League of Dragons by Naomi Novik
“Yes,” Temeraire said, almost choking: scarcely able to think of it. Laurence alone in Lien’s power, and surely the object of her malice. “Napoleon cannot execute them. Not when he is busily pretending Laurence is his good friend, and quite in amity with him; he cannot harm him at all. It would certainly look very strange to all the dragons here, if he did. So this is our only chance. We must go and take the egg, and—and we must leave Laurence and Granby behind.”
“Temeraire is certainly planning something,” Tharkay said, “but as to the details, I cannot speculate, except that he evidently supposed you might feel slighted.”
“That tells me nothing, unless he means to lose me another ten thousand pounds,” Laurence said grimly.
“Had we better try and stop them?” Granby said. “You know there is no use hoping that cooler minds will prevail, on their end. The madder the notion, the more sure it is to please Iskierka: I would not depend on her to restrain Temeraire from launching a headlong charge on Paris and trying to bring down the Tuileries.”
“I cannot see how you mean to do so,” Tharkay said, “unless by betraying their intentions to our gaolers, which will certainly preclude any future chance of escape. You can either trust them, or halt them forever.”
Placed upon these terms, Laurence found his own decision easy, if no more comfortable. “That trust I can hardly deny him. The egg is no longer in mortal peril, nor are we. I do not think Temeraire suffers in his present situation the same desperation that drove him to those earlier extremes, which brought us to this pass; he may certainly wish to escape, but I do not believe he would enter into some real folly, in pursuit of that aim, which would endanger the egg or our lives. I do not deny he might overestimate his chances, as judged rationally by a more skeptical eye. But I cannot remove his power of taking action, only because I have no means of approving his course.”
“Well, it would be an unhandsome turn to serve him, I don’t deny,” Granby said, “but what good can he possibly do while we sit here in the midst of Bonaparte’s armies? If I could think of anything at all worth the doing, I should be less concerned about his getting up to something. I will be the first to say it is a wrench, going from Spain to a French prison—however pleasant,” he added, with a reluctant justice almost demanded by their surroundings.
It had not been enough for Napoleon to see them established in a palatial suite of his own home, attended by servants, made comfortable in every particular. The fire now roared so enthusiastically that they had been obliged to open the doors to the garden to avoid stifling; an urn of silver magnificence dazzled from the sideboard, of a capacity sufficient to three men if those three men had nursed the ambition to drown themselves in tea like Clarence in malmsey; and they had but risen from a handsome turbot filleted in wine and a beef roast of melting tenderness, with six removes and a dish of magnificent oysters with which even Laurence’s most exacting standards could have found not the least fault. And Chicken Marengo, it had to be admitted, was excellent, even if there was something vaguely unpatriotic in the enjoyment thereof, and of all their present comforts.
Laurence would have refused every such gesture if offered in exchange for the least form of cooperation; he would have welcomed, indeed, a chance of making such a refusal. But he had not been asked for so much as his parole. He could not easily put aside the dinner laid before him and demand to be fed on gruel and water, or housed in a damp cell, without rudeness and absurdity united; and even if he had, an acquiescence to his wishes would have been a worse, as being a greater, favor: the power to direct his own arrangements. There would have been too much of the quixotic guest about it, instead of the resisting prisoner. He could only share in Granby’s feelings, when he lamented the battlefield.
“We have been doing some proper work, too,” Granby said, dispiritedly, “and I was beginning to feel I did not have to blush every time I caught Admiral Roland’s eye: do you know, after Salamanca, even Wellington sent us a bullock from his own pocket, and a note I dare say I treasure better than a knighthood: I congratulate you on the disciplined performance of your beast and crew, and it was even more than half-deserved. Iskierka snorted over it, and wanted me to write back that she congratulated him, that not so many of his men had run away from the battle as usual, but I assure you she has been listening better than I had ever hoped to see. She has even, from time to time, condescended to give a little thought to her actions beforehand—and now this,” and Granby sighed.
