League of Dragons by Naomi Novik

  Laurence could not help but admire the courage and steadfastness which had preserved the order of the Russian and the Prussian infantry under an aerial pounding so unopposed; he did not see a single beast in the air working to defend them. But no small force of dragons could have hoped to hold long against such a disparity of numbers.

  Nor could his own. Still, he closed up his glass and nodded, not with relief but with certainty; the decision was made, and now there was nothing to do but to fight it out. “Tell Iskierka to take Accendare,” Laurence called to Temeraire, “and we will put a stop to that bombardment, across the eastern side of the city at least: we must give the infantry some chance to get onto the road.”

  He gave the word to Quigley to signal the Cossacks to follow Iskierka: the smaller dragons clustering about Accendare were plainly French regulars, and the Cossacks were all veterans who had refined their boarding techniques against those troops over two years now of hard fighting. Granby’s signal-officer waved an acknowledging flag, and then Iskierka tilted and peeled away with her following, leaving Temeraire with a sadly diminished band—only thirty dragons, many of them only out of courier-class by a generous assessment—half a dozen of the Scots, two Prussian Mauerfuchs, and then seven Grey Coppers and five Xenicas robbed from the British formations; none of them with real muscle to speak of.

  But Laurence signaled them into a diamond-shape, behind Temeraire, and their sheer furious pace made its own impact upon the enormous cloud of French dragons. Temeraire roared out, the divine wind opening a path before them like the sweep of some enormous scythe, and even when the echoes had faded the fear of it kept the dragons spilling away to either side. There was no slackening. All the small dragons packed tightly in a mass behind Temeraire, the chop chop chop of their wings beating close and frantic, and they carved a channel directly through and burst out over the eastern gates, leaving the bombing-pass disrupted: cauldrons spilled too soon, incendiaries fallen too late.

  They nearly passed Accendare, fleeing back to the safety of the French lines as Iskierka gleefully scorched her escort, and the faint sound of huzzahs reached them from the ground, a few shots fired off by way of greeting or celebration. But for the most part the Russians and the Prussians were making urgent use of every moment that had been won them. The guns sheltered inside the bayonet-bristling squares of infantry were now dragged swiftly into a line on the low hills overlooking the road, and began almost at once to fire steadily, establishing a slender cordon of safety the French dragons could not fly across with impunity. And almost at once, the main body of the corps began to make an orderly retreat—men marching out from the back walls of the city, despite conflagration behind them, and streaming away along the road to the east.

  Iskierka and the Cossacks swung back to join Temeraire. They still made only a very small band, against the French numbers. And this retreat they should now have to defend with only that thin support of guns, for an hour. The French were already halting the bombardment, Laurence saw: the dragons were going to ground, in companies, and setting down their burdens. In a moment the full force of that attack would be upon them.

  “We can make very little plan of battle, ignorant as we are of all knowledge of the enemy’s dispositions, and so outnumbered as we must expect to find ourselves,” Laurence had said before their departure, to his small knot of captains. “If a defensive line can be established, Temeraire and Iskierka will give the lead: let your beasts do their best to support them. We will at all times attempt to remain above boarding-speed, and accept the sacrifice of accuracy. I have full confidence that every man—every officer—and dragon will do his duty,” he finished, a little awkwardly altering his remarks, as among the company stood all five women under his command—whom he should now have to expose to so extraordinary a risk. But the Xenicas were the heaviest of the fast dragons, and could not be spared.

  The sacrifice of accuracy was complete indeed at the pace which Temeraire now set, freed from the constraint of slower beasts in his company. He led one furious corkscrewing pass after another, knocking or simply terrifying the French dragons out of his path, which the lighter dragons behind him mauled enthusiastically. Wind and a riot of colors tore at Laurence’s eyes: he could not distinguish one dragon from another in the speed of their passage, but even when Temeraire slowed to turn back for another pass, he found it nearly impossible to make any sense of the battlefield, or the enemy’s forces.

