League of Dragons by Naomi Novik

  “I do not see myself why we ought to be sharing with those dragons,” Grig said, peering over Temeraire’s shoulder.

  “That is because you are very shortsighted,” Temeraire said, but he knew perfectly well that he could not start a quarrel with the quartermaster over the food: that was a sure road to having all the Russian dragons join in, all of them trying to get more of it for themselves, and then all the food would be spoilt, or nearly; he had seen it happen more than once. “Laurence,” he called instead, and when Laurence came from his tent, he explained the circumstances.

  “That the attempt ought to be made is certain, and cheap at the cost of some porridge: I will speak to the quartermaster,” Laurence said soberly. “But pray do not speak of this project before Dyhern: it can only be cruelty to raise hopes whose fulfillment is so uncertain. I very much hope that your efforts will be answered, but you must not expect a positive reply. We are a thousand miles from France, and I would be astonished if Bonaparte had not taken the cream of the Prussian aerial forces straight to his own breeding grounds.”

  He went to draw the quartermaster aside. While they conferred, Temeraire considered Laurence’s warning; he could not help but see that it would be very difficult to get word from so far away. The ferals should certainly grow bored, or decide that they did not want the trouble of crossing through someone else’s territory.

  When the porridge was finally served out, and the ferals had eaten, Temeraire announced, “And if someone should really bring me word of Eroica, I will even give them—” he drew a deep breath and went on, heroically, “—I will give them this box full of gold plate. Roland, will you unlatch it, if you please?”

  Not without a pang, he watched her lift the lid to display the contents: the heaped plates of Napoleon’s own service, stamped with eagles around the letter N, lustrous and beautifully polished. The ferals all sighed out as one, as well they might: Temeraire could almost not bear to really mean it, although he had steeled himself to make the offer.

  He drew his eyes away with an effort. “But,” he added sternly, to the wide upturned eyes of the ferals as they looked at him, “I do not mean to be taken in; I must be able to tell that the message really is from Eroica, otherwise I will certainly not give the reward.”

  The ferals flew away, fortified and inspired, already making plans with one another gleefully about how they should share the treasure, or a few loudly announcing that they should find Eroica all alone, and not have to share it at all. Temeraire looked dismally at the box. “Pray close it up and put it away, Roland,” he said, feeling it was already lost; he sighed and felt that after this, at least no-one should say he was unwilling to make sacrifices for the war.

  What is happening with the egg? You have been very slow in sending me reports these last few weeks, and I cannot see any good reason for it, when the French have just been running away and you have not even had any fighting.

  We have been very busy here ourselves. I am sorry to say that Wellesley, or Wellington, or whatever his name is at present, insisted on our retreating back on Ciudad Rodrigo for the winter, only because Soult and Jourdan came up with half a dozen dragons and some few thousand men; and to make matters worse, the food was all sent by the wrong road, so we none of us had anything to eat, not even porridge, for four days. Fortunately, we discovered there were a great many handsome pigs running wild in the forests, which made good eating; and it was not in the least my fault if some of them ran away across the army’s march, nor can I call it unreasonable that the soldiers should have shot a few of them to eat. I cannot see why Wellington should have made such a fuss over it.

  But I took it very meekly when he shouted, and I did not even snort a little fire in his direction: I have decided I will not quarrel with him at all. I had a word with him when I came, about making Granby an admiral, and Wellington said he is quite certain Granby deserves all the honors which a grateful nation might possibly bestow, and he has promised will see they are given, if only we should get the French out of Spain.

  We will certainly manage it in the spring, even if everyone is lazing in winter quarters at present. I do not suppose you will have got them out of Germany by then, however. It is a great pity you have let Napoleon get away.


  PS: The Spanish fire-breathers are much smaller than I am.

