e (esc_key) wrote in the_covert,

FIC: Assistant

I thought I'd tried something different from my last two fics and write about humans for once. It's harder than it looks!

FIC: Assistant
SUMMARY: One way Laurence and Temeraire might leave New South Wales, courtesy of Sipho.
SPOILERS: "Tonuges of Serpents" spoilers liek whoa.

For a few precious months, all was well. Captain Laurence and Temeraire built their pavilion; Sipho and Demane raised a whole herd of cattle. There was enough for two dragons, and one of them ate as much as most villages. Sipho knew he was not as fond of Kulingile as his brother would have hoped. Even if he was not as intelligent as Temeraire, Kulingile was a good-hearted dragon and he would have given his life for Demane. It was just that it was no longer the two boys against the world. It made Sipho question what his place in the world was, if not to look after his brother.

When more surgeons arrived, Sipho knew everything was changing again. Demane did not seem to understand that fact. Perhaps he was blinded by pride for his dragon, that the surgeons should have come so far to marvel at him. Kulingile was now larger than Temeraire. He could fly on his own, though there was no grace to it at all. His awkward floating, however, allowed him to drop heavily directly on top of enemies with the precision that larger breeds typically lacked. Temeraire said it could be terribly useful in battle, and started diagramming maneuvers.

At last it was pronounced that Kulingile would be the largest dragon in Britain, which made Sipho laugh because they were not in Britain. They were in New South Wales, in their pavilions serving no master and fighting for no king. The Admiralty would certainly not let it stay that way. They were not going to let “The Largest Dragon in Britain” sit idle on a farm in the middle of nowhere.

Demane did not trust the Admiralty. They had tried to say he was not an aviator but Captain Laurence’s “personal servant” after the trial. Sipho’s brother had not liked that at all— during the passage on the Allegiance, he had comforted himself in the notion that he may have been leaving his homeland, but at least he was going to be a great warrior. It was only through Captain Berkley’s intervention that the brothers remained in the Corps. Then, the greatest offense, some of the aviators had tried to steal Kulingile away. Those very men were probably back at Aerial Command filling the Admiralty’s head with they knew not what.

Demane and Kulingile did want to fight—it was in both of their natures--but they were not going to be parted. The Admiralty had to recognize that Demane was officially the dragon’s captain. A great many letters were sent back and forth on very fast ships. The Admiralty would make Demane a British citizen, they promised. They would confirm him in his rank of captain. They would allow him to choose his own crew, and none of them should try to steal Kulingile’s affections.

It was during the great letter writing period that Sir Edward Howe arrived. He came at the invitation of Captain Laurence and Temeraire, who were apparently acquainted with the gentleman. Sir Edward wished to make reports to the Royal Society about Kulingile, and Temeraire as well. And when he threw open his enormous truck, packed full with books, Sipho was sure his face looked exactly how his brother’s had when little Kulingile cracked the shell. Sipho followed him around the entire visit, asking him questions about the Royal Society, getting books published and, because it was the best way to get Sir Edward to speak to him for long intervals, about dragons.

Sipho was beyond pleased when Sir Edward started referring to him as “his assistant.”

Demane was not. “Assistant is like servant,” he said, scowling.

“Not, it’s not,” replied Sipho, stubbornly. Assistant was like an apprentice, training to become a master himself.

“When we fight Napoleon, you can be my lieutenant,” Demane said. He added, looking over at Emily, “or one of them.” She sniffed, unimpressed.

“How is that different from assistant, sir?” Sipho retorted, adding a mocking bow. Demane’s mouth went into an O—perhaps he finally realized that if he were captain then Sipho would always be his subordinate. Or maybe he was just pleased to be called “sir” for the first time. Sipho did not wait to discover the answer; he ran out to Temeraire’s pavilion and the two of them spoke in rapid Chinese to one another. They were reciting poetry, but Demane did not know that; his Chinese was atrocious.

Sipho was very sad when Sir Edward took his leave of them. He wanted to go with him and become a great scholar, but he could not leave his brother—not yet anyway. There were a great many reasons: Sipho was still not yet old enough to do much of anything (he was not yet twelve); he could not leave his brother, his only remaining family, in so unsure a position; and finally he did not truly want to leave just yet. Temeraire had promised to teach him French if Sipho would teach him Xhosa. He also needed to learn Latin and Greek; everyone educated spoke Latin and Greek.

“Perhaps, sir,” Sipho said, knowing he was being a bit presumptuous. “I may send you regular updates on Kulingile and Temeraire, and any other breeds we should encounter besides.” Sipho knew this last was of particular interest to Sir Edward; Temeraire had been talking of flying to China again and he was mad for all the Oriental breeds. Sipho knew because he had read his books.