  Laurence and his officers fired their guns blindly as Temeraire swept along, hoping more than certain that they occasionally hit a target: one pistol and another, and then the struggle of reloading mid-air, grains of powder blown scattering from the packet, pistol-balls slipping away from numbed fingers. On his left, Baggy uttered a wordless exclamation and clapped his hand to his forehead: a bright red line drawn across the entire front as though someone had meant to take off the top of his head, blood running freely down his face; he had been grazed by a ball. Half a wingbeat slower, and he would have been killed: a shot impersonal as a bolt of lightning, in a sky full of storms.

  It was very like doing battle with locusts—every blow landed, but there seemed no hope of headway. Temeraire savaged this dragon, roared another into recoiling flight—and still more came to take their place, erupting from the smoke-clouds like spirits boiling up from some infernal region. The French came at them endlessly, trying to win past to overturn the roaring guns and destroy the retreating army.

  Laurence was conscious of every moment of that hour as he had never felt time in a battle before. There was nothing he could do to aid Temeraire but keep a lookout in every direction and warn him if the enemy approached—but the enemy was always approaching, and there was no respite to be had. If Temeraire slowed for anything but the briefest turn, the French converged on him at once. If he retired for a breath behind the safety of the guns, the French instantly resumed their attacks upon the artillery. It was not an effort that could be sustained for long, not after three hours’ brutal flight.

  His speed began to falter. Their destruction came on, steady and inevitable; Laurence searched the horizon after every turn. He had lost all sense of time, and the sand-glass had become useless thanks to Temeraire twisting in his evasions, frequently turning himself entirely over. The sun was shrouded in smoke.

  Laurence measured minutes in increments of despair, and was nearly at its limits when one of the lookouts set up a cry. The glass nearly slipped from his fingers as he wrenched it from his belt just as Temeraire dived again, but then he climbed, and Laurence did not need the glass: the line of dragons approaching was visible in the distance, Fidelitas in the center of the force.

  Their speed was slowing as they made their approach. The French rear-guard were swinging guns around to set up an unwelcoming barrage, and abruptly the air lightened around them as several dozen of the French beasts pulled away to try to bar the reunion of their forces. Poole would have to choose whether to force a way through, at great risk, or sweep wide of the city with the French skirmishing to delay him every step of the way, a safer course which would mean the loss of another half an hour before he could come to their aid.

  Half an hour they did not have. There were more than enough dragons remaining to face them, and even as Temeraire’s flagging energies were renewed by the sight of their fellows, so was the enemy’s determination to bring him down before his relief came. Seven dragons surged at his head from all sides, a sudden penning-up. Captain Gaudey flying alongside sent up a shout, and her Xenica Glorianus made swift merciless work of the exposed side of one red-and-blue Garde-de-Lyon attempting to foul Temeraire’s left side, letting him escape—but Temeraire had been checked for a moment; long enough for a dozen boarders to spring over from the gathered enemy dragons, firing pistols and swinging curved swords—Napoleon’s famed Mamluk troops, their red trousers brilliant against Temeraire’s hide.

  Laurence knew nothing of the larger battle, for the next five minutes. The world narrowed to the span of Temerai
re’s neck. Carabiners clacked against the harness-rings as they were all flung off their feet—Temeraire fighting furiously, earth and sky whirling around them and blurred together with smoke. Laurence half-blinded by wind and speed tried to reload, to block sword-swings he could not see. Forthing went down before him, stopping one blade; Laurence shot the man behind him—

  The world righted itself, and stopped—or did so at least by comparison; Temeraire had slackened to a resting pace. He was falling back, behind the guns, and behind a wall of allied dragons: Fidelitas had taken the risk and come straight through, after all. Calloway clubbed the last boarder across the back of the head with a rifle, knocking the man down, and shouted, “Mr. Ashgrove, pass the word for bandages, and four hands to spare. Sir, you aren’t hurt?”

  “No, nothing to signify,” Laurence said, though breath was a struggle; he had taken a blow to the ribs. He managed to haul himself around on his straps. Forthing sagged in his carabiner straps, bleeding and dazed. Fidelitas and Cavernus and Levantia had rounded up the light-weights of their formations and were raking the French, Ricarlee and his fellows making a gleeful rampage among their leavings with the Russian greys interspersed among them. Below, the allied troops were streaming away, bayonets bristling at their backs and cavalry guarding their flanks, guns rolling over the road.

