League of Dragons by Naomi Novik
“No,” Laurence said. “I mean to retire, when we have returned. I have enough money to keep Temeraire, now, and enough of a countenance to ask my brother to put us up on one of the farms.”
Or they might return to Australia, or to China: Temeraire had every right to ask that of him, now that the war was won. Laurence did not mean to refuse him; he only hoped to go back to Wollaton Hall first, and find a way to carry it with him, somehow. He longed in a deep inward part for Britain, for home: to see the house standing at twilight with all the windows lit, a child’s memory of peace. He could even be grateful there for the counterfeit honors that had been heaped onto his head, if they gave his mother some peace, and if his brother need not be ashamed to give him a field for Temeraire to sleep in, for a little while.
“I am glad to know,” Edith said, low, when Laurence had finished. She sighed once, deeply, and looked out into the south field, where her son was now climbing all over Temeraire’s forelegs with Laurence’s three nephews. They had spent the first week of Temeraire’s residence plastered to the windows of their nursery, under the confining hand of their nurse; but a few of the village boys, less supervised, had made a game of daring one another to come and touch Temeraire’s tail, and observing them from the window had been too much for high spirits to endure. The middle boy had dared his elder, the dare had been reciprocated, and by the time Temeraire had woken, the boys had managed to scale his back and were busily defeating Napoleon in a grand aerial battle bearing a strong resemblance to the highly fictional accounts which had lately filled the newspapers.
“Well, that is not how it happened at all,” Temeraire had informed them, turning his head round, and all three children had gone very still and quiet, but the story recommended itself too highly not to overcome what, their exasperated mother lectured them that night, was a relatively slight concern for the preservation of life and limb.
Her lectures and the protests of their nurse had not had much effect. Old wooden swords had been unearthed from a chest the next day, and endless battles fought since then. Edith’s son had lasted five minutes clinging to her skirts before he had run out through the garden gates to join the irresistible game, and she had not held him back, though her hands curled in her lap as though she half-wished to restrain him.
“I am glad he should not be afraid of dragons,” she said, despite a little anxiety in her looks: the boy was her only child.
“I assure you Temeraire will have a care,” Laurence said to her. Temeraire indeed was in danger of showing too much care, as he had begun to inquire of Laurence whether the boys might not really be considered as under his protection, by virtue of their connection.
“Churki writes,” he had said a little wistfully, “that she has met Hammond’s family at last, and there are twenty-six of them, if one counts the smallest children and his cousins, which she does.” He sighed a bit enviously. “She has already set about building them a larger house,” he added, “and helped their tenants plow their fields more quickly, which she says was of the greatest assistance, because so many of the young men have been away at the war, and are not returned yet. Laurence, oughtn’t we plow this field?”
“No, it is resting this year,” Laurence had answered. “But if you are in want of occupation, I am sure my brother’s steward would be delighted to have your assistance.” He had been surprised to find a thriving clan of Yellow Reapers established just outside Nottingham, who were now a regular sight throughout the city and the surrounding countryside, most commonly carrying large loads of coal from the pits but willing to take on other work as well; they had been of use on the estate more than once, his brother had said.
Temeraire had indeed found some satisfaction, since then, in bringing in prodigious loads of timber and stone required for repairs, and offering to bring more, if they should care to repair the ruins of the abbey behind the house, which had burnt down sometime in the eleventh century. He had even offered his services to their neighbors, one of whom was Edith’s father.
Lady Galman had included Laurence in a subsequent invitation for the families to dine together, and he had with some hesitation accepted. No number of accolades would ever make him easy going into society again, but he had wished to speak with Edith. He had written long years ago, by his mother, to acquaint her with the manner of her husband’s death during the invasion of Britain, which had borne a sufficiently heroic character for him to wish her to know of it, in hopes of its relieving some of the pain of her loss. But he felt the inadequacy of such an indirect account, and the obligation to do better, if she wished to know more.
“I am glad to know,” she said now: they had spoken briefly at dinner, and she had called this morning, for a chance of more privacy. “And glad to have the power to tell my son, when he is older. I only wish…” She stopped a moment, and Laurence was not certain she meant to continue. “I only wish I might not feel Bertram had pursued a course for which no training or inclination had fitted him,” she said finally, low, “in an effort to secure my good opinion. He ought to have been certain of it.”
