League of Dragons by Naomi Novik

  Temeraire had nothing to occupy him sufficient to distract him from these anxious observations. The Russians had no notion of aerial drill under ordinary circumstances, and on the amount of supply they possessed, all the dragons were inclined to sleep more than fly, anyway. Temeraire had made arrangements, through Grig, for some of the smaller beasts to spend the afternoon in his clearing, where Temeraire recited some poetry to them, and afterwards tried to spur them to discussion. But they mostly yawned, and then he yawned, too, and it was so very easy to drowse, even though Temeraire took very much to heart the instruction, from the Analects, that a dragon ought not spend more than fourteen hours of the day in sleep.

  He tried to read alone, or have Roland read to him from the newspapers, when one might be found in a language which she read sufficiently well—Temeraire again felt the injustice that Sipho should have gone away with his brother and Kulingile; Kulingile had gone to the Peninsular Army, where would be no shortage of English newspapers, and perhaps even books, which anybody at all could read to him; and meanwhile Roland could only read in three languages, and not very well in any of them—or he might amuse himself by doing some mathematical problems in his head, only these made him drowsy as well.

  So he was very much at leisure to worry, and think up new sideways questions which might approach the question of Laurence’s health. None of these produced a satisfactory answer. Laurence was not tired; Laurence was not too hot, nor too cold; Laurence did not have the head-ache. Laurence did indeed recall vomiting over the side during that typhoon in the year six, but he did not feel the least inclination to be similarly ill at present.

  “Laurence,” Temeraire said finally in desperation, “perhaps you have heard of typhus?”

  “I have,” Laurence said. “It is going through the hospitals, I am afraid; poor devils.”

  “Oh! The hospitals only?” Temeraire said, much relieved. “You would have no thought of typhus, would you?”

  “What, of being ill? None whatsoever. Whence has this sudden concern for my health arisen?” Laurence said, raising his head from his pistols, which he was cleaning.

  “Only, I do not quite understand,” Temeraire said, “how your father seems to have died in his bed, and you have been so very quiet—”

  Laurence said, “My father was seventy-two, and had been ill a long time, my dear; I may hope for another two score years myself, if nothing should—” He stopped very abruptly.

  Temeraire was immediately alarmed, and only more so, when Laurence said, “Temeraire, I beg your pardon. I am not ill; but it is true that my thoughts are occupied. I am sorry that I should have let you see it, when I cannot confide their subject to you; honor demands my silence at present. Having said so much, I trust you will not press me further.”

  “And I did not, but I very much wished to,” Temeraire said to Churki, unhappily, that afternoon, when Laurence had left with Hammond on yet another social occasion. Laurence’s speech had done nothing to make Temeraire feel less uneasy: entirely the reverse. Laurence’s idea of honor was very peculiar, and nearly all-encompassing; it had led him into dangerous situations before now.

  “I should think so,” Churki said. “Why did you not insist on being informed further at once? What if he has got himself into some difficulty, which you ought to manage for him? Men do not always like interference, and by and large,” she added, “I do not hold with unnecessary interference; they ought to be allowed to manage their own affairs. But there are some matters which a respectable dragon ought not allow to go forward among her people; why, I have known men to be lured out of their ayllu to visit a woman in another, and then they are snatched up by some other dragon and never seen again, all because their own dragon did not intervene soon enough.”

  “Well, I am sure Laurence has not been visiting some woman,” Temeraire said uneasily; it did occur to him that Laurence had been attending all these parties, at which he understood there were a great many ladies all in very dazzling gowns; and Laurence did have odd notions about what might be due the reputation of a gentlewoman. “Perhaps you are right; perhaps I ought to inform myself. Roland,” he said, turning to break in on her sword-drill with Baggy, “Roland, you would not happen to know which party Laurence has gone to, this afternoon? You might go after him, and just keep an eye upon him.”

  Baggy dropped his sword at once and sat down looking grateful for the respite: he was finally filling out his well-stretched frame little by little, but remained still very lanky.