  TEMERAIRE WAS CONSCIOUS MOSTLY of weariness, leavened occasionally by the deep ache in his wing-joints, which throbbed unpleasantly whenever he stirred them. The half-healed musket-wounds in his chest made small knots of pain as though someone were steadily pressing a blunted knife, not sharp enough to pierce scales, against the flesh. Beside him, Iskierka, too, ate through her porridge with dull silent effort, her own head hanging. He paused and sighed heavily after a swallow: he had never quite noticed, before, how tiring it was to gnaw away at a large piece of meat in one’s jaws, even if it had been stewed some time.

  But he persevered, the food went down little by little, and he gradually became aware of a strangely general silence around the feeding pits. All of them from the first flight were very tired, of course, but no-one from the second flight was speaking, either—none of the usual chatter or squabbling. Even the Russian greys were eating quietly, with many sidelong glances over at Fidelitas, who had a hunched, strange expression as he ate—half-ashamed, and he avoided Temeraire’s look, even though he had done so well during the battle and come to their rescue.

  With a sudden sharp anxiety, Temeraire said, “Where is Roland?” No-one answered him. “Challoner!” he called urgently—but she had gone to eat something; Forthing was still with the surgeons—“What has happened to her?” he demanded of Fidelitas directly.

  “What?” Fidelitas said, with a startled—a guilty, Temeraire thought—flinching. “I do not know. Who is Roland?”

  “She is my officer,” Temeraire said, infuriated by this cavalier response, “who was lent you only for this one engagement—lent.”

  He was about to add several remarks about the care he might have expected, in exchange for such a gesture, when Baggy put down his own bowl of porridge—he had been gulping it with no benefit of a spoon—and belched and said, “Here, now, what’s the fuss? Roland is with the admiral.”

  “Oh,” Temeraire said. “She is not hurt?”

  “No?” Baggy said. “Why would she be?”

  “Well, I am very glad to hear it, although someone might have said so, sooner,” Temeraire said, but he was not entirely placated; he still did not know what made Fidelitas look so strange—nor Cavernus, who also wore a stiff, disapproving expression.

  Perhaps they were distressed over having retreated. But no-one could truly have complained of the day’s outcome—no-one, at least, who had seen Dresden in flames—the scale of the opposition—the situation which had confronted them; no-one could fail to be impressed. They had escaped, and nearly all the Prussian and Russian soldiers, too, with their guns; or at least half of them. No-one would have called it likely that morning, knowing what they had faced. Of course it was not exactly like a victory—but only look how the Russians had beaten Napoleon last winter, all by running away in a particularly clever manner, and anyway Temeraire called it churlish to be dissatisfied, all things considered.

  “Well, well,” Churki said, coming down next to him, with a flurry of her feathers. “So here you are, after all, and here is the army still in one piece! I would not have looked for it this morning,” she added, as though to affirm Temeraire’s own thinking, and with strong approval. “That was some fine soldiering. Would there be anything to spare?” And then she even waited very politely until Temeraire made room for her to join him and eat. He did so with a dignified bow, although it made his wing-joints ache again: he felt it only due her own courtesy, and also the very good sense of her kind remarks; he hoped everyone else should have overheard, and that it might make them cease behaving so wooden.

  Churki at least felt no constraint herself. “Naturally when I understood the circumstances, I knew Hammond had to be removed from the city at once,” she said, as she ate: she had been with him in Dresden early that morning when the first desperate scouts had reported the oncoming force. “There were not more than ten other dragons in the whole place, except the couriers: there was no use trying to fight. So I brought him away, along with that young Tsar fellow—I do not think much of those Russians, let me assure you! Not one of them properly looking after their own emperor; and would you believe that he is not married, either? There is something very wrong in the management of men in this part of the world, I must say. I did not feel I owed them any assistance, but Hammond was distressed, so I agreed to take him along and that poor old Marshal as well. He did not sound very well. I told them he had better be wrapped up better, but they would be off, without blankets or hot bricks.” She shook her head censoriously over the whole enterprise.