Laurence sighed also. As little pleasure as he had found amidst the grim brutality of the Russian campaign, he, too, would have exchanged his place without hesitation for the coldest and most cheerless camp of all the winter. “But I will not accept that nothing remains to us but to sit quiet in prison,” he said, “if only because Napoleon himself evidently sees more for us to do, if only to be displayed as a jewel upon a cushion.”
He looked at the open doors—guarded discreetly but thoroughly by six young, hearty, and exceptionally tall soldiers in the uniforms of the Imperial Guard who stood stoically outside upon the stoop. The senior of these, a fellow named Aurigny, had presented himself earlier: he was not much above twenty-and-five, and there was something cheerful in the lines of his ruddy, wind-weathered face, but he had been serious while in conversation: “I hope, m’sieur, there will be no occasion for our disagreeing with anything you should wish,” a phrase that captured to a nicety his peculiar orders: to guard prisoners, but without giving any offense, save of course the deepest one of removing their liberty. A little absurd, but suggestive that so long as Laurence cut his desires to the cloth of his imprisonment, he should not meet with contradiction. He would not be permitted to go near Temeraire, surely, but—
“If I asked to walk about the grounds, to take the air,” Laurence said after a moment, “the guards would not like to refuse me, I think.”
“Where the dragons can see you?” Tharkay said. “No, I imagine not, when displaying you is indeed the Emperor’s aim.”
“Very well,” Laurence said. “I will accept that cost, and exchange it for the opportunity, which I hope that my walking the grounds will allow, to try and have a word with Moshueshue. I hope he will remember me; and though we spoke only a little, and once, he impressed himself upon me in that meeting as a reasonable man, nor have the Tswana shown the least inclination to fall in with France for any other than the most practical reasons. At least he may tell me the purpose of this conclave; he has no reason to conceal it, and afterwards he will have the power of telling the other guests, where I myself cannot, that my presence here is unwilling, and that I do not in the least endorse Napoleon’s designs.”
“But if you do?” Tharkay said later that evening, after Granby had retired. “It is a hazard as well to consider before as after meeting it,” he added, when Laurence did not immediately answer. “Napoleon cannot have commanded the attendance of so many dragons—so many ferals, and beasts of other nations—only with respect.”
“You think he means to lay some proposal before them, which will make a marked improvement to their condition,” Laurence said.
“I can see no other motive that would compel them to listen,” Tharkay said.
Laurence had too many bitter proofs of the disdain and fear which prevailed among his own country-men—his own Government—towards dragons, and the determined persistence of their hostility. He knew which alternative Whitehall would have preferred, between the hideous Russian practice of wing-hobbling and starving any beast that would not go into harness, and Napoleon’s eager efforts to win the love and loyalty of his beasts, and bring them into the full life of their nation. Necessity might force the admirals to grant, with immense and grudging reluctance, a few piecemeal rights and liberties: there were too many natural advantages to Napoleon’s course to be wholly ignored. But necessity only would move them. England would do nothing for dragons from any sense of justice or charity, while Napoleon worked tirelessly to fling wide the barred gat
“But I have this to armor me against Napoleon’s most pleasant aims,” Laurence said, “that all he does has ever been for his own selfish vainglory. He wishes to be loved by the dragons of France not for their sake but for his. He has had no hesitation in spilling their blood, and the blood of his soldiers, to make himself a perfect tyrant, bestriding the world unopposed. He cannot suffer an equal—and so he cannot be suffered. His means, his immediate acts, may be noble; his ends are less so, and he has shown himself insensible to the wreck and horror of war.”
He was silent however awhile after speaking. He knew Tharkay regarded him with concern, which he could acknowledge was not unmerited. He could not be easy to find himself the instrument, in however small and unwilling a part, of Bonaparte’s success, and his spirits indeed required all the support which he could give them. His father’s death returned to his thoughts easily—too easily; he could not help but indulge privately in a bitter kind of relief that Lord Allendale had not suffered the pain of hearing it put about that his son was, not the prisoner of the French Emperor, but his honored guest, in the midst of war.
