League of Dragons by Naomi Novik

  Laurence could hardly feel pleasure at finding Junichiro here under these circumstances, and established deep in Napoleon’s councils—but if he meant to be civil to Napoleon, who had waged a relentless war upon Europe for near twenty years now, and invaded his own country—and who, for his part, showed no disposition to be less than gracious to Laurence, who had been instrumental in thwarting his destruction of the Russian Army—he could yet greet Junichiro with courtesy, and he returned the bow the young man made him.

  “Captain Laurence,” Napoleon said, turning back again, having commanded an array of refreshments, the addition of several comfortable chairs, a change of drapery, an increase in their firewood, and the assignment of a footman to carry out their errands, “I am remiss. You must permit me to offer you my condolences upon the loss of your father.”

  “I thank Your Majesty,” Laurence said quietly.

  Napoleon remained with them nearly an hour, talking freely and walking the room as though among intimate friends. Laurence could not but be sensible of the compliment the Emperor paid him with such a degree of attention and time, and perplexed by it; if he had not succumbed to Napoleon’s blandishments five years before, when by so doing he might have saved his own life and Temeraire’s liberty, the Emperor could hardly expect to seduce him now. Or so Laurence hoped, unhappily conscious that he might have given encouragement to such thoughts, in asking a favor, and contemplating with no pleasure the prospect of having to refuse any entreaty which the Emperor might now make him.

  But Napoleon asked him nothing, except his opinion on this or that new provision for the dragons of France, which he had under consideration. There were many of these: Napoleon passed freely from schools for hatchlings, to a scheme of using dragons in laying new trails over the Alps—inquiring for Laurence’s opinion on the Alpine ferals as he did so. “They have resisted all our offers most stubbornly,” Napoleon said, shaking his head.

  “They have a remarkable bent for independence, I should have said, Your Majesty,” Laurence said.

  “Which you admire!” Napoleon said, with a keen glance. “But nothing can be accomplished by one alone and friendless, without support. If I should ride into the field alone, what use would I be? And yet with an army beside me, what can I not accomplish?—They would do much better for themselves to accept the protection of France.”

  Laurence refrained from making a remark about the value this protection had been to the Russian ferals Napoleon had loosed and then abandoned. “I think you may find them hard to persuade,” he said only, and Napoleon moved onwards.

  His designs ranged almost absurdly wide. He talked of establishing great trade routes by dragon-back even to India and to China; he talked of building pavilions all across the breadth of Europe and Asia. His plans grew ever more ambitious as he spoke, and Laurence wondered. Napoleon spoke not at all of the disastrous reversal he had lately suffered—betrayed no consciousness either by word or look, or even by moderation, of the wreck of a million men, of ruin and defeat. Indeed he spoke of the war only briefly, to complain of his stepson, Eugene de Beauharnais. “He is too openhearted. He has given you quite a generous gift—the Oder!” Napoleon said. “All because a few Cossacks have given him a little trouble, and a handful of Prussian dragons.” Laurence could not but rejoice at the news: so the Tsar had sent his troops forward after all. But the censure in Napoleon’s voice made not the slightest acknowledgment that he had left that army wrecked, in an untenable position.

  There was something dreadful in this determined avoidance, as though Napoleon could not bear to recognize his own defeat and had instead to delude himself, even knowing as he must that his audience in this case knew the truth. Laurence was sorry to see it. He had thought in Russia that the Emperor was not himself—sallow, thickened: he had gained another stone in weight and did not carry it well, his face settling into heavy lines. The grey eyes were dulled; he stared into the fire often as he spoke, and did not meet his listeners’ eyes often.

  But he remained Napoleon, for all that. Laurence said, wanting only to escape the painful sense of omission, “We were impressed by your training grounds outside Grenoble, Your Majesty.”

  “Ha!” Napoleon cried, turning round. “—you mean, by the number of eggs.” Laurence could not deny it; he bowed. “Yes,” Napoleon said, “for seven years now we have attended the wisdom of the Princess of Avignon—Madame Lien as you knew her—and you have seen the fruits of our labors. There are four thousand eggs laid upon the sands of France, and soon they will come to their maturity.

