League of Dragons by Naomi Novik

  Temeraire stared, a little. He had never seen the Tswana fight properly, dragon to dragon: he had seen them tear apart the Cape Town settlement, and its fort, but that assault had been carried out in a fury of rage and revenge by dragons maddened at the loss of their tribes, and anyway it had nearly been over, by the time he had arrived. This was a great deal more systematic and impressive, not to say a little alarming; but after a moment he shook himself off, and roared a welcoming challenge before he led the legions forward to help. The French center was collapsing entirely; Iskierka and the Prussian dragons were turning their left flank, forcing the remaining dragons there onto the already-great disorder behind them, and as the dragons cleared the field and began a steady bombardment of the infantry squares below, the Russian and Prussian cavalry charged, sabers raised and shouting, into their disorganized ranks.

  The French retreat, half turned around, now fell into complete rout. Men were fleeing the field in masses, companies disintegrating. Temeraire swept back and forth trying to see past the confusion and pick out Lien. On the left flank he could see Marshal Saint-Cyr lifting away on a Petit Chevalier with a clinging mass of staff-officers aboard, making their escape towards the western road still held by the French rear-guard, their guns firing steadily and hot.

  The Old Guard had drawn together, above and below, to make themselves a sheltering box with the Emperor inside. Blowing horns were summoning the heavy-weights back into a knot, and Temeraire roared in fury as he saw Lien at last, well-hidden behind a screen of artillery and heavy-weight dragons: Napoleon was being thrust bodily aboard her back by his soldiers. “Laurence, Laurence, she is getting away!” he cried, hovering, half-hoping Laurence would order him to charge, to throw himself through that crowd of dragons.

  “I am sorry, my dear,” Laurence said heavily. “There are too many of them—”

  But suddenly there were not. The Tswana had gathered their first fruits of surprise, and now re-formed into a large company on the French right flank, spear-shaped, preparing to sweep around and engage the French heavy-weights. There were sixty of them; Temeraire had thirty left of the Chinese legions at his back, and Eroica was leading some forty Prussian beasts, with Iskierka supporting them. The French had nearly a hundred beasts still gathered, and in tight formation could have held for an hour even against all of them pressing in.

  But the Tswana roared, and Temeraire roared with them, and suddenly Maila Yupanqui, who had climbed aloft, gave a loud bugling cry—and broke.

  Temeraire stared in astonishment. It was not just him, either. All the Incan dragons were turning to follow him as he fled, snarling up all the other French dragons in their passage. The proud ranks of the Imperial Guard’s aerial forces scattered. There were only thirty dragons left together, in the center, and Temeraire heard Laurence shout; his wings were already beating, launching him forward even as Lien flung herself into the sky.

  LAURENCE ENDURED WITH SOME impatience another two dozen congratulatory messages as he returned to Temeraire’s clearing from the headquarters, the morning’s dispatch still crumpled in his hand. It was a slow progress: officers he had never met stopped him to make him their bows, and as he passed he overheard himself pointed out by his aviator’s coat, over and over again.

  He would have been honored by the acclaim and grateful for the warm feeling, if bestowed for his own labors. Indeed, half his irritation was for the sense of being robbed of his and Temeraire’s justly earned laurels, in exchange for a crown of fool’s gold. But the dispatches said nothing of the daring assault upon the center by the Chinese legions, which had lured Napoleon into exposing his Guard to the Tswana attack; indeed the Tswana themselves had been given only a grudging part in the victory at all, a brief mention of their strike into the French rear. And nothing whatsoever was mentioned of the collapse of the Incan ranks. Instead, so far as Laurence could see, the world was to believe that he and Temeraire had, in a fit of valor and what should have been the most extreme stupidity, flung themselves headlong through a hundred dragons, and defeated Lien in a single chivalric combat, presumably while those hundred dragons looked on and did nothing to interfere.

