League of Dragons by Naomi Novik

  Lacking a better idea, he had seized on Laurence’s strategy as his own: a dinner, as he already knew, worked splendidly to solve any number of difficulties, and perhaps it should serve in this case, too. He did not quite know how to explain to Laurence why he wished to host a dinner, but as it proved, he did not need to: Laurence lifted his head instantly from his work.

  “You answer the wish I had not yet made,” Laurence said. “We must try to bring on some more light-weights and middle-weights, and I would be glad to take as many of the ferals and unharnessed beasts with us to Europe as you can convince to take the King’s shilling. You may offer them the usual rate of pay for harnessed beasts; their Lordships have grudgingly allowed as much—do you think some of them will come?”

  “I will certainly make every effort to persuade them,” Temeraire said, feeling relieved and also uncomfortably as though he were practicing deceit—although it did not really deserve the name; after all, he was not trying to hide anything from Laurence for his own benefit, but only for Laurence’s; that ought to have some mitigating quality, even if the English language did not seem to offer a more satisfying and accurate alternative to the word. In any case, he would do his best to persuade as many dragons to come along as ever he could: that would certainly be a splendid solution, if everyone should come along to the Continent and help fight against Napoleon instead.

  “Will you need my assistance with the arrangements?” Laurence asked. “You would not expect over twenty dragons, I suppose?”

  “Well, I do not precisely know,” Temeraire said, even more uncomfortably; just that morning, Perscitia had spoken very darkly of hundreds of silly beasts ready to take Bonaparte aboard, “but I thought perhaps the feeding station outside Dover would not object to our making use of their provisions for the day, and let us have the liberty of preparing them—I will be very happy to welcome any dragon who likes to come and eat, even if they do not think they will choose to come along with us.”

  This station had been established by degrees over the last few years, by a reluctant Government grudgingly recognizing that feral dragons meant to frequent the place, and had better be fed on the nation’s terms than allowed to feed themselves. It was not yet officially a breeding ground—the Ministry finding it hateful to contemplate declaring a breeding ground in any insufficiently benighted location, and the many wealthy landholders in the area maintaining a loud rear-guard protest against the encroachment—but as many dragons were choosing to make it their home, and some of them as nesting grounds for their eggs, which the Corps gladly collected, there was as a practical matter very little difference.

  There was no definite border to the territory, but if there had been, Temeraire’s own pavilion would have stood near the center—the pavilion Laurence had built him, ages ago it seemed, before treason and invasion and transportation, and the loss of Laurence’s first fortune. “We can hold it there,” Temeraire said, thinking of the distance from Dover, and the isolation of the place; there would be few people about to report on the meeting, and perhaps Laurence would never need to know.

  “Splendid,” Laurence said, and made the necessary arrangements, which was to say, he wrote Temeraire a draft on his bank.

  “And perhaps you would be glad to stay here in Dover, and leave the rest to me,” Temeraire said, “as you must worry about your own dinner; I should not like to add to your work.”

  “If you think you can manage the feeding-station master,” Laurence said.

  “Oh! There will be no difficulty there; it is good old Lloyd, who used to run the breeding ground at Pen Y Fan, and who managed our supply for us during the invasion—and Perscitia has a handy group of fellows now, who will do anything for her if they are only paid for it,” Temeraire said quickly. “No, we can manage perfectly, I am sure,” and Laurence yielded. But that was surely doing him a service, and could not really be called concealment, Temeraire felt almost sure, as he hastily flew away to meet with Perscitia.

  Unfortunately, his poor pavilion had never been very grand, and was lately much neglected. It had been used as a shelter for the sick dragons during the plague, and since then as a resting-place by any dragon who happened to like being an easy hour’s flight from the coverts of London and Dover, at least for a night—which was a great many dragons: couriers, ferals sneaking around to get scraps off the Corps, unharnessed beasts who liked to get work in the quarries, or in the ports, or doing portage. None of them had taken the trouble to keep it at all nice. The corners of the chamber really could not bear too-close examination, and when Temeraire put his head in and sniffed too deeply, he jerked his head back out again with distaste.