  “The old ways of war are done, Captain. You have seen their death-knell,” Napoleon added. “The army which can bring more power to bear upon the battlefield, more quickly, will always be the victor: the weight of metal and of men will carry the day—if their generals are wise. You were at Tsarevo Zaimische?”

  “I was,” Laurence said, surprised to hear the Emperor now at last mention anything of the campaign: although in some wise the battle had been his triumph.

  “What a morning that was!” Napoleon said. “A little of my own sauce, as they say: to be woken in the first hours of the day to hear of five hundred dragons coming for me. You ought to have had me! But you could not bring your full weight to bear.” His face was illuminated again with vivid satisfaction; he seized upon a scrap of writing paper and a pen, and with a quick hand sketched out the defensive emplacements, his own forces behind their wall of defensive guns and the narrow corridor left; the Russian Army and the Chinese legions spread wide before it. “—You did not do as you ought. If you had committed your forces decisively, you must have overwhelmed us, and secured a complete victory, the destruction of my army. But you permitted caution to rule you,” he finished, flipping the pen from his fingers with a shrug; and Laurence knew well that no one would ever say the same of this man.

  Napoleon stood studying his own diagram a moment longer, then abruptly said, “Come, let us go and take the air—you are no delicate courtier; you are a soldier,” and Laurence had no objection to make; indeed agreed heartily, privately hoping for a glimpse of Temeraire somewhere upon the grounds.

  The gardens of Fontainebleau had been expanded and transformed into a covert, but not resembling any Western notion of that word. Large and imposing pavilions were made private by stands of young trees and elaborate trellises of vines, fountains playing among them: something from an imagined pastoral landscape, only with dragons instead of sheep. Dragons of every description: smaller feral-looking beasts, heavy-weights in every color and conformation, until Laurence, at first bewildered by the variety, spied down a narrow walk the heavy sinuous curve of a Kazilik dragon, unmistakably marked by the steam-hissing spines.

  But the dragon was not Iskierka: the hide considerably more black-green, and Laurence realized only then that these were not all French beasts. These were dragons from every corner of the world: besides the Turkish beast, he caught sight of several not unlike Arkady and his fellow Pamir-dwellers; over there to the north a huddled group of Russian ferals, lean and savage-looking; in a green-marbled pavilion along their way a pair of dragons conversing in broad colonial English. And as they turned back for the house, Laurence saw a dragon he was sure he recognized: Dikeledi, one of the beasts of the Tswana, whom he had last seen sailing for Africa with a transport full of slaves liberated from the Brazilian plantations.

  The dragon took notice of him also, peering back curiously, then turned to speak to a man—to Moshueshue, Laurence realized in deepening astonishment; the crown prince of the Tswana, here? Nothing could account for it, but to suppose that Napoleon had somehow gathered all these dragons here, in secret. Questions trembled on Laurence’s lips, although constrained: he was an enemy of France. And yet Napoleon had brought them here of his own volition; he had not needed to promenade Laurence about the grounds, inevitably to notice the presence of so many foreign beasts. Laurence asked, therefore, only a little diffidently.

  “What secrecy has been necessary?” Napoleon
said. “You, Captain Laurence, know well the willful ignorance cultivated by my enemies of the lives of dragons. I have made no efforts at concealment: what use, when my couriers have gone throughout the world, and spoken with dragons in every part of it? We could not have expected them all to keep it secret, if we wished to. If you have had no intelligence of our convocation, it is no doing of mine: you see there we have even Russian beasts among us.” He gave a disparaging snort. “Your old men and generals will not have it that dragons are thinking creatures, and throw a few coins at them to keep them contented. What do they know of it, when my couriers land even in their own breeding grounds, and speak to the creatures they have penned up and expect to remain quiescent even in the face of their outright destruction? You may be sure that the pitiable condition of the Russian ferals has not been forgotten here—those monstrous wing-chains! I wonder that you can with complacency range yourself with the architects of such cruelty.”