  She had flown further east, to a town named Bautzen which was their destination, and there had waited until Yu Li had reached them with the news of the army’s escape. “Which I did not expect in the least,” she said. “Of course, then Hammond would have nothing but coming back to rejoin you. But if you ask me, he has no business being here, and neither does the Tsar. No-one could call this Emperor Napoleon a sensible man, after that war he ran in Russia, but there is no denying he is worth ten times over any general we have.—And he has fathered four children.”

  “Only one,” Temeraire protested, “although Empress Anahuarque means to have another, Laurence says.”

  “Four,” Churki said firmly. “He has two more by two other women, in France, and one in Vienna, all of them old enough to walk; I inquired of Hammond on the subject. So the Sapa Inca is already expecting another child?” She emitted a sigh thoroughly laced with envy. “Maila cannot complain of her choices—if only Hammond would find a woman who had proven her fertility half so well as this French Emperor of hers! And that Lithuanian girl means to have a baby for Dyhern, I understand,” she finished, in disgruntled tones.

  Temeraire had almost forgotten completely about Miss Merkelyte—Mrs. Dyhern. It did not seem entirely fair to him, either, that Eroica should have simply appeared and snatched her out from under them—but there, he did not mean to be annoyed with Eroica, who had not done it on purpose, and who had been so remarkably helpful with the treasure: a true friend.

  “But I see your Laurence, too, has done nothing in that line,” Churki said. “Even though he is an admiral now? Surely that must make it easier for him to command the interest of a worthy woman. Not,” she added, “that I see why you insist on being so choosy. But if you do not mean for him to marry Mrs. Pemberton, you had better settle her with someone else, so at least she may begin having children.”

  By then nearly everyone was finished with their meals, and moving away to make room for the cooks to scorch the pit clean and begin stewing tomorrow’s porridge. Fidelitas had taken himself off as quickly as he could, so Temeraire took the opportunity of nudging over to Cavernus to ask quietly, “Why is
everyone so awkward? What has Fidelitas done?”

  “He has done nothing,” she said, but refused to say anything more. “You had better talk to the admiral about it.”


  “I trust, Midwingman, that nothing more will be said on the subject,” Laurence said.

  “I am not a goose, to go about honking everywhere,” Roland said. “But there shan’t be any keeping it quiet, sir. Every man topside heard him, and every man aboard heard Fidelitas, and I dare say a dozen beasts heard Cavernus putting in her mite on the subject; it shan’t stay a secret.”

  “No,” Laurence said, “but it may be known, without being formally brought to my notice.”

  “It might be better if it were, now,” she said pointedly.

  Laurence knew what she meant. He had certainly just saved the allied army, through extraordinary efforts, and Whitehall could not dismiss him at this particular moment; if he meant to call Poole to any official account, now was the time. “That will be all,” he said. She frowned, then touched her hat and left the room. Laurence sat back heavily in his chair—a more comfortable one than many he had used on campaign; he had been assigned a house for his quarters, large enough to boast a sitting-room inhabited by a writing-table. He understood Roland’s resentment—shared it. But any court-martial convened against Poole would face the remarkable difficulty of convicting him of dereliction of duty when his duty had in fact been performed to the utmost: when his dragon had led a dangerous charge and had won through to relieve Temeraire and Iskierka, just in time, and secure the retreat.

  The case could only be won by a public argument that Poole had tried to persuade Fidelitas to do otherwise—and that his efforts had failed; that his dragon had willfully disobeyed him. That knowledge was even now traveling through the Corps at the speed of rumor, surely to the anger and anxiety of every officer who had taken it as truth that dragons were devoted blindly to their captains. Laurence was not even sure that a court of aviators would be willing to admit that it had happened. Poole would be invited to say that he had changed his mind and had told Fidelitas so, too quietly to be overheard. Many would refuse to believe that a dragon had committed the act from any sense of duty; he would either have done it at the behest of another dragon, or, by a still more uncharitable interpretation, for the sake of prize-money.

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