daggers at him. "I'll take your certificate," she said, referring to the document paroled soldiers usually received to show that they had been rendered unable to fight, "And show it to Admiral Rankin, with your name signed to it. It'll say that you captured me and held me at the point of my own sword. What do you imagine he'll say to that?"
Calvin decided to go keep guard over the dragon, first.
Outside, it was early enough in the morning that birds could be heard beginning to make sing. He wondered what would happen when the city woke to find that some idiots had gotten in a fight with one of the King's dragons, all to protect lawbreakers, putting peace in jeopardy. How close had they come to real civil war out there? How close were they, now?
"Calvin." Accipiter was small enough that he could stand on the harbor's unpaved road without blocking anyone who would want to get by him. Not that anyone did. The laborers who were beginning to appear to begin their day's labor would see the dragons and turn around, off to spread rumors Calvin would rather not imagine. "You are not well."
It wasn't a question. Calvin looked up at his dragon's face, with its enormous mouth and startlingly bright eyes. A child might draw such a face to illustrate a monster, but Calvin felt no fear of it; instead he reached up and rested a hand on Accipiter's nose. "I'm afraid for us. We may have made enemies tonight."
Accipiter bowed his neck so that Calvin could put his hand up higher and pat him on the head. "I hope the enemies are very terrible and very strong, then. They say that a warrior is to be judged by the strength of those who set themselves against him."
"Who says that?"
"The Unami. It was told to me in the egg."
For once, Calvin wished that he could believe as the Indians did about something. "I hope that we do not need to fight like that again, though. I am not a warrior. I haven't the constitution or the bravery for such things."
"But now you have a fine sword," Accipiter noted, clearly appreciating the gold on the hand guard and scabbard, "And you may take more guns from the captured arms, I am sure. You shall be respected."
"I doubt it, Accipiter."
Saturday April 21, 1775.
The PENNSYLVANIA GAZETTE.
Containing the Frefheft Advices, Foreign and Domeftic
"A complimentary copy!" the boy was saying in his unusual, low-class accent, which had a touch of foreign sound to it. He'd handed Calvin the newspaper just as dawn broke, as though Calvin had been waiting for regular delivery of it. It was the same child from the King's Head, Benjamin Franklin's errand boy Lefebvre.
Calvin was skimming before he had even finished the first sentence, his attention jumping to locations, to names, to numbers. The Sons of Liberty nearest to him looked like they wanted to read over his shoulder, so he read it aloud, the picture becoming clearer in his head. "Some troops marched out of Boston to make an attack in the country of some kind… oh, they were only seizing the militia stores. At Lexington. No, wait, at Concord – and militiamen fired on regulars. They fired! They were engaged the entire morning yesterday!"
Something became clearer to Calvin now. The dispatch he had seen Admiral Rankin receive the day before – surely it had been about this. That would be why the Indomitable had set sail for Massachusetts at once. A battle had taken place there. A real battle. It could well be that a war had already started.
"Then other people have been fighting too," Accipiter observed, surprising everyone with the volume of his speech. It must seem odd to many of the men that a dragon would have opinions on the contents of a newspaper. "So we have not done something so out of the ordinary, after all. That should be a relief to you."
"How?!" Calvin cried out, putting a hand to his head. "This will make it seem like I am throwing in with these bully-boys in Massachusetts, though I hadn't the slightest idea of what they were doing. For all I care they ought to have let the Regulars take their powder – I had only set out to save some men's lives, not to offer a fight with His Majesty's troops! Not to go capturing dragons for Congress!"
"Turn the page, for that!" the young man Lefebvre urged, and Calvin all did so. The men around him craned their necks to see.
It was similar to the front page, being all one article, but in the center of it a drawing in thick lines was evident. Familiar, but altered to change its meaning. Whether its intention was to be satirical or rouse sentiment, Calvin did not wish to guess.
"Hmm," came Accipiter's voice, "I understand the message, but must they really have shown me cut into pieces like that? And my horns are a good deal more splendid than those, I think. They ought to have gotten Temple to sketch it out; he is much more skilled at art."
"I drew it," the boy announced, somewhat crossly. "Well, Moses helped. And it is very like Doctor Franklin's original piece! We almost reprinted that one, but then had the idea for this. This is much cleverer!"
"I won't deny that," Accipiter agreed. "Calvin, tell me what the article says. Does it mention how splendid our flying was?"
But Calvin was simply looking over the whole page, understanding the implication of an entire printing of newspapers like it being disseminated throughout Philadelphia. It wouldn't be a week before every man of the Colonies had access to the reports within. "Oh God," muttered Calvin, wondering at how Benjamin Franklin could have allowed this to happen. "Oh, we have really done it to ourselves. We need to write a letter of apology this instant, and try to head all of this off. We can't go starting some kind of... some kind of general action against His Majesty's government!"
Lefebvre looked in some surprise at Calvin, who surely was not acting like the kind of adventurer he'd expected. "I do not see there is any way around it now, sir! Not if New England is about it, and Pennsylvania has had a hand. Or a claw! The Colonies are in revolt, and the British know you are with us!"
Calvin stared back at him, not really taking in anything he was seeing or hearing. Eventually he returned to trying to read the body of the article that was about himself and Accipiter and their fight in the sky, which if the article was to be believed, people all over Philadelphia had woken up to watch without his ever realizing it.
But his attention kept straying back to the simple image at the center of the page, of the dragon that curled, snakelike, from one side of the paper towards the other. Its wings were raised, its mouth open as if roaring or biting. It had very simple, pronged horns sticking out of its head, and its body was divided into segments with letters marking them out. Each represented a different Colony.
Beneath was a familiar three-word slogan that had been bandied about the Colonies for years – first as a sign to stand against the French to the west, then to affirm unity in the face of tax increases. To Calvin, it had taken on a new meaning.
JOIN, or DIE