Laurence was silent. It had been long years since he and Edith had spoken on such terms of intimacy, but there had been long separations between them before, demanded by a naval career, and he did not pretend that he did not understand her. If Bertram Woolvey had never made himself notorious, neither had he made himself notable, before his death. He had been a gentleman, and he had offered his wife a comfortable home and a place in respectable society, when Laurence could no longer aspire to either. But a man might well have wished to figure in his wife’s eyes as something other than a safe harbor, if she had once looked for more.
“His aid was material,” he said finally: the only comfort he could give. “I do not know if we would have succeeded in freeing Iskierka, without his help, and her loss would have been disastrous.”
Edith nodded a little, her head still bowed. Then she lifted it and smiled at him, with an effort. “Will you be in Nottingham long? Or does duty call you away again soon?”
“Duty, no. I have retired from the Corps,” he said. “Inclination may yet: Britain is not a hospitable country for dragons. But we have made no plans.”
That night, after the light had begun to fail and Laurence had closed the book, Temeraire said, “Laurence, there does not seem to be anything more that needs doing, on the estate, where I can be of any material use: Mr. Jacobs,” this being his brother’s steward, “has assured me of it.”
“It was kind in you to undertake the effort,” Laurence said. “You need not feel that you must earn your keep, my dear: we are well in funds. We ought not outstay our welcome, but we have not done so yet. My brother has assured me he does not regard our presence as an inconvenience, nor does the neighborhood object.” Laurence had rather met with expressions of satisfaction that Britain’s heroic dragon was staying near-by. As the news of Temeraire’s presence had spread, he had even lately seen plates with Temeraire painted upon them displayed for sale in the city, and coaches were given to pausing, on the road passing the estate, so passengers might climb out and have a look from afar. He did not expect the fad to last for long, but he was glad not to have forced his brother to endure the complaints of his neighbors.
“No, only, I am not quite certain what we ought to do with ourselves,” Temeraire said. “I thought I had deferred so many things for the sake of the war, and now I cannot think of any of them; or perhaps I am thinking of all of them at once, so none of them are coming clear in my head.” He sighed a little. “I am glad you have retired, and the Admiralty cannot send us anywhere unpleasant now, but there is no denying there was something useful in being sent, and given something to do.”
Laurence drew a deep breath. “Do you wish to return to China?” He had expected as much, and prepared for it. He was only glad to have had the opportunity to come home for so long. He had seen his mother, and seen her at peace; she had moved to the dower house, only a little distance from the
Temeraire was silent. “I would like to visit China again,” he said slowly, “but I do not know what there is for me to do there, if we were to remain, besides being as awkward a guest as here. And I would be sorry to leave all my friends, just when we finally have the power of seeing them anytime we like. It is only half a day’s flight to Dover, and Lily and Maximus, or to Edinburgh, if I would like to see Iskierka—not that I would precisely like to see Iskierka,” he added quickly—there had been a certain degree of unbecoming smugness on the subject of Granby’s promotion to Admiral, which had provoked a quarrel that was not yet made up, “but Granby is with her, of course, and you should like to see him sometimes, I am sure.
“It is not as comfortable here as in China, of course, and even where there are pavilions they are not nearly as nice, but I must be fair: things have come along a considerable distance. I remember when I could not go anywhere, without people running and screaming—I thought it was only something people did, like cows. And now they wave handkerchiefs at me from the hill, if I look up at them, and the steward spoke to me in a perfectly sensible way. Perscitia tells me that it is because of our work—well, she says it is mostly due to her work, but I know she would rather have me stay, and help her. Only, I am not sure how we would go about doing so, if we did.”
A carriage had been coming along the road as they sat together, the lanterns bobbing to show its progress through the twilight, and the well-hooded horses clopping along steadily, blissfully ignorant of Temeraire’s near presence. The carriage had halted on the road, and a gentleman had come out of it; he had not been content merely to observe from afar, but had come across the field towards them, and now Temeraire raised his head, his ruff pricking up, and said, “Why, Tharkay, how elegant you look.”
“I hope you will forgive the intrusion,” Tharkay said; he was indeed dressed with unusual splendor, in magnificently polished Hessians, with a many-caped greatcoat, and a walking-stick topped in gold.
“You are very welcome, Tenzing,” Laurence said, rising to shake his hand, “if unexpected: we looked for you in Paris.”
“As enjoyable as the display of the Empress’s powers must have been to observe, I was called away on my personal business,” Tharkay said. “One might have supposed a law-suit which has consumed the better part of twenty years might support a few weeks’ further delay, but under the circumstances, I did not wish to hazard it.”
