League of Dragons by Naomi Novik

  “BY GOD, TO HAVE spent two days mid-air for this,” Wellington said. “No, you may not have Roland. If you want another admiral in Spain, you may find another general while you are at it, and I will go home and sleep for a month.”

  “Your Grace, I beg you will understand the Admiralty’s position,” the Prime Minister said wearily. He threw a glance of distaste in Laurence’s direction, which would not have had the power to wound him, save that Perceval had known his father, and been welcome in their home: he had only the prior year at last shepherded through the formal abolition of the slave trade, and had even begun to open tentative relations with the Tswana, in the teeth of much opposition from those whose estates, in the West Indies, relied heavily upon slaves. Laurence could not be glad to meet with disapproval in such a quarter, even if he were not surprised.

  Wellington only snorted. “I understand well enough: you dislike requiring the services of a man you would rather see hanged. Since you do require them, more’s the pity, you must take your bread as you find it and stop asking for pudding.”

  “Your Grace,” Mr. Yorke said—the present First Lord of the Admiralty—“surely the urgency of the situation in Prussia—”

  “The situation in Prussia!” Wellington said. “I have not fifty British dragons, with three hundred ragged Spanish and Portuguese beasts, most of them half-feral, to match against five hundred trained French dragons, and you want to bleat at me about Prussia. Bad enough you called Roland and myself away for a week: I dare say we will find half a dozen villages reduced to rubble by the time we get back, and the Flechas threatening to burn down Madrid. Now you tell me,” with a sharp wave in Laurence’s direction, “that Bonaparte will have four thousand beasts to throw at us in a year, half-trained and half-grown or not. And you want to snatch my aerial commander and waste her as a false front? Nonsense.”

  “Nonsense, indeed,” Jane said, later that evening, in her house near the London covert. “Worse than nonsense. I am just as glad they did leave me out of the conference, after all. I do not trust what I would have said to them if I had been there. I have got spoilt, Laurence; I have not had to deal with any foolishness of this sort for a year and more. The Spanish officers would try and fuss me a little, at first, but I have got them flying straight by now.”

  She sighed, and reached for the decanter of port. She was incongruous in her heavy boots and aviator’s coat amidst the velvets of her sitting-room, which better matched the coronet than its owner. Laurence knew she had applied to his own mother for advice on setting up her establishment, and her house-keeper was familiar to him—she had once been a young scullery-maid at Wollaton Hall and willing to permit a small boy to snatch an occasional pastry when a banquet was in the offing.

  An informed taste had left its stamp upon the house, and its comforts were many: the fire laid to the precisely right degree, excellent wine at dinner, and all the furnishings of the best. Jane alone was out of place, and Excidium drowsing in the wide courtyard behind the house: his head was just visible through the windows, with the bone spurs gleaming white in the lamp-light.

  “I have gilded the tool-chest, and kept the rusty old hammer inside,” Jane said, reading his face, and laughed at him when he tried to demur. “No, I meant to do just that. The place is my sacrifice to propriety. I have even given a dinner here, if you can conceive it,” she added. “It was your mother’s notion, and I felt I owed it to her, after all her efforts on my behalf. I oughtn’t have doubted her, either, as it worked marvels: a dozen girls applied to the Corps the week after. They were all ladies of small fortune, who preferred it to going for governesses, except one heiress who preferred it to being sold off like a heifer calf. Their families made a noise over it, but I told their Lordships I wouldn’t turn any girl away who could keep her stomach and her feet mid-air, when we have six Longwing eggs in the offing to consider.

  “And speaking of which: how does Emily, when you last saw her? I thank you for her step, by the way.”

  “Very well,” Laurence said, struggling to decide what to say of Emily’s connection to Demane, which had formed under his watch. He had not quite the pain of having failed in his self-appointed duty of chaperonage—although he certainly would have done, if Emily had wished to discard her virtue—but an uneasiness remained; he did not think she was heart-whole. “Has she spoken to you of Demane?”