  “Well,” Perscitia said doubtfully. “Perhaps we might find another…?”

  There were some others near-by, although none as large. After the invasion, some of the unharnessed dragons had used their share of the proceeds from the golden eagles they had captured to build themselves pavilions—more or less; three buildings and half a dozen unfinished structures clustered in a loose line. But of these, only Perscitia’s own was not equally a mess—but that was not saying much, as hers was very small, and made of plain red brick and grey shingles, lacking entirely in elegance or charm.

  “It is easier to keep neat, if it is not so big that men cannot clean it out without an enormous amount of trouble or expense,” she said with a defensive note, as Temeraire eyed it from outside, “and also, I do not find the size at all a disadvantage: if it were any larger, and some heavy-weight took it into his head to say she was claiming it from me, I should have no recourse—unless I liked to try and take her to court, and just you watch how much remedy the law would give a dragon.”

  That was all very practical, Temeraire supposed, but he did not see why the pavilion needed to be a shut-up box, with only the most meager openings for air and light, and not a hint of decoration. “It is very nice,” he said tactfully, “and so long as it suits you, I am sure no one else could find anything wanting,” although she might at least have dug a garden, and put some interesting rocks along the side.

  But she was quite right about the expense of keeping a larger pavilion clean: Perscitia’s secretary said she could not arrange to have his cleaned properly for under fifty pounds—fifty pounds, when Perscitia’s men had already to be paid fifteen pounds for their cooking services! A perfectly outrageous sum, and Temeraire could not bring himself to spend it only on cleaning; only he did not see how else it was to be done. He tried bringing water in a large barrel, and simply sloshing it over the floor, but he knew very well what Laurence would have said of this sort of house-keeping, and it did not have much effect. His attempt at using a small tree to brush out the corners met with little better success, except he did manage to knock away a piece of the wall.

  “We could ask Iskierka to burn it out,” Perscitia suggested, but this was impossible: Granby and Iskierka had already gone to Edinburgh to take charge of the second half of Laurence’s force, which should leave from there instead of Dover due to some byzantine mystery of supply.

  “I will ask Ning,” he decided.

  That, at least, could be managed, as she was still in London. The Admiralty had sent a courier to escort her to the training grounds at Kinloch Laggan, while they awaited an answer from China, but she had very politely said, “How excellent military training must be! I will certainly consider your kind invitation, when my time is not so occupied as at present. In the meantime, you may wish to consider sending some workmen to enlarge this pavilion, and perhaps arrange a higher quality of food.”

  Temeraire waited until cover of night to fly back to the London covert—only out of consideration, to avoid distressing the populace and the horses, and not of course to conceal his presence—and roused Ning out of the pavilion. She listened to his request with a tilted head. “It seems peculiar to me that you should be so urgent to clean this pavilion when you are imminently departing for the Continent,” she said interrogatively.

  “I mean to hold a
dinner there,” Temeraire said, a little warily. “Laurence wishes me to persuade some of the unharnessed dragons to come and join us,” which was perfectly true.

  “Will this dinner entail a great deal of difficulty and expense?”

  “Yes,” Temeraire said, with a sigh.

  “Do you expect many of these dragons to join you?” she inquired.

  “It is just as well to make an attempt,” Temeraire said, and surely at least a few of his old friends would come, although he did not have the highest hopes—it was not like the invasion, when everyone had been worried about the French dragons taking their territory, and there was no denying that the Government had behaved in a scurrilous fashion since then; few dragons would believe in pay tomorrow when their accounts were a year in arrears as it was.

  “Hm,” Ning said thoughtfully, but she acquiesced without further argument. Temeraire carried her on his back to the pavilion, and once there, she spat out a single small ball of her white flame directly into a corner—very neatly, Temeraire had to admit—and the refuse scorched up instantly.