  “I mightn’t at all,” Roland said, with feeling, wiping sweat and strands off her brow; she wore her sandy hair braided in a queue, but a great deal of it had escaped during the practice: her enthusiasm for the exercise was considerably greater than Baggy’s. “I should have to put on a dress. You had better ask Forthing to go after him, or Ferris: he can do the pretty when he has to.”

  “Ferris, certainly,” Temeraire said, mindful of the wretched condition of Mr. Forthing’s coat, which he could hardly bear to have seen even within the confines of the covert, much less out in the world, as associated with any officer of his; neither was his appearance at all improved by the large wadding of bandages bound up over the wound in his cheek. “—pray ask him to go at once, if you please.”

  “I’ll go!” Baggy volunteered, and scrambled up and away with a flailing of thin limbs and an expression of relief.

  Ferris went out in a condition of which any dragon might be proud: in a neat grey coat, freshly sponged down and with a golden stick-pin in the lapel, trousers faultlessly white and boots well-polished. “I will find him, never fret, Temeraire,” Ferris said. “I have enough Russian to ask about, and there aren’t so many aviators about that people won’t remember a flying-coat.”

  “And perhaps you might find Grig for me,” Temeraire said to Roland, after Ferris had gone, just in case: if any other dragon had been nosing about Laurence, Grig was sure to know of it.

  But Grig did not need to be summoned: he was at that very moment darting into the clearing in a rush. “Temeraire, some of those ferals have returned, that you asked to go west for you; but they have come in over Symerka’s clearing, and he thinks they are trying to get at his treasure.”

  “Oh! What treasure has he got to speak of, but three silver plates, dented!” Temeraire said, in some exasperation.

  But this paucity in no wise deterred Symerka, who was indeed beating aloft furiously, launching himself at the two cowering ferals, who together could have fit under one of his wings. Temeraire had to roar very loudly to get his attention; so that the entire infantry battalion at the foot of the hill burst out of their tents and began milling around, and a few of them fired guns in panic.

  “These are my guests, who have come to bring us intelligence, not to take anything,” Temeraire said to Symerka severely, putting himself in front of the ferals. “You cannot be supposing everyone a thief, and jumping on them without so much as a word.”

  “Well, as you are vouching for them,” Symerka said, “I suppose they are all right; but I am sure that one looked towards my plates,” he added, stretching his neck as he flew back and forth before them a few more times, before at last subsiding and returning to his clearing.

  “I am sorry you should have had so unfriendly a welcome,” Temeraire said to the ferals: it was their chief come back again, and one other with her, a thin pale-grey creature almost as white as Lien, except with grey eyes instead of red. Temeraire was sorrier yet when the feral chief declared herself quite overset, and in need of restoration after their fright: she could not speak a word until they were fed. The quartermaster refused to be of any use, and in any case the dinner porridge would not be ready for another four hours yet. Roland had to be sent down to the city with a gold coin, and Temeraire then had to see this go down the gullets of his visitors in the form of two handsome round-bellied pigs.

  “Now then,” Temeraire said pointedly, when at last they had licked the last specks of blood from their muzzles.

“First,” the feral chief said, uncowed, “I should like us to be very clear on terms. I suppose you would agree I have had a share in bringing you the message, even if I don’t bring it myself, so long as I introduce you to someone who does?”

  “Certainly,” Temeraire said, “and that is quite enough of terms to discuss, until there is such a message, as I suppose you mean that you don’t have it.”

  “Well, no,” she said, “not yet: Bistorta here was not ready to believe me, that there was gold in it, and she says it is getting dangerous to go into France.”

  “They are all gone mad for this Napoleon down there,” the pale-grey dragon said, in French, when Temeraire inquired of her. “All of them, whether they are harnessed or no. It has come to be so that they will herd you down for questioning as a spy if they do not know you. But your Prussian friends are there, yes, in the breeding grounds outside Moirans-en-Montaigne: I have seen them. It used to be I would take a sheep off their herders now and then, before the patrols grew so unfriendly. But these days, I would not risk going in except for gold, and as I told Molic here, I will believe in gold when I see it in front of my face; although you have certainly given us a handsome meal,” she added, “and so behold, I am ready to be persuaded.” She folded her wings neatly and tucked her head back in an expectant curve.