  Temeraire received this piece of provocation with strong indignation. “And this, when I wrote to her only three days ago,” he said, his tail lashing in expression of his sentiments, and threatening to demolish a stand of young ash-trees, “as soon as we had come to Vilna, and after we have had so much trouble: nothing to eat for four days, she says, with pigs running wild everywhere just for the taking! I should have given a great deal for a pig, anytime these last four months.”

  “You must make some allowances,” Laurence said absently, reading between the lines, where Granby’s hand had noted the rather more alarming numbers which had actually provoked the retreat: 90,000 men & cavalry. “The courier-route to Portugal is sadly beset by French aerial patrols, and nearly all the post must go by sea. Iskierka will not have received your letter yet.”

  This did not much incline Temeraire to forgiveness, however, and worse yet, Iskierka’s complaint only increased his brooding concern over their egg. As this wonder of nature was presently resting within the precincts of the Imperial City in Peking, tended and watched over by a dozen anxious dragon nursemaids and a battalion of servants, he might reasonably have remained free from alarm. But while they had traveled in company with the Chinese legions, Temeraire had enjoyed near-weekly reports about the egg, relayed by Jade Dragon couriers to and from the Imperial City, and had indulged himself in any number of inquiries, suggestions, hints—every form of eager interference by which he might assure himself of the safety and welfare of his future offspring. Now that those lines of communication had been severed, their keenly felt absence made Temeraire more anxious than he might have been if they had never been opened at all.

  “You do not think, Laurence,” Temeraire said, fretful, “that one of the Cossacks might go, perhaps? They seem very handy at traveling light; and I am sure it is not above three weeks’ journey, through friendly territory.”

  This was a very fanciful way of describing a route across four thousand miles of frozen, half-deserted countryside, lately ravaged by two enormous armies and full of savagely angry feral dragons and equally angry peasants, either of which might offer violence to one of the feather-weight Cossack beasts. These, in any case, were neither especially speedy nor inclined to travel alone: as raiders and scouts they were matchless, but they were not reliable couriers.

  “I am afraid not,” Laurence said, and Temeraire sighed.

  Hammond had been on the other side of the clearing, giving a final reading to his own dispatches, which would go by the return. As Temeraire’s voice could not be called confidential, and Hammond had no notion of respecting privacy, he now intruded upon their conversation. “You are quite certain it is impossible, Captain?” he asked, which could only encourage Temeraire. “I had thought perhaps Captain Terrance might go—”

  “What’s that?” Placet said, cracking open an eye: the aforementioned Terrance was fast asleep upon the slope of his back, hat tipped over his head and snoring, having dosed himself liberally with brandy against the chill of the flight from the Baltic. “Fly to China? I should like to see us do any such mad thing. No, indeed: we have enough to do, flying back and forth to Riga, and going all over the sea trying to find wherever the ships have got to, to-day.”

  “Only it is naturally of the greatest importance to re-establish our communications with the Imperial court,” Hammond said to Laurence, as they walked together to the next of the dinner-parties: Laurence’s attendance had become de rigueur, by virtue of the Tsar’s having recognized his rank.

  That doing so was of the greatest importance to Hammond’s position, Laurence had no doubt. Hammond could hardly be considered to be fulfilling his
duty as Britain’s ambassador to China when he was halfway around the world from any representative of that nation. But what value such a connection should have to the war effort, Laurence doubted extremely.

  “We cannot expect that the Emperor will once more consent to loan us any considerable force, when we have been unable to maintain the previous one,” he said.

  “I am by no means of your mind, Captain,” Hammond said quickly. “By no means—I think you give insufficient weight to the spirit of amity which has been established between our nations, and the sense of alarm which the extent of Napoleon’s ambitions have raised, in the better-informed members of the Imperial court—”

  “An alarm which his defeat in Russia must now greatly allay,” Laurence said.

  For this Hammond had no answer. After a brief pause, he resumed by saying, “Perhaps if we were to establish a way-station, as it were? I have consulted some of the Russian maps of the northern coastline, and I thought perhaps I might propose to the Admiralty that a frigate be stationed in the Laptev Sea—”

  Laurence stared. Hammond trailed off, uncertainly. “Sir,” Laurence said, “if you are willing to delay until next August, when I believe some portions of that body of water may have melted, I suppose a ship could be navigated along the Siberian coast; she should have to get out of the Arctic before October, however.”

