League of Dragons by Naomi Novik
Gabija did not admire Dobrozhnov; her own preference was quite certainly for Ferris, on whom her eyes often lingered: with his sword and pistols and flying-coat, and the military carriage which had never deserted him, he presented the qualities of an officer even though he no longer possessed the rank. He had a smooth high forehead beneath auburn locks, and over the course of the preceding year he had filled out in muscle to match his height; if not a match for her in beauty, he could reasonably have been called handsome even by a judge with more basis for comparison. She was too shy to even attempt to speak to him, but she made excuses to be in his way, and even dared to linger near Temeraire, who might be relied upon to call Ferris over whenever she was by.
But despite these evident signs of calf-love, Laurence feared her susceptible to Dobrozhnov’s persuasion: she plainly did not wish to settle, any longer, for the quiet country life which would have been her natural lot. If no better offer were made her, she might well be persuaded to accept Dobrozhnov’s suit, without understanding what fate she embraced.
And yet Laurence had reached the end of what solutions he might offer: he could not press Ferris to marry under the circumstances. Temeraire however felt no such hesitation, and when the failure of Forthing’s suit had been reported—to Churki’s visible and ruffled-up satisfaction—he urged at once, “Ferris, are you sure you would not like to marry her,” while Laurence, catching his breath upon the camp-chair which had been arranged for him, could not yet object.
“I must beg to be excused,” Ferris said, and dragged his eyes away from Miss Merkelyte’s appealing glance with an effort: she was feeding the chickens in the yard, and made a remarkably charming portrait with her dress hiked up to her knees, and curls of her dark hair escaping from under a kerchief. He swallowed, and added with some bitterness, “It would be too much to prostrate my mother a second time,” and took himself away.
“Temeraire,” Laurence said, “you cannot be tormenting him so: leave off.”
“But if we do not object, I do not see why he ought to imagine his mother will; after all, she has never seen Gabija,” Temeraire began, but he stopped and raised his head, his ruff pricking up.
A small dragon came dropping out of the clouds in the distance: one of the local ferals, green, with a remarkable bony crest atop her head in orange and brown stripes. She sighted them and came on, circled once and descended. “So here you are!” she said, in accusatory tones. “What do you mean by hiding yourself away like this?”
“I beg your pardon?” Temeraire said, glacially. “I have come here to look after Laurence, who was injured in a duel; and I do not propose to let anyone object to it, either.”
“Hm,” the feral said, “well, as long as you aren’t trying to get out of it, at least: I hope you wouldn’t be that sort of dragon.”
“I am not that sort of dragon, at all!” Temeraire said. “And it is quite outrageous that you should come flitting back again to accuse me of any such thing. It is not as though I were going to wait about forever on the very thin chance that you should return. After you have found Eroica, then it will be very well for you to start talking about my trying to get out of it: as though I were a scrub.”
“What?” Dyhern said, standing up; he had been sitting upon a log near-by, occupying himself with whittling while Laurence spoke with Temeraire and Ferris, and to Laurence’s regret, he had heard his dragon’s name mentioned.
“All right,” the feral said, “so go on and bring out the plate, then: we are here, aren’t we?”
“I believe,” Temeraire said in awful tones, “that there was a small matter of proof, and as for we—” Here he stopped, and Laurence heard Dyhern make a short, sharp inhalation, audible even across the farmyard, and then he was running, his arms open wide as a boy as he pelted downhill, shouting: there were half a dozen heavy-weight dragons breaking through the cloud cover, wisps of fog boiling away over their grey and brown bodies, and Eroica was in the lead.
LAURENCE HAD RARELY SEEN a man so overcome: Dyhern could not manage any language but German, and his speech was so choked with tears that it could not have been comprehensible if he had been speaking the most fluent English, but he wrung Laurence’s hand with fervor enough to make words superfluous. Eroica, too, was beyond words, attempting as well as any dragon of twenty-three tons and armored in bone plates might to make himself a lap-dog, nearly knocking Dyhern over with attempts at caressing, while his fellows crowded around with enormous anxiety and peppered Dyhern with questions, asking after their own captains, their own officers. The noise was extraordinary.