  Temeraire sighed deeply and resigned himself to salting the wound: Roland and Baggy were told off to display the golden plate service once more, and the appreciative sighs of his guests only made him feel, all the more, what he would be losing. But he cheered himself that Bistorta could not say for certain whether Eroica himself were there, nor recall the names of any particular Prussian dragons; she might be entirely mistaken.

  “But I will certainly attempt it,” she said, after one last acquisitive squint at the engraving upon the largest platter. “Oh! Will I not! But tell me now what I must say to this fellow Eroica, when I find him.”

  “If you should find him,” Temeraire said, with emphasis, “you shall tell him that Dyhern is quite at liberty, and here with us, and we should like him to rejoin; and also all his comrades. Roland,” he turned his head, “I do not suppose you can learn from Dyhern which other Prussian aviators have been set free? Without telling them why, of course: Laurence is quite right that Dyhern ought not be distressed, when very likely we will not find Eroica after all.”

  This list took some time to obtain; the ferals did not object to the delay, nor to eating a substantial share of Temeraire’s dinner when the porridge did at length finally come. “Eating fat, morning and night,” Molic said, with a replete sigh; her belly was noticeably rounded. “It makes you think twice about harness, doesn’t it?”

  “No, it does not,” Bistorta said positively. “I mean no offense,” she added, “but it is not for me: following orders from one, who takes orders from another, for the sake of a third. Some of those dragons in France, they have never met this Napoleon at all, yet now they are ready to fight if you so much as hint he is not made of diamonds, all because he has given them a few pavilions and firework-shows. For me, I will stay in the mountains and be free; I would rather sleep in a meadow than beneath a painted roof.”

  “Firework-shows,” Temeraire muttered, in fresh irritation: he was quite sure that the French dragons did not have to arrange their own entertainments; Napoleon would certainly see them invited to any general triumph.

  At last Roland came with the list, written out in large letters, and Temeraire read it out to Bistorta; she listened carefully and permitted Roland to strap the list onto her foreleg, wrapped in several layers of oilskin and tucked into a map-case. “That will do,” she said, shaking it to be sure it wouldn’t fall off. “As long as I can take it off with my teeth, if I need to.”

  “Perhaps we had better stay until morning?” Molic said hopefully, meaning breakfast, but Bistorta had been too much inspired by the display of gold to wait; she nodded a farewell and was aloft, Molic trailing after her with a little more reluctance. Temeraire saw them go, and then noticed the aviators were going to their beds; it had grown late.

  “Why, Laurence has been gone a long while,” Temeraire said, “and Ferris is not back, either—I suppose he has found them, and has stayed in their company,” he added, striving not to be anxious, unnecessarily anxious. “I wonder where they are.”

  A CARRIAGE HAD BEEN WAITING for them, as close to the covert as the driver and his horses were willing to come. Hammond led Laurence to it with a miserable and anxious look, but in silence. Laurence had nothing he wished to say, and Hammond did not breach the wall of reserve which had risen around him.

  The streets were busy with mid-day traffic, and their progress was slow. Laurence sat in the close stuffy box and watched the city move past through the window. “I am sorry for the inconvenient timing,” Hammond at last ventured. “The gentleman’s friends would not agree to meet earlier; they expressed doubts of his being entirely sober, by then.”

  Laurence only inclined his head. He could not find any emotion within but a concern for Temeraire’s unhappiness, and this he could only permit himself to feel distantly. Hammond blamed himself that matters had come to such a pass, but wrongly; he had made every effort—he had made too much of an effort. His discreet inquiries to the Russian Imperial household had brought an instant answer: Baron Dobrozhnov was certainly beneath a prince of China, and the Tsar would as certainly order his immediate execution, for having offended an ally of such importance.

  “But of course, you need make no official complaint,” Hammond had tried, desperately, after he had very reluctantly conveyed the message to Laurence.

  “Have you heard from the gentleman’s friends?” Laurence had said, ignoring him, and to do Hammond credit, he did not pursue the attempt; it was absurd to suppose that the world would not know of it, if Laurence refused to meet Dobrozhnov by standing on the grounds of his Imperial rank.