Laurence put the thought aside. The evil deed which had occasioned his present circumstances had been finished long ago, and he had since then—not without severe difficulty—reconciled himself to the necessity of its commission. He would not now learn to regret that he had been the instrument of saving so many lives from a hideous and tormented end—that so many of the dragons here present should only have survived, even to become the enemies of his nation, because of his actions. Victory by such a method must have been hateful to any man of honor, and if some claiming that title justified themselves by willfully refusing to acknowledge the sentience of dragons, Laurence was not of their number; he could not so deceive himself.
“I am satisfied,” Tharkay said, with a narrow, steady look, “except on one point. I know how greatly you have enjoyed Napoleon’s generous attentions,” this dryly, “but you must know I would never have desired, or still less urged you to invite them, for my sake.”
“I hope,” Laurence said, “that I would not require urging, to undertake any service on your behalf. In any case, we have had too much evidence of Napoleon’s desire to make a parade of me to suppose that his attentions would have been long delayed, and he can have wanted neither excuse nor consent to set about them, since I have given him neither.”
Tharkay shook his head a little, dissatisfied. “I would prefer you not to permit any such consideration to weigh with you again. I undertook the hazards of my, shall we say, occupation, freely and with full knowledge of the consequences were I ever identified to the enemy.”
“That cannot make me less inclined to avert those consequences,” Laurence said. “But you may be easy. If I have given Napoleon the power of making me appear his friend, I now mean to make him as well as his guests the best proofs to the contrary that I can, and I know you will not speak to stop me.”
“Indeed not,” Tharkay said. “I am only sorry to have been unveiled so inconveniently.”
There was a hard look in his eyes, which made Laurence dare to ask, “Do you know how it may have come about?”
“A reward for success, I imagine,” Tharkay said. “My latest report on the political situation in the Porte may have been excessively useful: the Sultan remains Napoleon’s ally, and is unlikely to shift his position so long as we are aligned with Russia, but I discovered that a significant vezir was susceptible to persuasion. The Chinese legions we hope for will not encounter any direct opposition, if they come overland.”
“That is an excellent piece of news indeed,” Laurence said, low, “but how should it have exposed you?”
“I imagine the report has circulated a little too widely for my health,” Tharkay said. “It so happens that one of my beloved cousins has a minor sinecure, somewhere or other under the Navy Board.”
“Good God,” Laurence said. “And you suppose him to have turned traitor?”
“Oh, I am sure he would call it no such thing,” Tharkay said. “I doubt that the report was sold along with my name—which explains M. Fouché’s eagerness to discuss the operation with me. No, I am sure dear Ambrose merely found it an irresistible opportunity to be rid of me and my inconvenient attempts to assert my right to my patrimony, and at a profit no less.”
He spoke lightly, but Laurence knew to measure the depth of Tharkay’s feelings less by what he said, than by what he did not say, and Tharkay had not mentioned his paternal family over a dozen times in all the years of their acquaintance. It was to a mere offhand mention that Laurence owed the knowledge of their existence; and to the accident of a shipboard communication that those relations, who had taken pains to furnish Tharkay with every apparent proof of family affection until his father’s death, had since that event done everything in their power to steal his inheritance and deny his legitimacy.
They had succeeded so far to render him friendless and penniless in Britain, dependent on the kindness of an old acquaintance of his father’s in the East India Company for even the little and dangerous foreign employment he had been able to obtain, as a go-between and a guide. Only the prize-money paid him, for having recruited some twenty feral beasts out of the Pamirs to Britain’s service, had finally enabled him to press a law-suit to recover his rights; but this had dragged ever since.
