League of Dragons by Naomi Novik

  He knew he ought to seek his own rest. But he lingered a little longer, to the ill-concealed disgust of the watch, who plainly would have liked nothing better than to go to sleep themselves even though they were on duty. He paced away another half an hour, by the glass, before at last he took himself away.

  He was at the very door of his cabin when one of the watch-officers came running after him, even more disgusted now and panting, to tell him a Jade Dragon had arrived, and to hand him a scroll, written in Chinese. Laurence turned it right-way up and read it swiftly. “Very good” was all he said, and the watch officer went away even more disgruntled, without even gossip to carry; but Laurence went into his cabin and shut the door, and when he fell upon his cot he slept at once, dreamlessly, and well.

  “LAURENCE,” TEMERAIRE SAID, A little nervously, “I think we have done it, although perhaps I ought not say so; but surely we have won a battle at last? Really won it, I mean, not only in the dispatches.” He did not quite dare to believe it: after so much tiresome running away, to see the French retreating for once was very unusual, and he worried perhaps it might be a trick of some sort. “Perhaps we ought to send some scouts to our rear,” he added, “to be sure there is no-one coming up behind us. Where is that Davout fellow? I still remember how very unpleasant it was when he nearly surprised us, at the battle of London.”

  “Davout is in Hamburg,” Laurence said, which was very comforting, as that city was several hundreds of miles distant, “and we are quite certain that Napoleon has no troops anywhere in our rear; no, I think we have carried the day.”

  The poor little village of Reichenbach had not survived its encounter with two quarrelsome armies: there was scarcely a building left standing, and the sad wreck of a big French Papillon Noir lay sprawled in the smashed heap of a barn, fragments of stone and shingles and the corpses of soldiers scattered all around his body. The legions were methodically pressing the French corps back all along the leading edge of battle, exposing ever more of their artillery and infantry, and now at last Temeraire could really see some use in the Russian heavy-weights: it was not that they had begun to listen better, or follow sensible tactics at all, for they had not; but it did not seem necessary. Laurence had set a sizable bounty upon each gun captured, and in their eagerness the Russian beasts flung themselves ferociously and heedless down into the French ranks and began laying about with teeth and claws, and the poor artillery-men were fleeing wildly in every direction at once.

  “I think we must add a bonus, the next battle, for guns taken unspiked,” Laurence said: he was observing the same, through his glass. “We will take at least a hundred to-day, I think. Temeraire, pray will you pass the word to the legions to concentrate their attentions upon the French right flank? If we can break that group of middle-weights there, we will open them nicely to the Austrian advance.”

  “Certainly,” Temeraire said, and roared a low sequence of three notes, which brought one of the Jade Dragons to his side immediately to relay orders, but before he could issue his commands, Yu Shen backwinged a little distance away in a respectful attitude, and Ning suddenly came up on his right and hovered beside him. Now she appeared, when all the hard work had been done, Temeraire thought resentfully; he had barely landed all day, and had scarcely had time for more than a few gulps of porridge, and that cold.

  “Well, what do you want?” Temeraire said.

  “I wonder if you might consider sending the legions against the center,” Ning said.

  “No, not in the least,” Temeraire said. “The Imperial Guard is anchoring the center, with a hundred Incan beasts, besides their Grand Chevaliers, and you can see the guns for yourself. We should be rolled up straightaway if we pressed the attack, and then our general advance would be broken. The suggestion is quite absurd—whyever would you propose such a thing?” he added, belatedly curious. He could not make out any reason for it, unless perhaps Ning meant to lead them into a trap for some peculiar reason of her own, but even then, she would have had to think them really quite stupid to listen.

  “All you have said is perfectly true,” Ning said, “until one considers that there are sixty heavy-weights approaching the French rear. If you should draw the French center forward even by quite a small margin, you should weaken their line, and thus expose their entire retreat.”

