League of Dragons by Naomi Novik
“If you would prefer to leave us,” Laurence was saying to Tharkay, low, “we might bribe the ferals thoroughly enough, I think, to buy your passage back to some company of the Russian army: the Cossacks were already nearing the Oder.”
“That is a sufficient distance to make it likely I should meet a company of Frenchmen, first,” Tharkay said.
They were in headlong flight by then, Iskierka outpacing him badly; a circumstance which on any other occasion would have been deeply mortifying. At present, Temeraire did not care. Iskierka might outfly him by a hundred leagues, so long as she reached the egg before the Fleur-de-Nuit reached the ominous mark upon Laurence’s map: the great network of caverns just beyond the Alps labeled simply, L’ARMÉE DE L’AIR: the training grounds where the French aerial corps hatched most of their beasts, and trained their recruits.
Temeraire’s wings ached, but he fixed determinedly on the thin pale cloud of steam that trailed Iskierka’s flight and pressed onwards. To the east, the edge of the mountains, ragged like an unsharpened knife, steadily grew more visible. The sun was coming.
The sky was deep rose-grey when they finally climbed over one last gasping ridge of mountains and plunged gratefully into the pass, an hour later: Iskierka still in the lead, but Temeraire had caught up a little, navigating the higher elevations; he had grown more used to the thinness of the air. Still he was dull and laboring, and he only distantly heard Tharkay say, “Laurence,” and then a moment later, after the click of the spyglass, Laurence replying, “I see it.”
He said nothing more, and Temeraire only flew on; slowly his mind turned it over and over and finally he said, “Laurence, what is it?”
Laurence did not immediately answer, and then gently said, “There is a small camp in the valley directly behind us, with the remains of a dragon’s meal, I think.”
“But that is splendid!” Temeraire cried, and meant to call to Iskierka with the news; but the tone of Laurence’s voice held him. “Surely we are on their trail?” he added uncertainly.
“The fire is cold, my dear,” Laurence said. “The Fleur-de-Nuit would have spent her day there; she will have been on the wing since nightfall.”
They were a full night’s flying behind her, then. Temeraire’s heart sank, but then Iskierka gave a sudden roar, and even jetted a gout of flame: he jerked his head forward and saw in the distance a small dark figure against the sky, sunlight breaking over the crest of the mountains and catching its wings, and the dragon ducked its head away from the light, as if it disliked the brilliance, and dived back into shadow.
“Oh!” Temeraire cried aloud, and flung himself after Iskierka, all worry, all fear forgot; he beat desperately on even as she stretched herself out her full length, coils unraveling into a single red-and-green banner and steam hissing furiously from every spike. “How far, Laurence? How far?”
Laurence was standing in his carabiners and peering through his glass. “Not five miles distant. Surely they must have gone further in a full night’s flying.”
“It might not have been their camp,” Tharkay said.
“It ought to have been, unless they made remarkably bad time the night before last,” Laurence said, “and they had good reason to make haste.” And then sharply he said, “Temeraire, wait—Temeraire! Listen to me,” but waiting, listening, no; Temeraire could not bear to listen to anything which should make him wait. He roared out instead, a challenge that split the air, and saw the Fleur-de-Nuit—it was a Fleur-de-Nuit, it was!—pop up again from the valley, looking their way. And wrapped against her breast—impossible to be certain, for it was thickly swaddled in netting, in layers of white padding stark against the dragon’s grey-black hide—oh! Impossible to doubt; it was the egg, the egg—
Laurence was shouting through his speaking-trumpet now, but Temeraire did not hear what he said; fury dimmed all his senses, and drove him in a surging rush forward. He and Iskierka were ranged alongside each other, their minds for once as one; he felt the churning steam of her fires jetting against his side and welcomed it even as the bitter air froze it to his scales. He was breathing in vast expanding gulps, the divine wind thrumming beneath his breast, rattling in his throat. The Fleur-de-Nuit had dived into the valley again, and as they came blazing into it they saw her cowering back against the cliff wall—too ashamed of herself to fly or fight—as well she should have been, Temeraire thought hotly, and he flung himself to the ground and roared well above her head.
She cringed down before him. “How dare you take my egg!” Iskierka hissed, landing beside him and pouncing forward; the Fleur-de-Nuit cried out as she raked her back, and the harness came loose—
“Be careful!” Temeraire leapt forward and caught at the forward edge of the netting as the whole mass of it came loose and the egg—
The egg fell out, unraveling into nothing more than a mass of cotton wadding and rags, empty. The netting hung on Temeraire’s claws. His breath caught: the egg, where was the egg? He could not think, could not understand.
“Temeraire, it is a trap!” Laurence was shouting, hoarse as though he had been shouting it a long time. “Temeraire!”
“A trap,” Temeraire repeated, numbly, as four heavy-weight dragons came down around them: all of them under full harness, loaded with men and guns, and a cloud of middle-weight beasts circled in the air aloft.