“I am sorry to lose the power of disappointing your cousin’s designs,” Laurence said quietly. “I hope, Tenzing, you know that I wish I hazarded my safety equally with yours.”
“Oh, permit me to comfort you on that score,” Tharkay said. “Napoleon does not seem to me to care much for being balked. When you have gone romping around his carefully assembled guests, and done your best to overturn his remarkable conclave, I have every hope of your provoking him to all the outward displays of wrath that you might wish. You are as likely to be executed as I am.”
The request had been made of Aurigny, and permission came the next morning swiftly and enthusiastically: they were to have the full run of the grounds, although the Emperor regretted they must not go near the northern edge of the gardens where Temeraire and Iskierka were housed. But their escort would gently guide them away if they should accidentally stray too far in that direction, and they would dine with the Emperor and the Empress tomorrow night, an honor Laurence received unwillingly, and Granby with outright dismay.
“There is not a moment to lose: let us do our best to put him in a towering rage at once,” he said. “It won’t be too late for him to withdraw the invitation, and for my part, I had rather be in the stocks than at another such dinner table.”
Tharkay’s memory of the plan of the grounds was good enough to bring them near the Tswana, not without a little circumnavigation that Laurence could not regret, as serving to deceive their escort of six excellent and determined Grognards. He spoke with Aurigny and his companions a little as they walked the paths; they spoke of their emperor with an extreme familiarity, and cheerfully cursed the vagaries of his will that had put them on “sheepdog-duty,” as one fellow put it, and away from the front lines. “Ah, but he must let us have a little fighting sometime,” one of them named Brouilly said, a little indiscreetly, “now that the Prussians are lining up for another drubbing—I was at Austerlitz,” he added, with pardonable pride, and touching the medal in his lapel with a caressing finger.
Tharkay glanced round, when he had made another turn, and Laurence saw he had put them upon a narrow walk, between two pavilions. Beyond them was visible the carved pediment of the particularly large one where they had seen the Tswana, the day before. There remained only to find some excuse to go near enough to speak to them: Laurence regretted Temeraire’s absence all the more, for having very little command of the Tswana-language, himself, but they might contrive somehow, if there were will on both sides. Laurence had no aim of concealing from the guards what he said and did: so long as they did not drag him bodily away before he had s
“I must compliment the design of your pavilions,” Laurence said to Aurigny, not without an inward shading of distaste for this species of deceit. “The floors are heated, I believe? I hope there is no objection to our making an examination of some few of the buildings.”
Aurigny did not demur, and in a half-counterfeit of interest Laurence went to the nearest pavilion and made a little show of discovering the heating-stove—an invention not of French but of Chinese origin, with which he had long been familiar, although this one had certain clever modifications, which brought the deception nearer truth. Laurence would gladly have acquired plans of the system, although the thought reminded him unpleasantly that he had few prospects of making any use of such a design—heating was not much required in New South Wales, and even if he and Temeraire were ever suffered to make their home again in England, they were not likely to have the power of setting up any pavilions.
“John, will you have a look?” he said, calling Granby’s attention to the location of the heating-pipes, which carried the hot water from the low gurgling kettle and circulated it into the base of the pavilion, and thought nothing of it when the dragons sleeping within raised their heads to look over at them: two middle-weight beasts, bright sky-blue in color and of a sleek configuration not so far from Temeraire’s lines, with large but tightly furled wings and banding across the ridge of a rounded nose not unlike a snake; they had long fangs hanging over their jaws. The guards showed no concern, although perhaps for the youngest of their number, affected no concern: his hand rested upon his pistol, and his eyes remained on the dragons instead of his prisoners.
And then one of the beasts hissed inward, a long and threatening whistle of breath, and said, “British.”
Granby, anxious over playing his part, had been bent with excessive attention to examine the pipes; he jerked his head up, took one look at the dragons, and said, “Oh, Lord, they are Bengal,” and turned reaching for Laurence even as one of the beasts brought a slashing, many-taloned claw down.
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