  “But why should there be sixty heavy-weights in the French rear, and where have they come from?” Temeraire said. As a wish to be granted by some particularly benevolent spirit, perhaps the God that Laurence was so fond of, the notion appealed to him greatly: it would only be justice that they should come up from behind Napoleon for once, although he did not see how they could have managed it. “It cannot be Excidium and Lily, from Spain; they have only just crossed the Pyrenees by now, and they had a great many dragons to manage over there, anyway.”

  He finished on an interrogative note, hoping despite himself, but Ning said, “It is not them: it is the dragons from the convocation, the ones you called the Tswana.”

  “There is no reason it should be the Tswana,” Temeraire said. “Not that it would not be very handsome of them to help us,” he added, “but I do not think they care a fig whether we should win, or Napoleon.”

  “However fruitless it may be to guess at their motives,” Ning said, “one may nevertheless conclude their intentions, from their having taken up a position ideally calculated to fall upon Napoleon’s rear, and having failed to offer him any assistance in his present difficult circumstances. In any case, I can hardly call their motives very obscure: if we should defeat Napoleon, they must prefer to have us in their debt.”

  Temeraire noticed, not without a little irritation, that suddenly Ning had decided to include herself in their ranks, with all this we and us. “Yes, but we—Laurence and myself, that is, and our friends,” he pointedly noted, “—will not defeat Napoleon with one battle,” but then he looked at the field again, and imagined sixty heavy-weight dragons added upon it, and slowly said, “Laurence—Laurence, if we should break their center—if we should rout the guard, and the Tswana should block a retreat to the west—”

  “Yes,” Laurence said, his voice taut. “Yes: we might have a chance to capture him, if the guard should break.”

  “One might have expected,” Ning remarked a little tartly, “that my advice would be well-founded: had you not better get about it?”

  Laurence stood up in his carabiner straps and stepped to the side of Temeraire’s neck, looking down at her. “Ning,” he said, in Chinese, “I beg your pardon: I must ask you to give me your word before these witnesses,” and he beckoned to Yu Shen and also Yu Guo, who had come a little closer to listen in, “that the situation is as you have described it.”

  Ning said thoughtfully, “Well, I am prepared to give my word that the Tswana are there, and that they number between forty and seventy beasts, the better part of whom are heavy-weight, and that they are ideally placed to strike at the French rear; however, more than this I will not avow. If you disagree with my conclusions, you may draw your own, and proceed as you like. I consider that I have discharged my duty to China, in offering you the fruits of my observation and my own advice, and if you now choose to discard so notable an opportunity, for want of assurances which I cannot provide with perfect certainty, I cannot hold myself responsible.”

  Laurence was silent; Temeraire curved his head back towards him. “We surely ought not miss the chance,” he said anxiously: he perfectly understood the caution Laurence must have felt, and of course they would be in a very nasty position if the Tswana did not attack in the end. But he felt he could scarcely bear to let Napoleon slip away, again; and who knew but that he would find some clever new way of defeating them. “Perhaps we might send someone around to see, and have a word with them?”

  But Laurence said, “There is no time. Whatever chance there is must be a thin one; even a narrow avenue of escape must suffice for Napoleon to evade capture, and he will certainly begin his own withdrawal in short order
now; the course of the day is decided, if nothing should change.” He shut up his glass with a snap and said, “Pass the word to concentrate our assault upon the center, at once,” and then went on, to Temeraire’s rising delight, “and we must go in ourselves, to offer both support and reason; Napoleon and Lien especially will wonder less at the incaution of a frontal assault if we give them the excuse of your exuberance.”

  Laurence sent Yu Guo to inform Granby of the plan, and then they were flying across the field: Temeraire felt himself loosed as though from a cannon-mouth, with a wild propulsive energy behind him. The armies below were engaged in a thinning struggle: everywhere French soldiers streamed westward into the trees and fields, in rout and retreat, and on the flanks, the Cossack cavalry was harrying them along. But in the center the Imperial Guard still held their positions, magnificently firm, their tall shakos like ranged checker pieces from above in even rows, and above them Temeraire counted half a dozen Grand Chevaliers in full equipage, with a surrounding cloud of Incan beasts too large to enumerate. He did spy two Copacati, the venom-spitters, and Maila Yupanqui himself was here, circling nervously above the rear.