“Temeraire,” Laurence said, almost too baffled to share in the delights of so unlikely a reunion, “I suppose you must have engineered this, but I cannot conceive how.”
“Oh,” Temeraire said, in despairing tones; he was regarding the touching scene with his ruff flattened so thoroughly against his neck as to make it nearly impossible to see at all.
“Well?” The little feral popped up to prod Temeraire, nudging him with her nose. “I suppose now you cannot argue we haven’t done our part.” Another small feral dragon landed, a grey-white beast with suspicious eyes for the crowd of Prussian beasts, and joined the first. “We are here. We have brought them. Where is the gold?” she demanded. “I want to be on my way: I mean to get it somewhere safe, before there are a lot of rumors about it.”
Temeraire heaved an enormous gasp, his entire chest bellowing out, and said chokingly, “Ferris, will you pray have the gold plate brought out—Napoleon’s service? I do not suppose, Laurence,” he added, in a sudden burst of desperation, “that you object to my having offered it as a reward? If you think it an excessive gesture—”
“My God,” Laurence said, with feeling, “if you have bought us half a dozen Prussian dragons, you might have spent every last ounce of coin in your wagon, without my raising the least objection,” and Temeraire gave a shudder and put his head under his wing, as the plate was brought out and handed over to the two exultant ferals.
They fell almost at once to squabbling over the equal division of their spoils, which the presence of various serving-vessels of varied size made difficult. Temeraire flinched from the dispute. Laurence could not pretend to share his feelings, but nevertheless laid a hand upon his muzzle to try to comfort him. “My dear,” he said, “I am very sensible of the pain which this sacrifice must have given you; will you permit me to say that I rejoice in the character which you have displayed in enduring it? And to urge you to console yourself by observing the pleasure you have given our friends, entirely aside from the manifest benefits to our war effort.”
“I am very happy to have been of service, of course,” Temeraire said, monotonously, but Hammond emerged from the cacophony quite nearly incandescent with his own joy, and seized his hand and cried, “Laurence, Laurence, the beasts say there are another forty of them, spread across Prussia, the entire Prussian aerial corps: they have all run for it. I cannot conceive how they were persuaded.”
“Well, it’s plain enough, isn’t it?” the grey feral demanded, lifting her head. “If this Napoleon isn’t knocked down, they will never see their captains again, who might all as well be dead. There wasn’t any sense in their sitting about in the breeding grounds anyway, and they weren’t even being bred, for that matter.”
“What?” Temeraire said, lifting his head, at least briefly distracted from his unhappiness.
She shrugged. “I gather this Lien dragon doesn’t think much of the Prussian lines: she even had them kept apart on purpose, the males and females, so they shouldn’t have any eggs.”
“Why,” Temeraire said, “how insulting, and when they were so brave—even if they did insist on formation-flying, that was not their fault, really, and they did not know any better; Eroica, I am very sorry you should have endured such rudeness,” he added, but Eroica reared his head up away from Dyhern, his yellow eyes widening suddenly, and cried out, “Mein Gott!”
He lunged back onto his feet, with such force
“Of course she is, but whatever are you talking about?” Temeraire said, pulling his head back on his neck, wary.
“The white dragon came to the breeding grounds not two weeks ago,” Eroica said. “Her insulting remarks—I will not repeat them all! But this we overheard her say,” and he turned his head one way and another, to the other Prussian dragons, who all nodded energetically, “that she considered it her duty to protect the lines of France no less than the lines of China: that she meant to prevent our breeding even as she meant also to see to a mongrel egg, which a traitor to her kind had produced, to seal a corrupt alliance between China and the most evil nation of the West—”
Temeraire oversaw the hasty packing with blank calm. “I see now, Laurence,” he said, “that you are quite right, that one must not be a slave to fortune: if I had kept all the gold plate, and never offered the reward, I should never have known that the egg was in danger, and Lien might have—” Here he faltered, with a shudder which wracked his entire frame; he did not wish to imagine what Lien might have done to the helpless, too-fragile egg. “But will you be well enough to travel?” he added instead, with dull anxiety.