LAURENCE SURFACED IN THE pleasant manner where sleep by imperceptible degrees became wakefulness, and the world only slowly intruded upon his consciousness. In the final stages of the process he at last opened his eyes, sunlight illuminating the woolen bedcurtains of deep blue, snugly drawn against draughts. A vast and cheerful noise was rising outside, roughly what might have been expected of a herd of elephants engaged in a melee. He rose and went to the window of his chamber—a window barred with iron, but set in a spacious and comfortable room elevated by the presence of a truly handsome wooden desk he would not have disdained to own himself, and a chamberpot of porcelain painted in flowers.
A species of chaos was under way in the large courtyard: dragons in harness descending, their crews spilling off their backs, and one and all making their way to tables. Even the dragons ate out of large clay bowls they carried for themselves, taken from heaped stacks at one side of the grounds to be filled in the cooking-pits at the other: Laurence could see the clouds of steam rising. The men were doing likewise, on a smaller scale, and the companies then gathered together again to devour their meal. The operation was not a novel one to Laurence, but it was the first time he had seen it executed in so expert a fashion by any Western army; he might again have been with the Chinese legions, save that there was a greater and motley variety to the dragons.
Laurence did not think he saw a single breed to recognize, but the characteristics of many scattered and shared out among many beasts. To his surprise, the light-weight Pou-de-Ciel was perhaps the best represented, mixed it seemed with larger and more notable sorts; one beast, with the conformation and size of the smaller breed almost exactly, had the brilliant yellow-striped black coloration of the Flamme-de-Gloire, a cross he would never have expected. Many others bore in varied patterns the long feathery scales of the Incan breeds.
He had been standing by the window for perhaps a quarter of an hour, watching, when the bell rang half-past noon and all quitted the field, the dragons and the men alike carrying their bowls to an enormous washing-trough, with large bundles of stiff straw tied above to serve as scrubbing-brushes, so they could scrape clean their dishes before depositing them back onto the stacks.
Then they lifted away, and exposed the large and sun-drenched field beyond them. Now Laurence could see the cooking-pits in their neat rows, still emitting a steady cloud of warm steam—which wafted tenderly, moistly, over the just-exposed shells of what seemed a thousand dragon eggs and more.
Laurence stood staring in appalled horror for some half an hour, trying to make an accurate count. It was not an easy task: the eggs were all half-buried in heap
“Well, Laurence, we are in the soup properly,” Granby said, when they had sat down to table. “He is going to drown us in dragons if we give him another year. How he means to feed them all is a large question, but I dare say he has worked out some cleverness for that, too.”
Their own dinner was brought out then, and Tharkay still had not come. Laurence turned and spoke to one of the guards: “Our companion, is he ill? Il est malade?”
The young man—very young, his mustache still a weak and struggling thing—stared at him so blankly that Laurence wondered too late if Tharkay might have contrived to pass himself off as a servant, or a ground crewman, and if he were in danger of undermining the ruse. Then the youth said suddenly, “Oh, you mean the spy? They are sending him to Paris to be shot.”
“I hope they do not mean to try to put me in a cave, for I will not have it,” Iskierka said loudly, with a snort of flame for the benefit of the two large dragons presently guarding them, who eyed her nervously. The training grounds stood at the foot of a steep cliff wall pockmarked with wide cave-mouths, and many dragons were peering out of them interestedly at the prisoners. Temeraire for his part had lived in a cave before, and in any case had no heart to defend his prerogatives against any kind of insult at the moment. He felt his spirits would have been ideally matched to a tenancy in a dismal swamp, or perhaps upon some comfortless lichen-covered rock.
But they were not taken to a cave. A small dragon, something between a Pou-de-Ciel and a Pascal’s Blue, landed before them and announced in an incongruously deep voice, “Follow me, if you please,” in French; he brought them over the wide martial fields to a spacious building, constructed of stone, with a small but elegant fountain in front. Plainly it had drawn upon the dragon pavilions of China for inspiration, but in style Temeraire had not seen anything like it: the roof was raised up on tall smooth round pillars, and there was something very pleasingly mathematical about the proportions of the rectangular floor, made of white marble and marvelously warmed through from beneath. Iskierka immediately sprawled herself to her full length upon it with a sigh. “Well, I call that something like,” but Temeraire sat on his haunches and curled his tail about himself, resentful of this reminder of the perversity of the world.
“I wonder that you can make yourself comfortable under these circumstances,” he said bitterly. It seemed to him almost heartless.
“I do not see that the circumstances are so very bad,” Iskierka said maddeningly. “I was quite tired and hungry, and you could not even keep up with me, flying. Now we will have a rest, and eat something, and then we will find out where the egg and Granby are, and we will go and take them back.”
“You are being unutterably stupid,” Temeraire said. “They will not keep them in the same place. If we should try and get Granby and Laurence, the French will order us to put them back or else they will hurt the egg; if we should try and get the egg, they will order us to leave it or else they will hurt our captains. We are prisoners twice over, and there is nothing we can do about it. I dare say Lien is congratulating herself all this time,” and he added, low, “on how well her plans have come about.”