For his part, Sir Edward did not seem offended by the offer in the least. Rather, he acted as though Sipho were being most generous. “Dear boy,” he said, opening and closing his mouth in shock. “I would appreciate it… I cannot say…” he trailed off. “But are you not going with your brother to Portugal?” he asked, finally. There had been plenty of studies of Portuguese dragons, as well as French and Spanish. Sir Edward studied all the breeds, of course, but non-European dragons were the most enticing.

“No, sir,” said Sipho, unaware he had made his decision long ago. “I do not know where the Admiralty shall send Demane; I have heard they might have use for him in the Americas.” He did not add that the Admiralty rather thought, simply because Demane was black, he might be able to reason with the Tswana which was unlikely since they had already tried to kill him once. “But I plan to stay as Ensign to Temeraire, sir.”

Temeraire heard this, turned, and made a low, pleased rumble in his chest. He did not like losing his crew and Sipho was of his crew.

Sir Edward shook Sipho’s hand heartily and promised he would be pleased to receive even the dullest information about Oriental or American breeds of dragon. Sipho took down his direction with great care.

“What do you mean you are going to stay with Temeraire?” Demane demanded, later. His face was pulled tight with anger, as though Sipho meant to abandon him.

“He is already upset that Kulingile should take you away, Demane,” Sipho explained, as though this ought to be obvious. “Temeraire has lost so many of his crew; there is only me and Allen and Emily left besides the Captain. He will resent Kulingile, like he does Iskierka, if I leave. Kulingile cannot breathe fire like she can. I would not want to set them against one another.”

Demane could not help but see the sense in this, even if it were not the true reason for Sipho’s decision. Temeraire had grown fiercely protective of them all. He acted as though Demane was still his, preferring to pretend Kulingile was not a threat and could almost be considered crew as well, rather than seeing him as a rival. It was a delicate balance that a small change could easily upset. Demane, as usual, had not noticed the subtlety until now, but at once became alarmed for the sake of his dragon. “You do not think he would roar at Kulingile, do you?” Demane asked, anxiously.

“No,” said Sipho. “It is easy; I shall tell you what to do,” and he did.

The next day another fast ship took another letter to the Admiralty. It said that Captain Demane should be happy to accept their commission, and sail to Rio to help rebuild the city and prevent further attacks on Great Britain’s ally, the Portuguese, provided that he should be afforded the same authority any other junior captain of the Aerial Corps, including, but not limited to, the ability to choose his crew members after consultation with his senior officers. And, though he would be happy to wait for the Allegiance to return in eight months time, Captain Demane should be able to secure immediate passage on a Chinese vessel, suitable for dragon transport, recently arrived in Larrakia harbor should the sentence of transportation and labor handed down to William Laurence be transferred from Sydney to Rio, as the government of China has proved such vessel for the use of the dragon Temeraire, at no charge to the Aerial Corps…

Demane bristled at being referred to as a “junior” captain, but did not press the matter. He also would have named “Captain William Laurence.” Sipho agreed with the sentiment; the captain should not have been stripped of his rank, but he knew the Admiralty was fussy about such things. They both refused to call him “Mr. Laurence” as Rankin had been given to using that name as an insult. Thus, a happy median was reached, and the letter was mailed to the attention of Admiral Jane Roland.

Sipho did not expect a reply for months, even with the fastest ships. That was just as well, the Chinese ship referenced in the letter was sent for Temeraire's use, but it was barely sea-worthy. Certainly it wasn't up to carrying something as precious as a Celestial dragon. Captain Laurence, himself a former Navy man, had to instruct the Chinese servants to make a great many alterations to the ship. For Temeraire's sake, the captain pretended not to notice that the Chinese took copious notes for some unknown future.

But it was only a few weeks after Sipho estimated that Demane's letter should have been received, that a small white dragon came spilling out of the sky. "Temrer!" he shouted, happily. Then looked at Demane's cows. "Cow?" he said hopefully.

Kulingile cracked open an eyelid at the word.

"Whatever are you doing here?" Temeraire asked the new dragon.

"Ah," said his captain, hopping down off his back. "Volly and I were bound for Bombay. I told Roland we might at least attempt it. Bit hairy, but here we are." He laughed good-naturedly and the little dragon butted his head happily against the captain's hand.

"You flew here?" Laurence was shocked. He hadn't thought it possible.

"Well you know nothing gets the Admiralty excited like saving a few pounds," said the captain with lop-sided grin. "Roland nearly laughed herself silly when she read that letter. I guess Temeraire won't be sitting idly by after all!"

Then Captain Laurence was forced to confess that he had not the slightest notion what the other man was talking about, while the three dragons gorged themselves on cows.
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