League of Dragons by Naomi Novik

  “But surely I will have better chances to earn additional shares,” she muttered, with a narrow glare at the rolls. Temeraire sighed a little. He understood Laurence’s position that it would scarcely be fair for him to award shares to his own dragon; and as the flag-dragon he was entitled to a handsome five shares of every division as a matter of course, but it was sadly disappointing to see Cavernus and Iskierka and Requiescat reaping the benefits of their labors, while he could not.

  However, Temeraire was determined to hold himself above petty competition. He was for his own part not very sorry to leave Obituria, who was also too slow to come. Fidelitas could make sixteen knots, however—respectable, even if not up to his own pace, and Laurence meant to divide them into two companies anyway.

  “The ordinary order of flight must be suspended,” Laurence was saying to his captains, and several of the Prussian officers who had dashed over to hear his orders—one of them Ferris, who had been made acting-captain for one of the Prussian middle-weight dragons. Temeraire had meant to object to this in strong terms, until he had met her: she had a wild, hollow-eyed look. Her captain had died, during her long captivity. “I will have vengeance,” she said, low and harsh. “I will, I will,” and Temeraire had not had the heart after all to demand that she give Ferris up.

  “Captain Poole, you and Fidelitas will take in charge all our Yellow Reapers, and the Prussian middle-weights, as well as the middle-weight ferals. All those dragons who can sustain a pace of twenty knots will come forward with us. When you arrive, if possible we will resume our formations, with the Prussian middle-weights forming a loose phalanx in the center under the command of Captain Ferris, for the ease of his transmitting British signals to the rest of the force. Captain von Tauben, Captain Wesselton, j’entends que vous parlez bien Français: voilà ce deux ensign-signaleurs qui allons monter avec vous, de relayer les commandes.” He nodded to the two ensigns, who went a little timidly to the Prussian captains he had named.

  “Captain Poole, should you come and find that we are already overwhelmed,” Laurence said, “you must consult your judgment. It is of the first importance that the French should not capture the Tsar. Lung Yu Li will report to you, when you arrive, if he should be in danger. Midwingman Roland will go aboard Fidelitas to translate for you.” Temeraire flattened back his ruff; he did not see why Roland should go anywhere, much less to Fidelitas; he had certainly done nothing to deserve her, and after all, Gerry could speak a little Chinese by now, too. But with an effort, he restrained himself; he could not quarrel with Laurence on such an occasion, even if Emily’s expression was perfectly flat, and she certainly did not wish to go. At least, Temeraire comforted himself, she would not ever stay with Fidelitas—she would return as soon as she could.

  “Temeraire, if you will be so good, take all the dragons to eat, as much as they can hold,” Laurence said. “Porridge first, and eat your meat on the wing, as much of it as you can carry: anything we leave will only go to feed the French. The Russian greys have leave to eat now as well: they are coming with us.”

  “We will go at once,” Temeraire said, and leaping aloft he roared for attention, and then called, “Pray will all the heavy-weights go to your porridge, three to a pit; then middle-weights and light-weights fill in around them, and no jostling if you please: we must all eat together.”

  He went down himself, and after a little chivvying to keep everyone in order, he nudged a couple of the Scots out of the way to eat himself. But he had scarcely taken a bite when the Russian greys descended and began a really frenzied attack on the food. He had to interrupt his meal and go and pin several of them down—which made them squall and begin to plead for mercy, as though he were going to hurt them, and it took a small roar before each of them would quiet down enough to listen to him say, “You are welcome to eat, only stop clawing anyone else out of the way, or gobbling so quick that you spill half the porridge out of your mouth onto the ground: there is enough for everyone.”

  When he had repeated himself some nine or twelve times, to different dragons—and once to the same dragon, which annoyed him very much; “If I catch you at it again, you will have to sit out until everyone else has eaten,” he told her sternly, the second time—at last the greys calmed down. By then they had all got something into their bellies, and also the rest of the light-weight dragons, especially Ricarlee and his fellows, had taken up the work of prodding them into better behavior using thwacks and nips, as they could not speak to one another. One could not help but feel sorry for the greys, they did look so thin and hungry; and when at last they saw most of the British dragons finishing and going away, with plenty of porridge still left, they did look a little abashed, and began to eat more sedately.