“I will do,” Laurence said. “But Temeraire, you and I must go alone; we cannot take the crew with us on such a journey.”
“As you think best,” Temeraire said. The ground crewmen took the lid off the porridge-pit, and he put his head within to eat as much as he could, though he felt no sense of appetite.
Hammond and Forthing and Ferris had already been arguing with Laurence in low voices, telling him that it was madness to try to cross all Russia in the worst cold of winter, without escort; they redoubled their arguments now. Temeraire overheard, but made no answer. It would be very difficult, of course, but there was no alternative: to take the southern road would be a loss of three months’ time.
“Gentlemen,” Laurence said, without looking up from his writing-table, where he leaned heavily upon his elbow as he slowly scratched out a letter, “Temeraire will go: do you imagine there is any question of that? Therefore I am going. Mr. Forthing, I will give you a letter for Whitehall, but until you receive further orders, I hope you will be guided by Mr. Hammond’s advice. I imagine that there will be a great want of men to crew the Prussian dragons, and you cannot, I think, do better than to return the favor which Dyhern has done for us heretofore. Mr. Hammond, I would be very much obliged to you if you will ask safe-passage for us from the Tsar.”
“Good God!” Hammond cried, “as if he can give you any such thing, with five thousand mad and starving ferals scattered across his countryside. Captain, I beg you to try all your influence, all your energies—”
“Those,” Laurence said, cutting him off, “I must conserve for efforts more likely to succeed.”
Hammond gave over arguing, but a little while later, when Laurence had gone into the house to eat a little supper, he came to Temeraire and made a final attempt. “Temeraire,” he said, “I must say to you what Captain Laurence will not: this journey will be his death. He has scarcely risen from his sickbed; he is weak and ill. To attempt to cross a frozen wasteland in his condition, with insufficient food and shelter, will be a death sentence even in the absence of any other hazards which you might encounter. Will you insist upon taking him to so cruel a fate?”
“Oh!” Temeraire cried. “That you should speak to me so: why is he weak and ill, but that you put him in the way of this wretched duel, and did not let me know anything of what was happening? You may be sure I would not have permitted him to be shot by a worthless coward.”
So he sent Hammond packing, but could not help but feel all the force of the argument: Laurence lost his breath so easily now, and looked very weary and grey. It was not two days since he had been first able to stand. Temeraire furrowed the ground uneasily, and then he leaned over and roused Eroica, who was sleeping after his long and arduous flight. “Will you come and have a word, if you please?” he asked, low, and when they had padded a little distance away—carefully, so as not to knock down any of the sheepfold or the trees—he summoned his resolve and said, “Eroica, Laurence cannot come with me—he must not come with me—he is not well. But I must go to the egg, of course. Will—will you look after him for me, until I return?”
“Temeraire, best of friends!” Eroica said. “I swear to you I will guard him like my own captain: how could I do any less, when you have restored Dyhern to me?”
“I hoped you would feel so,” Temeraire said, although a deep hollow sensation of unhappiness made itself present in his breast, as though having spoken, he had already parted from Laurence. His head bowed with misery.
Eroica leaning over nudged his shoulder beneath Temeraire’s and offered its massive breadth for support. “Courage! That you will save your egg and come back again, I have no doubts. And while you are away, Dyhern and I will make it our business to keep your captain safe. So, too, will all my companions: there is many a dragon of Prussia who owes you a happy reunion.”