  Laurence could not easily answer this charge. He might have said that Napoleon had been little kinder in leaving them to starve and be hunted down, all so that they might wreak havoc among the Russian supply-lines. He might have said that the Russians had been on the point of freeing the ferals. But he could not bring himself to make these arguments. He would have chosen starvation over slavery, himself, and the Russians had been no less calculating in their decision than Napoleon: they had planned to make their ferals into troop-carriers, and that decision had been made only under the duress of Napoleon’s own lightning-quick advances. In truth, he had nearly resigned his post and gone when he had learned of the brutalities by which the Russian ferals were kept confined to their breeding grounds: only Kutuzov’s assurances that the ferals would be freed, under his and Temeraire’s own supervision, had kept them at their post.

  “Not with complacency,” Laurence said finally. “But war makes strange bedfellows, sir.”

  “By your decision,” Napoleon said sternly, as though chiding a low subordinate. “You know the masters you serve: you cannot expect otherwise under their rule.” Laurence closed his mouth on a reply: he could make none that would be civil, nor politic, to an emperor and a gaoler. Napoleon presently seemed to think better of his tone; he added, “But I will not wound you with reproaches! I know your conscience is not of that soft metal, which bends before a wind.”

  True to his word, the Emperor instead returned to enlarging upon those plans he had earlier described—which seemed now less grandiose, if he meant to accomplish them by an alliance with all the dragons of the world, direct: an unlikely but not impossible endeavor, Laurence thought. The evils of the condition of dragons in nearly every nation of the West, and the wholly unimproved situation of most ferals, would offer a fertile ground for Napoleon’s proposals: if he could afford them, which seemed the greatest bar.

  “But now you must pardon me,” Napoleon said, when they had circled back into sight of the palace. “The guards will see you back to the house. You have my word, Captain, that I will see you are given the chance to speak with your dragons soon, and as often, henceforth, as safety can allow—I know well how bitter that separation must be!”

  He left them, walking swiftly away down one of the garden paths towards an exceptionally beautiful pavilion of black marble here and there adorned with gold, and set upon the bank of a lake; and as he went a great white dragon head lifted to greet him—Lien’s voice musical as she called a greeting in French.

  He had that weapon, too—and an immensely dangerous one. Laurence had seen too many times for his present satisfaction how the power and grace and swift intelligence of a Celestial united to command the respect of other dragons, particularly if supported by self-interest: how many times and how easily Temeraire had persuaded other dragons to act in concert, and tolerate without resentment his leadership.

  “Well, we had better hope they eat him out of all the cattle in France for a month or two, and then go home again,” Granby said, with an equal pessimism. “I don’t suppose he can talk them all round, but Lord! If he did, it would be a nasty business. Those purple ones near the oak-trees were Nilgiri Cutters out of Madras, or I am a donkey-herder: I dare say they would be glad to serve us out—if he would only give them harness, and guns and powder, and a few dozen cannon to back them! But he would have to stretch a long way to find anything that could make a dragon in the Pamirs care a fig for anything that he says in France, without sending them a chest of gold with every command; or in Japan, I suppose,” he added in challenge, to Junichiro, who had accompanied them to their stoop: every outer room in the palace had been altered, to have large wide doors that opened onto the grounds, evidently to permit dragons to share in the life of the house.

  Junichiro paused by the door; then he said quietly, “You are mistaken, Captain Granby: he has already made all those beasts a gift which commands both their interest and respect—the cure of the dragon plague.”

  “IT IS INTOLERABLY UNFAIR,” Temeraire said, feeling all the indignation of having done a good deed at great cost, nobly expecting no reward, only to see another get both the credit of it and the unexpected fortune of the result. “What has Lien done for any of them, or Napoleon; they did not find the cure. Oh! When I think of all those hideous messes that Keynes inflicted upon me; even now I cannot but shudder if I get a smell of bananas, sometimes.”

