It is 1798 and the French tyrant Napoleon Bonaparte is sailing an invasion fleet to the Eastern Mediterranean, hoping to wrest India (and its riches) from Britain. In pursuit of the French fleet, Admiral Nelson of Britain has a smaller fleet, with an eight-dragon support attachment. Varinia is one of the eight dragons, a middle-weight Yellow Reaper who escorts/protects larger dragons, or sometimes works as a scout or a bomber. Admiral Nelson summons Captain Killian Price, Varinia’s handler, to his flagship and orders him to fly a group to Malta to see if Napoleon’s fleet has arrived, then to Istanbul to request dragon reinforcements from the Ottoman Empire.
Price musters his crew. Varinia herself is roughly the size of a humpback whale, carrying a full crew of five, which makes her hungry pretty much all the time. She adores Captain Price, who drapes her in sparkly jewelry to satisfy her child-like vanity. The captain’s second in command, Lieutenant Harriet Hayes, is a celebrated swordsman and model officer, but not-so-secretly yearns for her own harnessed dragon. A drunkard who regularly tipples on duty, Midwingman Jude Grey’s terrifying aim with a rifle is legendary, some say because of (rather than in spite of) the Demon Drink. Though only a boy, Lucas Moss, the Lookout, is multilingual and loyal to the core, making him an asset to any good dragon crew. Sitting in a bomber cockpit under the belly of the dragon is Bellman Daniel Bennett, who experiments with mechanical experiments when he’s not dropping bombs on the enemy. Before dawn, Price loads up the crew and Varinia takes flight toward Malta. When they are a mere two hours’ flight from their destination, Varinia spots the French fleet. As Varinia needs to rest before the return flight, they continue on to Malta.
Varinia lands a few miles outside Valetta, Malta’s capital city, and Price orders Lieutenant Hayes and Bellman Bennett to stay with Varinia while he and Midwingman Grey head for the city, with the Lookout acting as translator (the boy being fluent in French and Spanish). They hitch a ride on a farm wagon, and once in Valetta, they request an audience with Malta’s ruler, the Grandmaster of the Order of St. John. Curious to know what a dragon captain might want to talk to him about, and, hoping to exchange perhaps a bit of polite gossip, the old Grandmaster is stunned to hear of the impending French invasion. The Grandmaster, no friend to Napoleon, plans to resist with all his might, but both he and Captain Price know that the Maltese forces are not equal to those of the French.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Hayes has been busy requisitioning a sheep from a local shepherd, while the quirky Bellman runs around the bucolic countryside trying to find deer to shoot with his very large experimental rifle. The Lieutenant, professional to the bone, manages all things well, and receives the captain’s report with interest. On their way back from Valetta in the dark, Moss hears wingbeats overhead and (improbably, for it was the dead of night) spots a French Fleur de Nuit dragon soaring above the city. As the Fleur de Nuit breed of dragon has excellent night vision, the crew quickly agrees that the dragon was reconnoitering in advance of an attack by the approaching French. Moss and Bennett locate a mores secure hiding place for Varinia, and the crew nervously waits out the night, planning to make their escape in the morning. Bennett doesn’t sleep, instead inventing a cunning optical device that gives Moss, the Lookout, Eyes in the Back of His Head™.
With dawn comes the French attack, more sudden and ferocious than Captain Price expected, including a full wing of dragons (12 in number) led by a massive, wryly named, Petit Chevalier (there is nothing petite about the Chevalier; she is easily three times Varinia’s size). Varinia makes a break for it, but two French Honneur d’Or dragons break away from the main wing to pursue the Yellow Reaper. Varinia’s speed and agility keep her just out of reach of the enemy dragons, as Midwingman Grey (maybe sober, maybe not) snaps his safety lines to his battle station and lines up his long rifles. As Grey nails shot after improbable shot, rotating the rifles swiftly to Moss for reloading, the pursuing dragons lose their crew one member at a time. With both enemy captains bouncing limply in their harnesses, and Midwingmen dangling from their lines, the two Honneur d’Or go feral. All the hapless remaining enemy crew can do is cut their dead comrades free to lighten to load and speed the inevitable. With their handlers dead, the Honneur d’Or want only one thing: to tear Varinia and her captain to shreds with tooth and claw, with no thought to sparing the remaining crew, hers or their own. In a desperate gamble, Bennett and Moss shoot signal fireworks into the pursuing dragons’ faces, stunning them, and giving Varinia enough airspace to escape.
Windburned and tired, but victorious, Varinia and her crew return to Nelson and tell him what they saw. Nelson commends them for taking two enemy dragons (and their crew) out of the fight. It was well done, he says. Very well done.
Admiral Nelson tracks the French fleet to Egypt, where they are fighting to assert power over the Sinai, by which they will transport troops further on to India. Backed with a fleet of Turkish, fire-breathing Kazilik dragons, Admiral Nelson savages the French fleet at anchor. Varinia flies with the acid-spitting Longwing dragon, Excidium. As Excidium, backed by the Kaziliks, sets the French warships violently ablaze, Varinia and her terrifying crew dart between larger dragons, spraying bullets and bombs. Bennett rigs a special harness for Hayes that allows her to swing on an arm across to enemy dragons, where she snaps her lines taut before slashing throats and limbs with her blades, sending the bodies (and body parts) of the enemy falling in a steady rain of death. With most of the French harrier dragons down, Varinia drops her bombs on the French fleet, which is annihilated, eliminating completely the threat to British interests in India.
It’s a good thing the crew talked Bennett out of riding one last bomb down into the already doomed French fleet in suicidal glory, as they’ve grown accustomed to his irritating, incessant (but very handy) gizmo-cobbling, and in the end, even a tired, manic bomb-dropper looks pretty splendid in his gleaming commendation, the Nelson-Hardy Nile Medal.