  “I am surprised he should not have insisted on staying behind with the Empress,” Temeraire said, with a snort.

  “Napoleon can ill afford to leave his staunchest supporters behind in Paris, in his present circumstances,” Laurence said.

  They were closing: Temeraire gathered his breath and roared out his challenge, envisioning the force of it thundering like a wave upon the ranks of their enemies and crashing upon them. He roared again, and once more as he drew into striking range, the legions falling into place at his rear and roaring with him, heartened. The screen of lighter dragons at the fore of Napoleon’s force tumbled away like pebbles in surf, and Temeraire had the gratification of seeing Lien’s head come up, her ruff spreading wide as she heard his approach.

  She bent down towards a man on the ground beside her: Temeraire was able to pick Napoleon out, when she spoke to him. The Emperor wore a plain grey coat and blue hat with no decoration at all; he looked plainer than his Guardsmen. It would be so very easy to miss him in the crowd, Temeraire thought anxiously, but he had to take his eyes away: half a dozen Incan middle-weights were converging upon him, bent on checking their advance.

  The Incans’ feathery scales had the effect of making them seem larger than their size, and were handy besides for turning lead balls and canister-shot. Forthing shouted, “Fire at will!” and the sharp retort of the rifles went off as the middle-weights closed, but the Incan beasts did not flinch.

  Temeraire turned to slash with his talons and met an Incan middle-weight’s peculiar eye, vivid green on the outer rim, yellow-blue-streaked on the inside; she looked squarely at him, their paces matched for a moment, and then darted her head down trying to bite his wing-joint. He folded his wing in on that side and rolled sideways into her, blowing out a little of his wind; his weight landed squarely on her and drove a great gasp of air from her body. He kept rolling until he came off her other side, and both of them dropped a hundred feet or so below the cluster of dragons.

  He snapped out his own wing again and caught an updraft as she tumbled away struggling to right herself. A scattering of bombs fell away from his belly-netting, Challoner calling the orders faintly below, and the Incan lost another hundred feet in evasions and had to turn back and hurry to the safety of her ranks.

  “Temeraire, ware above!” Roland called: and he darted a quick look up. He had lost some height himself, and one of the Copacati meant to try to seize the advantage, a silver-green arrow darting towards him.

  “Pass the word to ready boarders,” Laurence said, and Temeraire flattened his ruff. Of course it would be splendid to take a Copacati prisoner, if they could—this one was rather larger than the one Iskierka had dueled, back in Talcahuano, he thought. But Challoner would naturally lead the boarding party, and it would be of all things wretched to lose a fine lieutenant just when he had finally got a satisfactory one, and Temeraire had a struggle to repress the instinct to twist away too quickly for anyone to go over.

  The Copacati spat: a thin black stream of poison jetted narrowly into the air, but with a skillful twist of her body she pulled up and fanned her wings at the stream twice, dispersing it into a fine cloud of mist. “Temeraire, your eyes!” Laurence shouted, and Temeraire shut them tight at once and twisted aside, Laurence calling the mark as he whirled blind through the sky. One hapless middle-weight came into his way, trying to claw at him, and was bowled over for his trouble; Temeraire cracked open an eye when the poor fellow began crying out noisily as he himself was caught by the mist of venom.

  But Temeraire had got out of range himself; with a quick double-thrust of his wings he closed in on the Copacati as she circled back for another pass, too quick for her to spit again, and seized her from below, belly to belly. The feathery scales now offered him an advantage, better purchase than he might have had otherwise; he gripped onto her shoulder-joints and snapped at the underside of her neck, forcing her to dart her head up and away from him.

  She raked at him with her back legs, hissing, and he could not roar, either, while he had to keep her head off him; but his bellmen were throwing grappling-hooks up to catch on her harness, and swarming up the lines.

  “Pray be careful, Challoner,” Temeraire called as he twisted away, when they had gone over, “and I will certainly have words with you, if you lose her,” he added to the Copacati, in the Incan tongue.