  Temeraire heaved a sigh and went back to his own delayed meal. He had time only for a few bites more when Grig landed beside him—having finished eating already, Temeraire noted, disgruntled. “We have been allowed to eat first,” Grig said full of gleeful malice, with a belch entirely disproportionate to his size, “before all of the heavy-weights: you should have seen Vosyem scowl! And that Laurence of yours says we will be fed again tomorrow, too, if we can only keep up with this Fidelitas, and do something on the battlefield: now, which one is Fidelitas, pray?” He asked the question very intently: even he looked rather hungry, although he was his captain’s pet, and usually ate better than most of the greys.

  Temeraire had to swallow down a gulp of porridge to answer. “He is that Anglewing, over there. The golden-yellow one.”

  “Almost all of you British dragons are yellow,” Grig said, peering over in that direction. “That one?”

  “No, that one, the large one with the extra ribs to his wings, and the darker shade,” Temeraire said. Fidelitas was indeed talking to several of their Yellow Reapers, but the shape of the head was distinctly different, in Temeraire’s opinion, and anyway Fidelitas did not have white stripes.

  “We will be sure to keep up with him,” Grig said, nodding firmly. “What ought we do on the battlefield?”

  Temeraire considered this as he ate, doubtfully: he was well aware the Russians never troubled themselves with trying to train the light-weights, and only bullied them into coming along with the heavy-weights to distract the enemy and get in the way. “Well—if you see any of the French dragons trying to gather for a run at us, you should dash at them and bat them around the heads; or if you see anyone beset by too many of the enemy, you should go and help them. And whenever there is a chance, you should form into a long pack and go flying all around us, and especially in front of the enemy, to keep them from working out just what we are trying to do…”

  He trailed off; he could tell, from the doubtful flick of Grig’s ears, and that dragon’s glance over at his fellows, that the greys would very likely do none of this. “Wait a moment,” Temeraire said, struck by a sudden thought, and called, “Ricarlee, will you come here, if you please,” and presented the two small dragons to each other, which was made possible by Grig’s English—although this had been acquired to spy upon them in the last campaign, which Temeraire had not quite forgiven. Still, it was handy that the greys were better than most dragons about languages.

  “Ricarlee and his fellows have grown very smart about harrying the French,” he said, which made the feral thrust out his chest proudly, “and there are a great many of them, and they are nearly your size. Ricarlee, I should like you to pair off each of your fellows with one of the greys, before you come to the field. Then,” he said to Grig, “you may tell your friends they need only do whatever they see their partner doing, and stick with them through the battle.”

  Grig nodded thoughtfully. “And naturally the Scots will report if anyone runs away and just hides through the battle, and they will have to eat last.”

  “Yes, I suppose,” Temeraire said, a little taken aback; he had not thought of it that way, and it seemed very peculiar to him that any dragon would hide during a battle—although he recalled that Perscitia did not quite like
fighting, either; but then, she was a very peculiar dragon.

  “I will tell everyone, you may be sure,” Grig promised. “We will do our share, and,” he sidled up a little, with his head slanted, “perhaps those who distinguish themselves particularly, who assist you in some notable fashion, such as keeping others in order, will be entitled to a little more consideration, after the fighting?”

  “Oh,” Temeraire said, a little anxiously. He did not know if Laurence meant to include the greys, in the distribution of prizes—they were pretty sure to get a prize in this battle, Temeraire felt. “I certainly cannot make any promises,” Temeraire said, as he dismally contemplated dividing the same thousand shares among more dragons, but privately he had the sinking feeling that Laurence would do just that.