  He had read the dispatch that morning himself, appalled, but no-one at the headquarters had listened to his protests long enough to promise any correction; they had been too busy to shake his hand, and even the Tsar himself, who had received him personally, had only clapped him on the shoulder, and interrupted to praise his modesty.

  So he returned the bows shortly, and walked onwards without making much conversation except to return the compliments to his service. All through his slow progress a disquiet crept over him by degrees, and even when he at last passed beyond the reach of his well-wishers and reached the clearing where Temeraire stood vigilant over Lien’s silent and huddled form, Laurence could not take his ease, or settle to the large obligation of letters and reports which waited on his desk.

  He came out of his tent again, restless, and put a hand on Temeraire’s side. “I do not see why they need so many guards upon him,” Temeraire said, a little disapprovingly: he referred to the cottage visible near-by which was now Napoleon’s prison, ringed by three companies of heavy infantry all standing to close attention. “It is not as though I would not see, if he tried to come out and rejoin Lien; they might trust me for that, I think.”

  “Their presence must discourage any hope of a rescue, which his Marshals might yet entertain,” Laurence said. “Even you might be distracted briefly, if they managed to descend with a large force of dragons.” He stood looking at the small house, and then said abruptly, “I will return soon, if you will pardon me.”

  He walked to the cottage slowly. He felt little compunction about the worry which his appearance caused the Prussian colonel in charge of overseeing the guards, who plainly did not like to deny entry to the hero of the hour; but Laurence did fear his presence might be felt as an insult. “Pray ask His Majesty if he will receive me,” Laurence said. “I would not wish to intrude.”

  The colonel, relieved, sent to inquire; he plainly thought and hoped that the Emperor would refuse any visitor whom he could avoid, and was crestfallen when Laurence was invited to go inside. “I would scarcely try to take him out of his prison,” Laurence said to the man, taking pity, “when I put him in it, only yesterday.”

  “Yes, sir,” the colonel said, dismally, and let him go in.

  The cottage interior was dark, after the brilliance of the morning sun; Laurence stood blinking in the entryway, and then went down the hall to the one real chamber of the house. Napoleon was standing before the small window, looking down the hill towards Lien, with his hands clasped loosely behind his back. He turned round at Laurence’s step, and inclined his head: calm and composed, even amidst the wreck of his hopes. “Captain—or Admiral, I should say: I hope you are well? You took no injury in the battle?”

  Laurence bowed. “I am, Your Majesty.” He hesitated, then; he did not know what to say. He did not fully know what had brought him, except a dislike of being given more credit than was his due, but that could hardly matter to Napoleon. Nor could Laurence make him any kind of apology: he could not be sorry to have captured the Emperor; still less to see peace finally within reach.

  “You are a dull companion,” Napoleon said, breaking the silence. “What stifles your tongue? Have you been sent to offer me terms?”

  “No,” Laurence said, with a private relief; he could imagine no task less to his taste. “No; I beg your pardon, Your Majesty, I only wished to—” Here he halted, struggling again, but the Emperor came to his rescue.

  “Ah, come,” Napoleon said, crossing the room to him, and holding out his hands, clasped Laurence by the shoulders; he drew him close and kissed him on both cheeks, in the Gallic fashion, and then more familiarly patted him upon the cheek gently with a hand. “Do you suppose I would ever reproach you, of all my foes? I am sorry only to have faced you across the field, when you ought to have been by my side. Loss is the hazard of battle. O
ne who cannot bear to taste it cannot be a soldier. Now come and sit with me, and tell me how the fighting unfolded, from your side. There is nothing like being dragon-back for observing, but I could not always be aloft, yesterday, myself.”

  They sat together talking quietly of the battle and sketching maneuvers on the top of the one small table with the charred end of a stick from the fireplace. Laurence had never admired him so well in victory as in defeat: the Emperor’s resolution in the face of disaster, and his generosity to the man most directly responsible for his captivity, had true grace in it. No-one disturbed them for nearly an hour, and then a noise from the hall drew Napoleon’s head up suddenly alert, the attention of the hawk. Steps came along the hallway, softer than boot-heels, and Laurence rose as three men entered the room, attired formally: Hammond, who started to see him there, accompanied by Talleyrand and Count Metternich.