  “Oh,” Hammond said, and lapsed into a gloomy silence. He had given Terrance the fatal packet, with its extravagant promise of a million pounds. In three days’ time it would arrive in London; within a week, he would have an answer, and might well be recalled to England in disgrace. And if Hammond were recalled, Laurence knew he would likely be ordered back as well. Once back in Britain, he and Temeraire would undoubtedly be sent to the most unpleasant and useless posting which malice might contrive: some isolated sea-washed rock off the western shores of Scotland, with no chance of any action at all, nor communication with other dragons who might be influenced by Temeraire’s heretical notions of justice.

  He might refuse that order, of course, if it came. The Admiralty would court-martial him again, Laurence supposed, with a kind of black humor; he knew he should feel a greater distress at the prospect than he did. But indeed, the event could not cause him much pain. Even under his present circumstances, he could scarcely envision any future where he might resume a place in British society. So be it: he would let them try him in absentia, this time, and ignore the outcome. He would only need to grieve another conviction insofar as it retained the power to distress his mother.

  They had reached the steps of the house; the footman was holding the door. Laurence could not but find the contrast absurd, to step from such thoughts onto the threshold of a glittering ball and find generals and archdukes bowing to him; it lent the scene a kind of unreality, as though he sojourned briefly in a fairy-world which would vanish away as soon as he had left it.

  “They must see the necessity,” Hammond murmured worried, to himself. “They must, they must. If you please, Captain, I should like to present you to Prince Gorchakov—”

  Laurence moved through the room still suffused with that feeling of falsehood, all the world a theater-stage; the men and women he spoke to flat as playing cards, all surface and no substance. Everyone spoke of the same things, repeated the same remarks: Napoleon had been seen in Paris, Napoleon was raising another army. Ferals had destroyed the estate of Count Z—and the summer house of Princess B—. The two threads were often wound together, and Napoleon almost blamed more for having unleashed the starved and chained dragons than for his invasion, it seemed.

  “Murat should be hanged like a spy, in my opinion,” one gentleman declared, whom Laurence did not recognize: he wore a uniform free from decorations. “And his master after him, if he had not been permitted to escape! And the beasts slaughtered, one and all. A few porridge-vats full of poison—”

  “And when Napoleon returns, with a hundred of his own beasts in the air?” Laurence said, distant and dismissive; he would have turned away.

  “Then poison them, too!” the man said, glaring and belligerent. “At least I hope some hero might be found, who would go into a French camp and make the attempt, instead of this rank folly where tenderly we nurse monsters who would devour us all. Now I hear we are to take porridge out of the mouths of our own serfs, over whom God has set us as fathers and mothers, and set it out to feed the beasts—Oriental corruption! Because they are slaves to their own dragons, they would see the rest of us brought low and groveling in the dirt beside them—”

  He was drunk, Laurence realized, cheeks suffused with a stain that owed more to wine than heat. It did not matter. “Sir, you are offensive,” Laurence said. The company around them were drawing away, slightly; faces turning aside, hiding behind fans. “You must withdraw the remark.”

  “Withdraw!” the man cried. He shook off the hand of another gentleman, who was trying to whisper in his ear. “Withdraw, when murdered children cry out for justice, from the serpents’ bellies? By all the holy saints, when I think that God above sent a plague, which would have cleansed them one and all from the earth—!” Here he was forcibly interrupted, by his friend and another officer, who were both speaking to him in urgent low Russian. But he paused only a moment, and shook their hands off. “No! I will not knock my head to a man who chooses to parade himself around under the supposed dignities bestowed by a barbaric king—”

  Hammond’s hand was on his own arm, but Laurence took it away, and struck the man sharply across the face, breaking him off mid-sentence; the man fell stumbling back into the hands of his friends. Laurence turned away before he could get up again and walked for the door, quickly. People made way murmuring, glancing towards his face and looking away again. Laurence did not know what they saw written there. He felt only weary, and disgusted, and angry with himself: if he had been less distant from his company, he must have seen that he was speaking with a man too drunk to be answered. But now there was nothing to be done.