  Laurence for his part would have been glad for any hope of his having prizes to award after the coming engagement. While the dragons took their meal, he himself swallowed some bread and cold meat and drank a little wine, writing all the while: messages for the Admiralty, and for Jane; if Napoleon smashed them here, she must be warned before another five hundred dragons appeared on her doorstep. “I’ll reach her, never fear,” Minnow promised, as she ducked her head into the letter-harness. Laurence did not care to lose even a single beast at present, but Winchesters were so small they could do very little good in combat even against other light-weights, and Minnow was clever enough to slip her way along the coast past Napoleon’s forces. Captain Wesley and his Winchester Veloxia had already gone for Whitehall; they would make for Berlin, and see the message relayed from there.

  Then the dragons were finished eating, and everywhere the harness went on. The ground crews would have to be left behind, to march with the infantry; likely a good deal of equipment and matériel would be lost. But there was no help for it. Winters came hurrying with Laurence’s flying-coat, struggling under the weight; Laurence took it from the small girl and shrugged into the heavy leather, checked his pistols and his sword—he would never forget having gone aloft with only a dress-sword in his belt, but his beloved Chinese blade was a satisfying weight there now—and stepped into Temeraire’s ready talons to be put up.

  The weather was extraordinarily beautiful, and the sky studded over with small puffs of charming white cloud which sadly shortened their field of vision. Laurence rarely took his glass from his eye, and the lookouts kept their own out, straining for a first glimpse. Beneath him, Temeraire’s wing-muscles beat in steady lapping strokes, working nearly to his limits—his speed was extraordinary for a heavy-weight, but he was in armor, although with a quarter the usual weight of incendiaries. Only the fastest of the dragons had come with him: Iskierka, their light-weights, and the Cossack ranks behind them in their clannish groups, some forty dragons each carrying ten men crammed aboard. There would be no real hope of defeating Napoleon: they could only try to hold him long enough for more of their forces to concentrate upon the field.

  It was three hours to Dresden at their break-neck pace; it would be another hour before the rest of the force could join them. Laurence put firmly from his mind the unwanted awareness that those desperately needed dragons would arrive under the command of an officer who hated and despised him, and who would be glad of almost any excuse to see him brought low. There was no use in entertaining the thought; Fidelitas was by far the senior of the dragons in the second wave. For a moment he had entertained leaving Granby and Iskierka back to command it—but only for a moment. If there was anything to be gained in the space of that first hour, it would only be gained by the most ferocious defense they could put forward.

  “Smoke off forward wing, one point to starboard,” Belleisle called urgently—one of his lookouts. Laurence immediately turned his glass in that direction. At first he was uncertain: smoke, or only a wisp of cloud in shadow? But the thin grey wisps were rising from the ground: smoke.

  “I think we will go to battle-stations, Mr. Forthing,” Laurence said.

  “Aye, sir,” Forthing said, turning to pass the word to Challoner, but this was scarcely required: every man was already in motion, their speed a mark of how tightly wound their spirits: like arrows held at the limits of their bow reach, ready to be loosed.

  The smoke gathered rapidly ahead of them, not only from their drawing nearer: the city was burning. “Laurence, that is Accendare there on the other side of the city,” Temeraire said, “I am sure of it,” and Laurence scanning the sky managed to pick her out briefly. The Flamme-de-Gloire was nearly the largest dragon to be seen, and stark in her yellow and black as for a moment her wings hung open against the sky in their direction.

  “She has never done all that herself,” his midwingman Ashgrove blurted out, aghast. He was a young officer, and had come from a dragon run on rather looser lines of propriety than Laurence liked to see; but the remark was not unprovoked, as their passage brought the city further into view: a city bathed in flames. Easier to have counted those houses which were not burning, many of them emitting soldiers forced to flee stumbling through the lanes and alleys of the city. Napoleon had evidently declined to fight through the streets; he was smoking out his enemy—a brutality that bid fair to be as effective as it was callous. But Laurence, too, could not imagine how Accendare, for all her fearsome reputation, had single-handedly fired the entire city, its houses largely built of stone and well-supplied with water.