  He was not afraid; some deadening of the natural instinct of self-preservation had grown habitual, from long use, and he did not think he had anything to fear but his own harm or injury. The usual arguments for the prohibition of dueling, by an aviator, did not hold in his own case. Most dragons little felt the significance of their fighting work; they received no encouragement to be attached, themselves, to the causes for which they fought, and when their captains died would not remain in the field. But Temeraire would not abandon the struggle against Napoleon only because he was bereaved, thinking of nothing but his own grief and caring nothing for the larger cause; Temeraire would carry on their work.

  Perhaps half an hour past the city walls, the carriage slowed as the wheels turned into a dirt lane and halted. Laurence opened the door: they had halted near a small stand of trees, on a narrow street barely dug out of the snow, ice mingled with pebbles and dust underfoot. A small solitary farmhouse stood atop a nearby hill, dark, with a peculiar weathercock in the shape of a rabbit; a few shaggy dark cows with snow dusted across the tops of their backs were browsing at a pile of hay in a nearby meadow. They were alone as yet: the cattle watched incuriously as Laurence and Hammond walked through the packed snow towards the trees. Beneath the laden branches, the ground was nearly clear, browsed down to the grass beneath.

  “Perhaps he will not come,” Hammond said. “Maybe his friends have persuaded him…”

  Laurence did not listen; he marked out the clearing and its length with his eye, noted that the wind was high enough to alter a bullet’s course. He was sorry that Dobrozhnov was not a military man; he disliked having so much advantage, where he could not be conciliatory. The wind was cold, and he walked back and forth, swinging his arms, to keep his blood moving. Hammond shivered beneath his heavy fur coat and hat. The time dragged. Laurence was conscious of the slow shift of the shadows of the tree-branches upon the snow.

  “You are certain you have not mistaken the place?” he said finally.

  “Quite certain,” Hammond said. “Baron Von Karlow mentioned the rabbit; and that is his groom up there wit
h our driver, who gave us the direction. But Captain, if the other gentleman is late, perhaps has chosen not to come—”

  “We will wait another quarter of an hour,” Laurence said.

  At the very end of this period, they saw in the distance a carriage approaching slowly; in another ten minutes it had drawn up, the horses only lightly exercised. “You have certainly made very poor time,” Hammond said, sharply, when the gentlemen descended; a doctor followed them out of the carriage.

  “I am very sorry,” Baron Von Karlow said, heavily, with a strange emphasis. Laurence knew him a little: another Prussian officer who had thrown in with the Russians rather than accept the French yoke, like Dyhern; he had distinguished himself in the battle of Maloyaroslavets. The friendship had likely a pecuniary ground: Dobrozhnov was wealthy, and given to sponsoring Prussian officers who required some support.

  Von Karlow bowed to Laurence very stiffly; his look was unhappy and constrained. Laurence belatedly understood: they had not come so late by accident. Dobrozhnov had kept him waiting, in the cold, deliberately.

  That gentleman looked better than the last time Laurence had seen him; clear-eyed and his skin no longer flushed with drink, although the bruise across his cheek had purpled. He avoided Laurence’s eyes, and said, “Well, let us get on with it,” and walked away to the other side of the clearing.

  “Captain,” Hammond said, low and angry; he, too, had understood. “I will require a delay, and see if we cannot arrange for something hot to drink; the goodwife of the farmhouse, perhaps, would provide—”

  “No,” Laurence said. He felt a heavy weariness and dismay, as if Dobrozhnov had gone to his knees and begged for his life. “There is no need. I have killed men in colder weather than this.”

  Hammond took the dueling-pistols to the center of the clearing, and met Von Karlow there; they inspected the weapons together. Hammond took some time over the examination, and carried the pistols back with the case tucked under his arm and his ungloved hands wrapped around the guns, warming them. Laurence was grateful, for the sentiment more than the act; the fire of Hammond’s indignation lifted some of the oppression from his own spirits. He took one of the pistols, checked it, and nodded to Hammond; Von Karlow turned from his side and nodded as well. He walked back to the middle of the clearing and held up his handkerchief.

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