“You have won your case, then?” Laurence said.
“I have,” Tharkay said. “Not without several interventions on my behalf: I must thank you again for your testimony.”
“I suspect it has served you more ill than good, since I made it,” Laurence said, “but if my present fame has made it of value again, I can only be glad.”
“Oh, your star falls and rises with enough regularity that it was only a matter of time,” Tharkay said. “And Her Grace’s power is at present very great.”
“So you have your estates at last!” Temeraire said jubilantly, and without delay inquired, “And pray, what is the rent-roll; do I have that right? Or the income per annum?”
“Shamefully low,” Tharkay said. “My cousins and the trustee have neglected all improvements, and plundered as much as they could; it will be some time before I have restored things to order. However, in one particular, the estate is desirable: perhaps you know about the new seats which have been set aside, for dragons?”
“Oh, yes!” Temeraire said. “Twenty of them; Perscitia wrote to me.”
“The Government has established nearly all the seats in isolate regions of the countryside, and managed to put all the population of serving-beasts and retired dragons, in the breeding grounds, into three: the boundary-lines have been quite creatively drawn. The others are peopled almost entirely by ferals, and the Government supposes them unlikely to appear for voting.”
Temeraire snorted. “We must trust them to always carry out their promises in the most scaly manner, I suppose. Well, Perscitia and I must just manage it. I will ask Ricarlee to run: I am sure Parliament deserves him.”
“I am informed,” Tharkay said, “that my own lands fall in one such empty district. As the area is entirely devoid of dragons so far as I know, I am sorry there is not much company on offer, but I have a notable forest for deer-hunting, and I should be delighted to make you free of any place you like to put up a pavilion, and make yourselves at home.”
“I am afraid we are inconvenient houseguests,” Laurence said, bemused. “Are you certain you wish to make so extended an invitation?”
“I quite look forward to figuring as a tyrant in the imagination of my tenantry,” Tharkay said, in his way. They spoke a little while longer, as the sun went down, and made arrangements to meet for breakfast the following morning, at Tharkay’s hotel; then he took his leave again, with the tact that plainly meant to permit them private conversation.
“Why Laurence, I call that handsome,” Temeraire said. “Do you suppose you should like it? But perhaps you would rather we went back to our pavilion, in Australia: I know you are not fond of politics.”
For a moment, the sun rose out of the Blue Mountains and shone red-gold on the cut stone floor of the half-finished pavilion, spilled down light into the valley below and over the softly lowing herd of cattle: another memory of home, of peace and simplicity. But that could only be a flight, almost a surrender. The reward of true service, surely, was to be asked for more; and Laurence could not claim Temeraire’s work was done, even if his own might have been called so.
“No, my dear,” Laurence said. “I do not think a life of quiet retirement is our lot, nor yet should be; and our valley will wait until that has changed.” He laid his hand on Temeraire’s muzzle and looked north and west, towards the curve of the ocean, towards home. “Tharkay’s estates are in the Peaks: I think you will like the countryside very much.”
“I am sure I will, Laurence,” Temeraire said. “And surely it will be famous, to be in Parliament.”
To Charles sine qua non
BY NAOMI NOVIK
THE TEMERAIRE SERIES
His Majesty’s Dragon
Throne of Jade
Black Powder War
Empire of Ivory
Victory of Eagles
Tongue of Serpants
Crucible of Gold
Blood of Tyrants
League of Dragons
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
NAOMI NOVIK is the acclaimed author of the Temeraire series: His Majesty’s Dragon, Throne of Jade, Black Powder War, Empire of Ivory, Victory of Eagles, Tongues of Serpents, Crucible of Gold, Blood of Tyrants, and League of Dragons. She has been nominated for the Hugo Award and has won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, as well as the Locus Award for Best New Writer and the Compton Crook Award for Best First Novel. She is also the author of Uprooted and the graphic novel Will Supervillains Be on the Final?
Fascinated with both history and legends, Novik is a first-generation American raised on Polish fairy tales and stories of Baba Yaga. Her own adventures include pillaging degrees in English literature and computer science from various ivory towers, designing computer games, and helping to build the Archive of Our Own for fanfiction and other fanworks. Novik is a co-founder of the Organization for Transformative Works.
She lives in New York City with her husband, Charles Ardai, the founder of Hard Case Crime, and their daughter, Evidence, surrounded by an excessive number of purring computers.
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Naomi Novik, League of Dragons