  “That is a very interesting phenomenon,” Perscitia said, lowering her head to examine Ning closely, even trying to peer down Ning’s throat. Ning drew her head back and gave her a flat stare, which Perscitia quite ignored. “How is it accomplished?”

  “Pray let us step outside until the air has cleared,” Ning said in a stiff and dignified fashion, turning away.

  Temeraire flung water onto the overheated stones and fanned away the hissing cloud of steam that resulted. Fortunately, the stink went away with the smoke. The corner was a little blackened perhaps, but he was sure that no-one would notice that much, particularly at night.

  Ning was quite willing to repeat the operation, too. “That is very handy of you,” Temeraire said approvingly, when all the pavilions were clean, if somewhat smoky. “Now I had better fly you back,” but Ning demurred.

  “I will stay for the dinner,” she announced, to his dismay.

  “What have you to do at dinner?” he demanded.

  “I am hungry,” she said, which was no explanation at all; the dinner was not until tomorrow, and meanwhile they would certainly feed her in London today, if she went back, but when Temeraire tried to point this out, she only yawned delicately, and said, “I beg your pardon, I am so very fatigued! I will rest now,” and then closed her eyes and pretended to go to sleep.

  “There is nothing wrong with that,” Perscitia said. “She may as well stay: anyone who has heard of her will be impressed to have her on our side,” except Temeraire was not certain Ning was on their side, or of anything she would do for that matter: it was an uncomfortable feeling, being round her, when she might at any moment burst out into some new and alarming start.

  Perscitia’s men—who it turned out were mostly women; Temeraire had mistaken them, because they all wore pantaloons beneath their skirts, and hiked these up to their waists while they worked—had already been engaged all that day in putting beef and mutton on roasting spits. There would be nothing really elegant about the meal, Temeraire mournfully recognized, but Perscitia had firmly rejected his every suggestion for more elaborate presentations. “We may have near a hundred dragons to feed,” she said, “and many of them have never even had anything cooked: that must be enough novelty. Otherwise we will have half of them turn their noses up at it, and not enough for the other half, who will complain we are slighting them. No, a simple roasting must do, and we will make mash with the drippings, for anyone who is still hungry after they get their share of the meat.”

  She had been sending couriers everywhere, and dragons began to arrive early the next morning. They came hungry: Temeraire had a deal of work to do trying to keep them off the meat until dinner-time, particularly the Scottish ferals. A great number of those had come, including Ricarlee, who was rude enough to begin talking up Napoleon’s Concord to them all. “I ought to run him off,” Temeraire said, fuming. “He should hold his own dinner, if he likes to promote Napoleon’s plans.”

  “I would not advise it,” Ning remarked, from behind half-slitted drowsy eyes. “You ought to have quietly disposed of him before he came—” this sounded rather ominous, and Temeraire eyed her sidelong, “—but now it is too late: you will only give more credence and force to his arguments, if you establish him as worthy of being chased away. Allow him to speak, with a tolerant air, and do not permit anyone to see you think there is anything of sense in what he says.”

  “So you do want us to beat the French now?” Temeraire said, skeptical. “Or why are you offering advice?”

  “You are very suspicious,” Ning said. “You are my progenitor; I am not ungrateful.” Temeraire did not swallow this, and stared at her until she flipped a dismissive point of her wing. “Are you proposing to destroy the French entirely? To annihilate every one of them?”

  “Of course not,” Temeraire said, aghast. “We must only beat Napoleon properly, so he will stop having wars everywhere.”

  “Very well,” Ning said. “So far we are agreed.”

  Temeraire remained doubtful, but he could not stay to pry a better answer out of her: a Winchester and a couple of the Scots dragons were creeping up on the beautifully roasted mutton that Perscitia’s men had just finished turning.