  “She has written volumes of nothing,” Jane said, “but that is all right: he has made up for it. He presented himself to me the instant the Potentate arrived in Spain, declared that he should make himself worthy, and raved up and down my tent about Emily’s graces for a quarter of an hour before I gave up waiting for him to be done and shoved him along—not too ungently, Laurence, you needn’t look so worried. I haven’t any complaints of the boy. A milder, sweeter-tempered creature than that monster of his, I have never met: it is just as well for Kulingile’s captain to have some fire in his belly, when his beast has none. Do you mean to tell me Emily is going to break her heart over him?”

  “Not break it, I hope,” Laurence said, but slowly, and Jane read most of what he wished to say in his face. She shook her head a little.

  “I never had much sensibility, myself—as you have cause to know, dear fellow. I have found it a luxury beyond my means. But she might as well marry him as not. I put my foot down and insisted they legitimize her, when they put the titles on me: if Wellesley can hand his coronet on to his brats when he spent all of ten minutes begetting them, damned if Emily was not getting mine. But there was quite the squabble over it, and I doubt they’ll let it go a second generation. So if she cares to hand it onwards, she will need to marry someone, and Captain Dlamini is respectable enough for anybody, I imagine.”

  Jane imagined incorrectly, at least so far as the polite world would see it: an orphan boy from Africa with only a dragon to his name made no match for Lady Emily Roland, the daughter of one of England’s great heroes and the heiress to a coronet and a fortune. Of course, that Lady Emily was herself an aviator diminished her own luster a little, but when that service was the source of her titles, much would have been forgiven. Still, Laurence knew those considerations weighed not at all with Jane, who said only, “But she will scarcely see him one year to the next, chances are. Excidium is for Dover, and Kulingile will certainly be for Gibraltar, if ever we muddle our way back to peacetime. Well, it is a hard service.” She rubbed her mouth. “I suppose I may as well keep him with me, and give them more of a chance to forget one another. I had considered sending him along to Prussia, and taking Granby back—but we have the Flechas for fire-breathers, even if they are not so handy as Iskierka, and you may be in want of Granby’s advice, in any case. So they are giving you your flag?”

  “Yes,” Laurence said, staring into the wine glass. It seemed still to him almost a subtle mockery; he had not understood, until nearly the end of the meeting, that the ministers were arguing with Wellington over naming him to the aerial command, forming now, which would join the allied effort in Prussia. “Or at least, that seemed their intention, by the close; I can scarcely conceive they will do it.”

  “Oh, they will,” Jane said. “A little bird has sung in my ear that the Tsar wants you: how did you manage that? I have never known you to ingratiate yourself with anyone whose influence would be really useful to your career, when you could make yourself as inconvenient to them as possible instead.”

  “I cannot claim any personal success in the matter,” Laurence said dryly. “I appeared on his borders with an army of dragons when he was in imminent danger of defeat; I suppose it must have produced a degree of warm feeling.”

  “Well, we won’t hold it against your record,” Jane said. “And he is the man of the hour, make no mistake. I am never quite easy with these God-is-in-my-pocket sorts—begging your pardon—but if it keeps him zealous to be the savior of Europe, I shan’t complain. We will certainly never get another chance at Boney, from what news you bring. Four thousand eggs! Our breeders would dearly
like to know how he has managed it, and our supply-officers how he means to feed them. For my part, though, I will settle for having good old fat Louis back on his throne before they are grown.”

  She reached over to fill his glass: the port had been drunk, somehow. Laurence sat back into his chair, restless. The Tsar’s request made the Admiralty’s difficulty more clear: if Alexander had asked for Laurence, they must send him; and sending him, they could supersede him only with an officer of greater seniority, who must furthermore by necessity possess a dragon whose stature would outweigh or at least equal Temeraire’s in the eyes of their fellow dragons. There were few British officers who could claim either distinction: thanks to Hammond’s machinations, Laurence had been fully reinstated, so his seniority dated not from Temeraire’s harnessing, but from his being made post as a naval officer, some five years prior to the date.