  “Napoleon however had the power of passing it on,” Tharkay said. “I imagine there are few threats which dragons can feel so immediately as disease; the gift must have commanded gratitude.”

  Temeraire wished to ask—longed to ask—if Laurence was distressed. His only hesitation was fear of the answer. “Still, I do not see why any of them should give Napoleon the credit of the cure. He would not have had it to give, if Laurence and I had not given it to him.”

  “Just so,” Tharkay said, in his dry way. “And now you and Captain Laurence are here at the convocation, to be seen in his company; I am sure Napoleon is delighted to be able to present such a portrait of amity to his assembled visitors. The arrangement must have recommended itself to him highly: enough to make it worth letting the Prussian dragons go, and lure you here.”

  “So it is all due to you that we are here,” Iskierka said severely, as Temeraire sinkingly let his head drop to the ground. “—I might have known.”

  “Surely no-one would suppose we are here of our own volition,” he tried.

  “I do not expect Napoleon means to give you any opportunity of explaining the situation to his other guests,” Tharkay said, very loweringly.

  Temeraire had anyway to be glad of the visit, because Tharkay could tell him that Laurence and Granby were housed sumptuously in the palace, treated with enormous respect and every attention to their comfort: a little gratifying, at least. Temeraire brought himself finally to ask, “And—is he well?”

  Tharkay paused and said, “His health improves daily. His spirits are as well-supported as might be expected,” which was to say, Laurence was very distressed, and Temeraire did not need to trouble himself to find the cause: to be paraded about by Napoleon, so everyone should think he supported the Emperor’s designs—knowing that whatever these should be, they would certainly mean nothing good for England.

  It was intolerable, Temeraire realized, with a kind of terrible blankness—the situation could not be tolerated. He did not need to ask whether Laurence should have preferred to be put in prison, or even hanged, sooner than be used in such a fashion; he knew the answer perfectly well. Indeed, Temeraire was quite certain that if left to himself long enough, Laurence would find a way to arrange something of the sort; it only fell to him to act, before that should become necessary.

  “Will they let you come again?” he asked Tharkay, slowly, wondering how to speak: a party of some ten guards had come with him, and stood rudely all the while in ear-shot; Tharkay had said, “I believe these gentlemen would prefer greatly that we should converse in French,” when he had come: they were certainly going to report every word.

p; “I believe I will be permitted to come again next week,” Tharkay said.

  “Very well,” Temeraire said. “Tharkay, will you pray tell Laurence that I beg his pardon, and tell him that I hope he knows how—how highly I value him, and that I should never wish to act in any fashion that would give him cause to doubt my respect and esteem.”

  Tharkay paused, looking at him for some long moments, after this speech. “I will certainly assure him, if assurances are required,” he said. “I hope to see you next week, then; although I suppose we must not depend upon it, until the event.”

  “Yes, of course,” Temeraire said, so he was tolerably certain Tharkay had understood, as far as it was possible for him to understand.

  Then he had gone, escorted away back to the house; their own guards were eating their suppers, far enough away to be inattentive. Temeraire turned to Iskierka. “We cannot wait any longer,” he said. “We must rescue the egg.”

  “I do not disagree; I have been saying so from the beginning,” Iskierka said, swallowing down a haunch of nicely roasted kid with an easy gulp. “I am glad that you are coming round at last. I would have gone and taken it already, but there are too many of those guards. And I could not see how I would go and get Granby, afterwards. Have you thought of something clever? You ought to, since this business is all your doing, anyway.”

  “No,” Temeraire said, “I have thought of nothing clever, it is not clever at all; it is only dreadful. We cannot do it: we cannot take the egg without some noise, and they will lay hands on Laurence and Granby at once. There will be no getting at them.”

  “What use is there in bleating ‘we cannot wait,’ then?” Iskierka demanded, with an irritated jetting of steam.

  “That is what I mean,” Temeraire said. “We must take the egg, anyway.”

  Iskierka hissed at him, bristling up. “And let them keep Granby?”

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