  “Wing to larboard!” cried the fore larboard lookout. Not one wing but a hundred, two hundred, more: a cloud of dragons was rising en masse from a previously hidden valley, where they had evidently been resupplying. In pairs they carried large iron cauldrons suspended from yokes, steam rising from the innards, and as they turned and swept over the city, they tipped them over to pour out long billowing streamers of smoking tar and pitch. Behind them came a second wave, throwing out incendiaries to ignite the hot tar—these sometimes bursting in mid-air.

  His glass trained upon the still-distant mass of dragons, Laurence could not escape the feeling there was more variation among them than he would have expected to see—variation not merely in color and size and pattern. There were too many dragons of sharper distinctions—the shape of the skull, or the mounting of the wings. “Roland,” Laurence said, before he remembered she was gone. “Mr. Forthing,” he said instead, “do you mark anything peculiar about those dragons?” He would have liked to consult Granby, but failing that any man who had been an aviator all his life, and more familiar with the variety of dragons.

  Forthing peered over, holding determinedly to the straps of his flying-cap, which had lost its buckle in their tearing speed and now threatened to quit the field at any moment; he was trying to tie up the loose straps instead. “A lot of queer sorts, sir, if that is what you mean. Ferals—he has scraped the barrel, I suppose.”

  Laurence shook his head, dissatisfied. “Would you call them French ferals?”

  “One feral’s much like another,” Forthing said uncertainly.

  “Sir,” Lieutenant Challoner put in, “I have been in the colonies, lately, and while I would not swear to it, those green ones on the left flank there have a look of Naskapi beasts—those are the natives up north of Halifax.”

  “What, Indians, here?” Forthing said. “How should they ever get here, and why would they?” But Laurence had already put his glass on the green dragons, who were carrying sacks of incendiaries, and although it was too far to make anything of facial features, the men aboard were certainly not French officers—one only to each dragon, wearing long leather coats embroidered all over in patterns, fur-collared. Their beasts had the same angular, narrow-muzzled heads common among the Incan beasts, although their scales were not of the long feather-like sort.

  He shook his head, dissatisfied and puzzled, but he could not spare the matter more thought: in five minutes more they would be upon the battlefield, if they continued on their straight-line course. They could strike directly at the bombing run: the slow pace and coordination required for the operation meant that even
a little opposition would be sufficient to disrupt it. But the city was plainly lost already, and the only hope of defeating Napoleon was to save the army, if it could be done.

  The breadth of that monstrous force would make any rear-guard defense hopeless without the support of guns. But there ought to have been guns: at least three hundred of them. All lost, in the fires? On that chance all hung: if they could establish artillery positions, a successful retreat might yet be accomplished. “Temeraire,” he said after a moment, “we will come around by the south, and get a better look at what Accendare is doing on the road over there.”

  The signals went out, and they swung wide around the burning city: people below streaming into the countryside, carrying the wreckage of their lives—small carts laden, wheelbarrows, mothers with babes in their arms, a parade of misery. Accendare herself was flying over a rise of land near the eastern gates, circling with a crowd of light-weight hangers-on, mostly Pêcheur-Rayés. She had nothing to do with the fires in the city at all: she was instead striking at the efforts of the allied forces to establish a line of defense across the eastern highway, along which a straggling line of Prussian infantry were attempting to retire.

  Infantry squares stood in tight formation, locked in defense around the artillery-crews struggling to bring their guns to bear. Their bristling bayonets held off a direct assault, but Accendare’s flames scorched and seared them, and the Pêcheurs, having spent their incendiaries, were dropping anything to hand upon them. One dropped a torn-up sapling, and crushed six men in a row—but the soldiers beside them heaved out the sapling and closed ranks, keeping their bayonets up; one of the fallen struggled up again, and another took the fallen rifles, and planted them in the dirt with the bayonets jutting up. Nearly every square was bristling with these unattended spikes, testament to the grinding toll the assault had been taking upon them.

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