  He was more than a little exasperated by the time the dinner-hour at last arrived, and grew even more so when Ricarlee—who had the advantage of being smaller, and less nice in his manners—finished his own portion quickly and seized the floor to say, “Well, this is a handsome dinner indeed! I wouldn’t mind eating so more often than once in ten years, I will say,” and began again to rhapsodize about the Concord, and how it would ensure them an endless supply of delights.

  More than one dragon made supportive noises, including, Temeraire was sorry to see, some of his old comrades from the invasion. Annoyed, Temeraire swallowed down his own side of beef more quickly than he liked—he privately could admit there was a great deal to say for the flavor of a nice piece of beef, properly spit-roasted, with only a little salt, and he would have preferred to savor it.

  “That,” he said loudly, “is nonsense. I do not deny that the Concord talks a great deal of sense, where it proposes rules for governing among ourselves, but there is no use imagining that Napoleon can give us rights to cows and sheep that have been raised by men who do not owe him allegiance. You must all see that Napoleon cannot really give you any land in Britain, as it is not his. He only means to set us quarreling with the Government here because they are his enemies; he wants us to fight them for his benefit, and bear all the cost, while he gives us nothing.”

  “There’s something to what you say,” Ricarlee said thoughtfully now, but before Temeraire could congratulate himself on swaying the Concord’s most fervent supporter, he went on, “I don’t see why we ought to do all the work, and Napoleon get the good of it all alone. We should make him pay us, in gold, if he wants us to fight.”

  This dreadful suggestion attracted many murmurs of enthusiasm, to Temeraire’s horror, until he sat up as tall as he could and said loudly, “That is treasonous!” to interrupt them. “And it will only end in the most dreadful way you can imagine. When I committed treason—and not for any selfish reason, but only to share the cure—they took Laurence’s entire fortune away—ten thousand pounds, lost!” This silenced the audience, except for several faint hisses of dismay. Temeraire, relieved to have headed off the worst, added, “If you did get any gold from Napoleon, the men here will only confiscate it, when he has been beat, and he is sure to be beaten; Laurence and I are going to the Continent this coming week, to finish him off. And even if he did win, it would only be after the British had killed any number of you, and then you may be sure he would sail in and snatch it all for himself, and give all your territories to French dragons, instead.”

  “Well, what else are you proposing, then?” Ricarlee said. “You are brim-full of doom, indeed, and reasons why we oughtn’t listen to Napoleon, but I ha’nt heard any bette
r notions from you, other than we shouldn’t say boo to a lieutenant of horse. It’s all very well for those who have wagons full of gold and admirals in their pockets to tell the rest of us we may put up with nine shillings threepence a day, which don’t add up to a sheep in a sennight if it is ever paid, which it isn’t.”

  Temeraire flattened back his ruff. “It is true my situation at present is an enviable one,” he said coolly. “But my gold was won fairly on the field of battle, by doing my duty, and I do not think anyone can disagree I have acted in a most disinterested fashion where the welfare of my fellow dragons was at stake.”

  He might have added that there was no wagon full of gold anymore. Ferris, back in Vilna, had arranged the sale of all the treasure they had been obliged to leave behind when going to the Alps. Through mysterious but—Laurence had assured him—reliable means, the value thereof had appeared in a bank account of his very own in Britain, and was now invested in the Funds and producing that very delightful thing, interest. But this was not a point on which he felt he ought to enlarge when talking with those who did not have so much as five pounds to their credit, and could not have gotten it out of a bank again, if they wished.

  “Wagons of gold are not commonly found save upon the field of battle, I find,” Ning put in unexpectedly, in a thoughtful voice, loud enough to carry.

  Temeraire eyed her warily, but she made no further remark. “In any case,” he went on, “there is a considerable difference between my saying you oughtn’t simply swallow this plan Napoleon has held out to you, when anyone can see he has only made it up for his own ends, and my saying you must put up with our Government behaving in a scaly manner, which I do not say at all. Indeed,” sudden inspiration striking, “we should make our own concord—and it needn’t be one that is so unreasonable as to force a quarrel.”

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