  And yet that was not sufficient argument for his fitness for the task: nearly all his own education at sea, not eight years on the wing, and that spent in an irregular fashion. He could not sensibly recognize himself as anyone’s first choice for command, even independent of animus.

  “Should you not come to Prussia, Jane?” he said, low. The Admiralty might think to send Jane as a comforting fiction drawn over his presence, but Laurence knew her abilities; and Excidium, with his long and storied career, and a Longwing’s deadly vitriol, would easily command the respect of any fighting-dragons. Temeraire had been willing to defer to him before now. “If he is to be defeated, he must be beaten in Germany.”

  “No, Laurence,” Jane said firmly. “He must be beaten in France.”

  He fell silent. To fight Napoleon back across the Rhine and the Pyrenees both, step by hard-won step, taking back all the victories fifteen years of war had won him: it loomed an impossible project.

  Jane set her glass down, after a final swallow to toss down the rest, and drew open one of the rolled maps littering the table between them. “Don’t look quite so gloomy. I dare say you have no notion how many men he is losing in Spain. The numbers from the battlefields don’t tell the tale, but my scouts see it from aloft. The guerrillas nibble nibble nibble, like little mice, and his armies melt away on the road.”

  She drew her finger along the map, the jagged mountain-lines marking the borders between France and Spain, and then let it go to roll up again. “We will have Soult by next Christmas, or call me a liar. But it has taken Wellington three hard-fought years to stitch up this army, and it is held by frayed thread and dull tacks. There ain’t someone to take my place in the air. I left Crenslow in charge this week, and you would have thought I was sending the poor man to the gallows, from the looks he gave. At that, there were seven Spanish and Portuguese officers at my heels clamoring for his head by the time we took flight.

  “I don’t say that you won’t have troubles of your own in Germany, but the Prussian dragons have good cause to love you, and the Tsar can make the rest of them dance to his tune. So you must get across the Rhine without me, and we’ll meet again in Paris, by and by,” she finished.

  “Granby would do better,” Laurence said.

  Jane snorted. “Iskierka won’t,” an inarguable return. “Besides, you can give him ten years on the list and more. No, their Lordships haven’t any other choice. Aside from everything else, we are all hoping for some Chinese beasts to appear. Unless, could they put this Hammond fellow in charge?”

  Laurence almost smiled at the thought of Hammond made an aerial commander, and that gentleman’s certain dismay. “His dragon might do. She has forty years’ experience as an officer with the Incan armies.”

  “If you wanted a prospect less likely than their Lordships’ making you admiral, giving the command to an Incan dragon will do nicely,” Jane said. “Not that the creatures don’t know their business, I can tell you: we have had a dozen of them to worry about since last August, and they are worth three times their fighting-weight in other beasts. The only saving grace is they hate to lose even a single crewman, and if we manage to heave over a boarding party of four or five, well-secured, we can bargain them out of the day’s fighting just to save a single bellman’s life, even if they outnumber us three to one. Well-secured being the real difficulty: they are quick as lightning at throwing us off, otherwise. You will have a wretched time with those thieves in the Commissariat, by the bye,” she added. “It has been nothing but bales of rotting leather and rusted buckles, and what they call oilskins I call barley-sacks,” as though he were already in command.

  She paused, seeing his look, and added, “You won’t refuse it?”

  “No,” he said after a moment. “No, I will not refuse.” Whatever his quarrels with the men of the Admiralty, there was in his own understanding of duty a wide gulf between the necessary defiance of an immoral order, and refusing to undertake a task only because it was difficult, or demanded any private discomfort. If he could have proposed a man better fitted for the urgent task, he would feel the matter differently, but from that escape he was barred by the continuing resentment of all the ministers and officers he had offended: they would argue far more vigorously than he for the virtues of any conceivable substitute. If he were offered the command, he might be sure he was the only choice.

  “But Jane,” he said abruptly, “I will not—I cannot accept unless they reinstate Ferris, and promise him his chance. I cannot. That I should be reinstated, promoted, appointed to command, and he still bear the stain of the crime which I committed, entirely without his knowledge—it is intolerable to every feeling.”