  Hammond caught him by the door and trotted down the steps beside him, his face stricken. “I hope you will act for me, Mr. Hammond,” Laurence said.

  “Captain,” Hammond said, “I must ask whether—if the gentleman should seek satisfaction, then—as I understand, there is a prohibition against dueling for aviators, strictly enforced—”

  Laurence halted in the road and turned to stare at him. “Mr. Hammond, if you can explain to me how, having agreed to call myself the son of the Emperor of China, I am to make amends to a man who has so egregiously insulted him to my face, and call myself a gentleman, much less a prince, in future, I am ready to listen.”

  Hammond gnawed on his lip. “No, no,” he said. “No, I quite see; it would entirely undermine the claim,” as though he merely considered the matter in a pragmatic light. “Ah! But wait; I am certain—I am almost certain, the gentleman is neither a prince nor an officer. As an Imperial prince, your rank, your elevated rank, must preclude your meeting anyone of such markedly inferior rank—you cannot distinguish someone so far beneath you. I must find out his name; I must speak to Kolyakin, in the Imperial household—I will call on him in the morning—”

  Laurence turned away from Hammond’s mutterings and back to the drudgery of the ice-crusted snow, his head lowered. He could not quarrel with Hammond’s point, and it aligned too well with what he knew to be his duty; and yet all feeling revolted at making such a use of the distinction which the Emperor had bestowed upon him—to deny satisfaction to a gentleman whom he had so deeply and deliberately offended. And yet the severity of the insult had merited the reproof. Laurence had struck the man precisely because he had felt he could not accept anything but an apology so complete as to be abasement. But he had done so with the intention of giving satisfaction if asked for it, as the man surely would.

  “You will speak with the gentleman’s friends, first, I hope,” Laurence said heavily, “and make it known to them that I will consider an apology. I should be glad to excuse his behavior on
the grounds of drink.” He did not like soliciting an apology for an offense so great, and he did not see how the other man could offer one remotely satisfactory without appearing a coward, after receiving a public blow. But he could not stomach giving the man no recourse at all.

  “Oh, yes, naturally,” Hammond said, already looking more relieved with every moment. “I will certainly arrange the matter.”

  “And if you cannot,” Laurence said, “I must ask you to inform the gentleman’s friends that they must be ready to get him away instantly, should any mischance befall me.”


  Temeraire roused when Laurence came back to the covert, and peered up at the stars. “I did not expect you another two hours, Laurence. Are you taken ill?” he asked, anxiously. He had overhead some of the Russian officers say that more than a thousand men had died yesterday, of some sort of fever, and Temeraire could not but recall that Laurence’s father had died in his bed, where nothing ought to have menaced him.

  “No, I am well. I did not care to stay,” Laurence said. “Shall we read something?”

  The temporary relief brought by this answer vanished by the next day: Temeraire was quite certain Laurence was not well after all. He was very silent, and spent nearly all the morning in his tent, writing letters and arranging his papers as though before a battle.

  “Would there be any chance of some of the French army coming this way, after all?” Temeraire asked, when Laurence came out at last; perhaps Laurence had not said anything, because he did not wish to raise hopes.

  But Laurence answered too easily. “I am afraid not,” he said. “I believe they have all crossed the Niemen, by last report.” So it was not that, either. Temeraire did not like to pry; he knew Laurence felt it a great rudeness to ask questions, and solicit information which had not been volunteered. But Laurence remained too-silent and grave all that day, and did not eat much of his dinner, which he took at the covert that evening for the first time since they had come to Vilna.

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