  “Then you shouldn’t be sending her jumping through the sky!” the Copacati returned smartly, not without some justice Temeraire had to admit, and made another darting stab at him with her long glistening fangs. “Perhaps I will keep her,” she added tauntingly.

  Temeraire flared his ruff angrily, and with an enormous heave twisted them bodily over and thumped the Copacati soundly at the base of her neck with the side of his head. The blow made his jaw ache, but it was worth it to check that sort of talk, and it shook all her own scanty crew loose and dangling from their carabiners, so at least they had no advantages over his own boarding party gone over.

  “Temeraire, we must fall back,” Laurence called: the French forces were taking the bait, pressing forward everywhere to meet them.

  Temeraire reluctantly let go and threw himself away from the Copacati, beating furiously, and managed to roar briefly into her face. He could not build enough resonance to properly roar and knock her back, but she recoiled enough he could open up some room between them. He fell back on the legions, who had split into their three-beast squadrons, and were skillfully fending off the French beasts pressing upon them.

  They could not hold their ground long against numbers and weight so much the greater than their own force. They did not really want to hold it, of course: as they fell back, the French dragons pressed forward to keep on them, and in so doing left exposed the infantry and guns of the Old Guard at their rear.

  But Temeraire began to feel a little anxious, as their position was becoming undoubtedly awkward. The flanks of the French aerial corps had begun to close in upon their sides, and they were increasingly in danger of finding themselves enveloped. Many of the Chinese dragons were beginning to take real injury: it seemed that in every direction Temeraire looked, he saw one of the red-gold beasts falling out of the ranks to retreat to the surgeons, many of them trailing black blood as they flew. The remaining squadrons pulled together, and re-formed themselves in a disciplined manner: along the line in reverse order from left to right, any dragon who lost a fighting-partner shifted over to fill a gap in the next squadron with an opening. It was elegantly done, without disruption to their maneuvering, but their ranks were steadily compressing as a consequence, exposing the survivors to more of the enemy’s force.

  The Chinese commander Zhao Lien winged around from her position at the rear of the force to join Temeraire. “Honored one, may this humble soldier suggest that we make arrangements to withdraw over the shelter of the artillery, if
it is not inconvenient,” which was a polite way of saying he had got them thoroughly into the soup, and there was now no way out of it except to simply run away, which would certainly give the French every opportunity to wreak disaster on the allied troops beneath them, and perhaps even turn back the tide of the battle as a whole.

  Napoleon, too, had seen their plight; perhaps even before they themselves had marked it. Down on the ground, the ranks of the Old Guard were moving forward, and with that anchor the French withdrawal everywhere was halting. Companies were re-forming and wheeling around, light-weight beasts dropping to pick up cannon and replace them in firing position, the enormous clockwork of Napoleon’s war machinery turning under its master’s hand.

  But the movement was accompanied from some distant place over the hills by a steady deep drum-beat, growing louder and louder even above the cannon-roars, a great pounding noise that resonated peculiarly in Temeraire’s skull as it climbed, and climbed still further. The other dragons around him all paused, turning as they looked back towards the French rear. Shadows were forming out of the deep bank of grey clouds to the west, and then the clouds were streaming away as a wide row of dragons was suddenly pouring down over the western slope directly at Napoleon’s rear: dragons in every vivid color, and on every back a drummer sat, pounding furiously to keep the time of their wings.

  Their bellies had been covered with pads of thick grey leather. They did not fly separately or even in formations, but in short lines of four and carrying a peculiar device that looked like the front edge of a plow more than anything else Temeraire knew. The teeth were made of curved elephant tusks, bound into a thin frame of wood and metal. The Tswana dragons plunged them down among the troops and swept forward, turning over men and guns and earth all together.

  The French dragons wheeled around in alarm to meet their advance, but as they did, a second wave of Tswana dragons came arrowing down from far overhead: they must have climbed very high, to be able to come swooping out of the clouds so, and their plummeting speed was enormous; they struck the body of the French corps with shocking force, and drove dozens of beasts to the ground, smashing them into their own artillery and men before they climbed a little shakily off again, and shook themselves and jumped back into the air.

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