  “Oh, I dare say that can be managed,” Jane said. “His is an old family in the Corps, and they have a great deal of influence. The wolves were howling for blood too loudly at the time for them to make any difference, but this will change matters. I will write old Admiral Gloucester, who served with Ferris’s great-uncle, and we will set the wheels turning.”

  They discussed the command a long time onwards; she gave him names of men to search out and others to avoid, both in the Commissariat and in his officers—as best he could; Laurence knew better than to suppose he would have much power of choice save among Temeraire’s own crew, and perhaps not even there. The Admiralty was certain to name all the beasts of his company. But he made note of the men she recommended and spoke against; on the battlefield, the Admiralty would be far away, and the decisions his.

  He had written a sheet both sides and crossed it, full of her good advice, and the clock had struck ten; then Jane said, “You may as well stay the night, if you like,” and he was staring at a meaningless scratch of ink, his mouth gone abruptly dry with want. He had not permitted himself the license of hoping—of coming near enough hope even to think of—

  “Jane,” he said, all at once vividly aware of her bare hand on the table between them, strong and square, thinned a little by the years but deeply known, familiar, save for the yellow-jeweled signet and the white scar running between the two last fingers down the back, which had not been there before—before the shattering of his life. It had been late summer, an August night hot enough that they had left off the coverlet and lain naked together with the windows open, a devil’s bargain between the London stench and the stifling heat. The next night he had betrayed her, and his country, and flown with Temeraire to take the cure to France.

  He had not touched her since. Nor any other woman. Not from loyalty—loyalty a word he had no right to use with her—but a deadening of some inward vital part, necessary to desire. They had spoken together; he had even been alone with her. But the door had been closed. He had not conceived that it might ever again open. “Jane,” he said again.

  She looked at him, with a little surprise, and then said, “Why, Laurence,” and reached to take his hand.

  He had been raised on decorum, that it should come as easily as breathing even in the face of death and tragedy. But his hand was twisted into her hair, the neat snug braid coming apart around his fingers, and the other shaking as he pulled open her neckcloth, on the Turkish rug
before the sitting-room hearth with the table shoved over, the maps scattered and stirring in the draught.

  Her mouth was wide and glad beneath his, laughing a little when he let her get her breath, and her hand bracing up his back. He dragged his cheek across the soft skin of her breast where the shirt hung loose, kissed her throat, luxuriated. He could not remember to be careful. They tangled themselves up, almost wrestling, until she said amused, “You will have us in the cinders: back your wings a moment,” and sat up to push his coat off his shoulders.

  His hands slid under the fine linen of her shirt, over the warm generous curving of her back, as she threw a leg over his hip. “Ah, there,” she murmured, pleased. They moved together. The fire was crackling low, dying; she gasped.

  He worried distantly that he might bruise her, his grip tight on her as he raised them both, her muscles shifting sweetly beneath his hands. She caught both her hands into his hair and bent forward to lean her forehead against his, smiling in the small, secret dark place between them, and he shuddered suddenly and completely, despite all the will in the world to hold off. He groaned in apology. “Graceless as a boy,” he said, rueful, when he had his breath back again, and he tumbled her over onto her back to better use his hands to bring her. “I hope you will pardon me,” he said, when she had sighed at last.

  She laughed and kissed him. “I don’t leave for Spain until tomorrow afternoon,” she said. “You can make me a better showing in the morning,” and then, practical, rolled up and went to wash.

  They went upstairs carrying their boots, hand-in-hand, and left them in a heap in the corner of her bedroom. She pillowed herself comfortably against the headboard and lit a cigar, and blew a long, satisfied plume of smoke. He refused the one she offered him, lying flat on his back beside her and contemplating the canopy without seeing it, his mind already catching on the hooks and burrs of planning, the immensity of the problem suddenly laid across his shoulders. “How many beasts will they give me, do you think?”

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