“I think you are the one being stupid,” Iskierka said, mantling in some heat. “It is quite the other way round. If they should hurt Granby, even a little, or the egg, even a little, I will certainly burn up all of them, and they must know it. They will not dare harm them, I am sure: you see how respectful they are being.”
“Oh! There is no use arguing with you,” Temeraire said, but secretly felt a little comforted: perhaps there was something in what Iskierka said. The French did know enough to be wary of them both.
“Anyway,” Iskierka said, “it is just as I told Granby, and as I told you: if they have the egg, there is no use our being anywhere else. I am just as pleased to be nearer the egg, and having a good dinner: here it comes! Now pray don’t be absurd and sit there without eating: as though that would do any good.”
The dinner was not elaborate, but a good hot porridge flavorful with meat, and it was brought to them in large bowls. “There was no time to make anything more,” the deep-voiced dragon, whose name was Astucieux, explained apologetically, which implied there should be something better in the morning, and seemed to bear out Iskierka’s way of thinking. Temeraire found his appetite quite restored by the thought, and made a hearty meal, but when the dishes had been removed, they were left alone again with their guards, a ring of large dragons, who became silent, looming shadows as the light failed.
Far off he still heard companionable chatter, voices calling to one another from the caves; the warming orange glow of firelight shone all over the large nearby field, and faintly in the distance he could glimpse yellow squares of windows looking out of a large building, if he stretched up on his rear legs. He sank down again. The distant noise only made him feel their isolation more, and his worries returned afresh. After all, how would they know if anything had happened to Laurence or to Granby or to Tharkay; or to the egg; the French would certainly lie to conceal it, if any of them came to harm.
“I beg your pardon,” he called out to the guards, and one of them came close, warily: she was a Grand Chevalier, very near Maximus’s size—and Temeraire realized in surprise she was not under harness, and indeed looked rather ill-kept, as French dragons went; her scales between her shoulders, where she could not have reached with her snout, were even dirty.
“What do you want?” she demanded.
“I am Temeraire,” he said, meaning to be polite. “Will you pray tell me your name?”
“I am Efficatrice, but I don’t see why you should care,” she said. “Unless you mean to make up to me, and you can stop that right away, if you do. I am not stupid, and I mean to win my harness: so don’t suppose you can practice any tricks upon me.”
“Win your harness?” Temeraire said, baffled, but the Chevalier evidently thought she was being insulted, for she drew herself up and regarded him very coldly out of narrowed eyes.
“I shall,” she said, “see if I don’t, even if I am too large,” which was not a complaint Temeraire had ever heard leveled against any dragon before, in the West.
“Well, it would be silly to say you are not large, but I do not see that you are any larger than you ought to be; I have seen Chevaliers nearly your size before,” he said, “and I am sure I wish you every success, although perhaps I shouldn’t,” he amended, “since you are on the French side, but Laurence is quite friendly with De Guignes, after all, so I suppose it does not matter in that way: but whyever cannot you have a harness, if you want one?”
“We eat too much,” she muttered, after a moment, “and we quarrel with other big dragons, and so cannot work well together. But I will not quarrel,” she finished.
“You are certainly being quarrelsome with me,” Temeraire said, “even though I am being perfectly civil, when anyone would agree I have been badly wronged: when all of you are egg-stealers. And all I want is for you to take a message, to whomever has charge of this place, that I can repose no confidence whatsoever in the safety of my egg, and require assurances at once.”
“Of course no-one has hurt your egg!” Efficatrice said. “No-one of us would hurt an egg, at all; there is no call to be rude.”
“There is every call,” Temeraire said, “when I think how you have snatched my poor egg from a safe place and carried it off h
Efficatrice flinched and looked conscious, which was at least a small grain of satisfaction. Feeling all the moral force of his position, Temeraire drew himself up. “So I do not trust any of you, and I hope you may go to your commanding officer and tell him so, and that if I am not given certain proofs of the good condition of the egg, I will assume that these cannot be given because my egg is not safe, and you have been lying about it.”
“And if you have been lying about it,” Iskierka put in, having roused enough from her napping to follow the conversation, with slitted eyes, “you may be quite sure you will all be sorry: if anything has happened to my egg I will burn everything between here and whatever house Napoleon is hiding in, and then I will set that on fire, too.”
The senior officer overseeing the camp was Admiral Thibaut: at only a few years Laurence’s senior, he was a young man for his rank and post. Napoleon would soon need a host of trained officers, when he had so many new beasts to man. But at present Laurence had other, more immediate concerns, and could only be grateful that Thibaut had been so willing to receive him: a single request passed through the guards on their mess had almost at once brought him to the admiral’s office.
“No, sir, I thank you,” Laurence said, refusing the amiable offer of a glass of brandy, “I have come to urgently beg you to permit me to acquaint you with the peculiar facts of Mr. Tharkay’s position, and then I hope I can rely upon your sense of justice not to prosecute so deadly a charge against a man who is in every way entitled to be treated as a honorable prisoner of war.” Admiral Thibaut indicating with a courteous bow that he might continue, Laurence marshaled his arguments and plunged forward.
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