  “Admiral Laurence,” Hammond said, nearly stammering, “I wonder at—have you—”

  “His Majesty was gracious enough to receive me,” Laurence said, and would have excused himself, but the Emperor waved a hand.

  “Perhaps you will give the Prince de Bénévent your chair, as there is none other,” Napoleon said, meaning Talleyrand, “but there can be no objection to your remaining. What is done in this room must soon be known in all Europe, and you cannot leave it with a tale of dishonor, save if I fail in my oaths to France, which I trust these gentlemen know I will never do.” He spoke with an almost jocular air, but there was steel in the grey eyes.

  There was a pause, an awkward silence, as the three ministers exchanged looks. Hammond in particular plainly wished Laurence anywhere but in the room, and Metternich looked little better pleased. But Talleyrand said genially, “Surely His Majesty only speaks the truth,” and limped over to the chair; seating himself he leaned in to the Emperor and said, “Sire, I have the pleasure of delivering to you this letter, from the Empress: by the courtesy of the Tsar, I was granted the liberty of sending her a courier to inform her of your good health, and to receive this reply for you.”

  “Ah!” Napoleon said, and seized the letter with real enthusiasm; he opened and read it with an intent, hungry look, nodding to himself a little. It was not long: he read it over quickly, twice, and then put it away in his breast. “I am grateful for your kindness to Her Majesty. Now, gentlemen, I beg you not to hesitate further. Speak plainly: there is nothing to be gained by delay.”

  Talleyrand bowed towards him from the waist, in his chair. “Sire,” he said, “I will obey. It is the united demand of the allied forces that you must be removed from your throne as the price of peace. I regret that those who stand arrayed against France, on the cusp of invading her territory, refuse to consider any other outcome.”

  Napoleon made a gesture of impatience, a quick flicking up of his hand: this was of no importance. “My enemies know my life is in their power. They may kill me or banish me, as they please, but do not let them suppose that either to preserve my life or my freedom I should ever willingly yield my throne to the Bourbons, nor sacrifice the gains which the Revolution won for the French people.”

  Talleyrand remained placid in the face of this dramatic speech. “It has been agreed that Your Majesty shall abdicate in favor of your son,” he said, “with the Empress as regent.”

  Napoleon paused, silenced. After a moment, he said, “What of France?”

  “Upon your abdication, the enemy nations are prepared to sign an immediate armistice, recognizing her natural borders,” Talleyrand said. “So long as France yields to each of the allied nations a share of the dragon eggs presently laid in her breeding grounds.”

  “Belgium?” Napoleon said quickly.

  “Flanders shall be made part of the Netherlands,” Talleyrand said. “Wallonia remains to France.” There was another brief silence. “In exchange,” Talleyrand continued, when Napoleon had made no answer, “you are to surrender your throne, and retire permanently to the island of St. Helena. The British,” here he nodded to Hammond, who had a stiff, uncomfortable expression, “will undertake to guarantee your safety and comfort there, and that of your faithful dragon.”

  Laurence overheard all this, standing awkwardly by the rough fireplace and staring at the dully glowing logs, conscious of both the impropriety of listening and the impossibility of doing anything else. He was determined at first not to really hear, to listen only in the base shipboard sense of some audible noise reaching his ears by the accident of enforced proximity, which was not to be understood or repeated, or treated as knowledge in any way. But he could not help it; he heard, and knew, and he was surprised—there was no other way to describe his feelings. He was very surprised.