Temeraire tried to accept this consolation, but it was hard; he told himself he left Laurence with an immense treasure, and many friends to watch over him, but he could not pretend he was not also leaving Laurence exposed in the midst of war. But the egg—Lien would send assassins, or pay them—Temeraire trembled all over again, envisioning the egg—smashed, that delicate opalescent shell in pieces across the marble floors of the Imperial City, all its guards murdered—
“I must go,” he gasped. If Laurence were not coming with him, there was no need for packing; no need for preparation or supply. He would go on the wing, and hunt as he flew. “Eroica, pray tell him—pray tell Laurence—” But here Temeraire’s invention failed him; he could not suppose what there was to tell Laurence that Laurence did not already know.
“I will tell him you are sorry to leave him behind,” Eroica said, “and that I will stand in your stead as his protector, until you have returned.”
Temeraire only bobbed his head blindly in agreement, then flung himself aloft; he beat his wings in great scoops of air and lifted away, turning his head to the east, and flew.
Laurence heard the shouting outside, and saw the great shadow crossing the fields, and knew at once: Temeraire had gone without him. He was sitting at the rough-hewn table which stood in the house’s kitchen. He did not immediately make a push to gather his strength to stand: it was already too late. Temeraire would not be caught by any dragon here, not when he went unarmored, unburdened, and stretching himself to the limits of his speed.
Hammond appeared in the doorway, stricken, and Laurence looked him in the face; Hammond hesitated, saw that he already understood. His face fell; he did not speak.
“You will pray send to the Tsar for a safe-passage regardless,” Laurence said quietly. “It is not likely to be of much use, but the Russian couriers may at least pass the word ahead, so he will not meet any official obstacles.”
“Yes,” Hammond said. “Captain, I must beg your pardon—”
Laurence forestalled him with a hand, and shook his head. There was nothing to be gained by upbraiding Hammond now. He pushed himself up from the table and went back to the cot: there was nothing more he could do at the moment.
He slept, and woke in the late hour of the night to the sound of a soft scuffling across the room. The embers of the fire lit Dobrozhnov in orange: he was sitting sideways upon his cot, smiling, and holding Gabija by the wrists; she was pulling against his grip and whispering urgently. He said something in cajoling tones, pulling her down towards him, and Laurence pushed himself up and said, “You damned blackguard, let that girl go, or I will have my men horse-whip you in the yard.”
Dobrozhnov let her go, his face purpling with indignation, and she ran from the house in long fleet strides, gasping like
He was only restrained with difficulty from dragging the man from his sickbed at once; a difficulty only increased by Dobrozhnov saying contemptuously, “What a to-do! I am not going to fight you over a warm peasant armful, you young ass; make a fool of yourself if you wish.”
“You cannot kill a wounded man,” Laurence said tiredly, “nor force a coward to face you, Ferris; leave off. Tomorrow he will go back to the city in a wagon-cart, and we will return to the covert, and there will be an end of the matter. Hammond, tell that woman to keep her daughter in the bedroom until we have all of us left.”
Most of the Prussian dragons had already been sent back to the covert, where they could be supplied. Eroica alone had remained. When Laurence emerged that morning, the great dragon came to the door and earnestly assured him of his protection, a promise which Temeraire had evidently extracted from him before departing. “He is sure to return very soon,” Eroica said, with draconic optimism. “So pray have no fear for yourself, or this magnificent treasure which he has left you: be assured not so much as a single coin will I permit anyone to take from it!”
Dyhern was in equal earnest, though more conscious of the grave danger which Temeraire now faced. “But while there is life there is hope, as my own example may show,” he said, “and you must permit us to make what small returns we may for the gift you and he have given us. Come. We will go back to Vilna. You will rest, you will recover. And Laurence, though your dragon is gone, duty remains: you must be our instructor. The old ways are of no use against Bonaparte; Jena taught us that. It will not be enough that we renew our discipline and our daily practice. We must have new tactics, from the East, and you are best fitted to aid us in contriving them.”
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