  The exile would be a remarkably harsh one. St. Helena was an isolate half-tenanted rock under the control of the East India Company, valuable only as a way station on the sea-journey to Asia. Its population had been entirely imported, more than half of them as slaves, and there was but a single town which catered only to the shipping. Its distance from any other shore would make it a secure prison even for a dragon, and even the long-range couriers came but infrequently, which would bar any regular communication. To imprison Napoleon there, divided so thoroughly from his wife and child and all the world, was undeniably a cruelty, and of a sort which he had never visited upon his own conquered enemies despite many opportunities to do so.

  But in every other respect these were terms offered to end a war, not ones dictated afterwards by its victors. Laurence knew it had long been the position of the British Government that Belgium must be wholly stripped from France, to safeguard Britain from another invasion; it had long been the position of all the monarchs of Europe that the legitimate kings of France should be restored. If Napoleon had been free, with all France eager and united at his back, Laurence would have been surprised to hear him offered such terms; when he was prisoner, after a sharp defeat, they seemed absurdly generous.

  He was not alone in surprise. Napoleon, too, said nothing. He sat back in his narrow, hard-backed chair, gazing at Talleyrand for a period of silence with an almost baffled expression, as though he did not know what to make of what he heard. And then abruptly his face changed. The confusion went out of it, and for one moment his hand went to his breast-pocket, where the letter from the Empress had gone. He sprang up out of his chair and walked away to the window and stood there, his back to the room; his shoulders were very straight.

  Laurence stared at him, his own confusion unabated, and then looked round at Hammond. Hammond did not meet his eye, giving every appearance of finding the bare wooden floor of their chamber an object of intense interest, and Metternich also had a constrained expression, very still and controlled, with his hands clasped before him. Talleyrand only made no appearance of discomfort or consciousness; his looks remained perfectly easy and open, milky mild. He was the one to break the silence, gently prompting, “Sire, will you make an answer?”

  Napoleon moved his hand slightly to his side, a gesture not of refusal; only of denial. He was silent a little longer, then he said, “You have the papers?”

  Metternich produced a document from his coat; after a moment Napoleon turned from the window to take it. His face was changed wholly, gone utterly remote; he might have been cut out of stone. He read over the papers quickly, without sitting down, then put them on the table and reached for his pen and bent over and signed with a single swift flourish: Napoleon. He turning handed them back to Metternich, who received them with a bow.

  “If I may express to Your Majesty—” Talleyrand began.

  “You may not,” Napoleon said over his shoulder, cold and contemptuous; not what the work of a servant who had brought him such remarkable terms ought to have deserved. He went back to the window, his hands clasped behind his back; a dismissal without a word.


  Coming out of the cottage behind the three ministers, Laurence lengthened his stride and caught Hammond by the arm. “Mr. Hammond,” he said, “I hope you will come and
greet Temeraire: he will be glad to know you are well.”

  “Oh,” Hammond said, stifled. He looked longingly at the sedan-chair waiting to carry him away, back to the headquarters, and then said, “Gentlemen, I hope you will excuse me,” with a bow to his counterparts.

  He walked away with Laurence across the field towards Temeraire, stumbling now and then, and picking his buckled shoes up out of the churned ground. Laurence waited until they were private enough, out of earshot, and said, “I find myself in a false position, Mr. Hammond, and I would be glad of your assistance to escape it: I am sorry that all the dispatches, this morning, should have spoken in such excessive and inaccurate terms of my and Temeraire’s part in the Emperor’s capture yesterday.”

  It was a shot at a venture, but it bore fruit: Hammond darted a look at him, hunted—enough, if Laurence had needed anything more than Napoleon’s own reaction, to tell him there was something underhanded at work.

  “I will certainly correct the misapprehension, as widely and as soon as I may,” he continued grimly. “If the Tswana had not disrupted his retreat, we could have done nothing, and our final capture depended entirely on the panic and flight of Napoleon’s Incan escort. The dispatches have all proposed that we captured him in the face of an enormous force of dragons, making us figure in a truly heroic light, when we have only done our duty, in I hope an honorable but not an astonishing manner.”

  “Admiral,” Hammond said, “I beg you not to repine upon—not to make an effort to—There are certain considerations—”

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