League of Dragons by Naomi Novik

  “On a count of three,” he said, “when I have dropped the handkerchief, you may fire.”

  Laurence turned his side, to present a narrow target, and took aim; Dobrozhnov also turned, and Laurence was sorry to see the man’s hand trembling, a little. He did not look at the gun, or the man’s face; he looked at his chest, chose his point, and adjusted his pistol for the wind. “One,” Von Karlow said. “Two—”

  Dobrozhnov fired. Laurence all in one moment heard the explosion, saw the smoke, and felt the impact in his whole body; a sharp, shocking blow, knocking the air from his lungs. Then he was on the ground, without any consciousness of the fall. “My God!” Von Karlow cried aloud. He sounded far away.

  Hammond was kneeling by his side in the snow, bending over him, ashen. “Captain—Captain, can you speak? Here, Doctor, at once!”

  Laurence drew a shallow breath, and another. The pain was startling, but general; he could not tell where he had been hit. Hammond’s hands were on him, and the doctor’s, opening his coat and his shirt, and then the doctor was sliding his hand down over Laurence’s back. The doctor was speaking in Russian. “Thank Heaven! He says it has gone cleanly through,” Hammond said. “Captain, do not move.”

  That was not, at present, a necessary instruction; Laurence’s arms and legs felt weighted down as though by iron bands. The doctor was already working on him with needle and thread, humming to himself, a strangely cheerful noise. Laurence scarcely felt anything beyond a little pressure; a deep chill was traveling through his body. Hammond spoke to the doctor and then he bent down and took the pistol from Laurence’s hand and stood. Laurence heard him saying, with icy formality, “Sir, I hope you will agree with me that a return of fire is required, under the circumstances of this unhappy accident. I am ready to oblige your party at any time.”

  “I agree, unquestionably,” Von Karlow answered, his voice harsh.

  “It was an accident,” Dobrozhnov was saying, his voice trembling, “—a perfect accident. Bozhe! My finger slipped—”

  He stopped talking; neither of the other two men spoke. After a moment he said, “Of course—of course. But we should see if the gentleman will recover to take his own shot—a hour can do no harm—”

  “Such agitation of his wound can in no wise be recommended,” Hammond said. “Nor that he go on lying here, in cold, any longer than he has already been kept in it. I add, sir, that I will be delighted to stand for another exchange of fire, should the completion of the first not achieve a decisive result. We may alternate, and so go on as you have begun.”

  “I agree to your proposal on behalf of my party,” Von Karlow said.

  Their united coldness was not less palpable than the frozen ground; Dobrozhnov said, “—yes. Yes, of course.”

  His footsteps crunched away a small distance, and then halted. Laurence opened his eyes. He had not been conscious of closing them. The doctor was still humming, and putting a thick compress upon the wound. The sky above had that peculiar blue brightness of a very cold day. The sun had already passed its zenith. Laurence heard, a moment later, the explosion of a second pistol, and Dobrozhnov’s exclamation.

  “Well, sir?” Hammond said. “Can your party continue?”

  “My arm is hit,” Dobrozhnov said.

  “A graze to the off-arm,” Von Karlow said. “The wound is not grave.”

  “I do not know any reason why I must wish the other gentleman harm,” Dobrozhnov said. “I am very willing to consider the matter closed.”

  Von Karlow said, after a moment, heavily, “Do you consider honor satisfied, sir?”

  “Under the circumstances, I think I must request a second exchange,” Hammond said. “Your party may fire whenever ready.”

  There was a brief pause. Laurence was already a little more aware of himself. He would have tried to sit up; the doctor pressed his shoulders back to the ground with the firmness of a nursemaid to a small child. Laurence shut his eyes again, and heard the pistol-shot, a thick hollow wooden thump; the bullet had hit a tree.

  “You may fire when ready,” Von Karlow said, after a moment.

  A second shot. Dobrozhnov gasped. The doctor made an impatient grunt, and pushed himself up and left Laurence’s side. Hammond was there in his place, a moment later. “Pray hold still, Captain,” he said. “I will get the driver; we will remove you to the farmhouse in a moment.”

  He stood up again. “Sir, is honor satisfied, on your side?”

  “My party cannot answer, but I consider the matter closed,” Von Karlow said. “I hope you will permit me to express my regret for any irregularity; I would be glad to shake your hand, sir, if you would take my own.”

  “I am very glad to do so, sir; I find no fault in your arrangements,” Hammond said.

  A fence stile was brought, and the driver helped Hammond put him on it. Laurence was by then conscious only of cold; the movement caused him some discomfort, but this was brief, and he knew very little of the next passage of time. Bare tree-branches like lacework crossing over his field of vision; the warm stink of cows and pasture; the cry of several anxious chickens; the thump of a fist on a door, and then finally warmth again: they lay him near the fireplace, a roast on the spit turning and a sizzle of fat on the logs. Footsteps came and went around him; voices spoke, but they largely spoke in Lithuanian—a peculiar music not at all like Russian or German to his ear. He drifted, or slept, or dozed; then he opened his eyes and looked at the window. It was dark outside. “Temeraire will have missed me,” he said aloud, and reaching groped for something to help him sit up.

  He could not manage it. He fell back gasping to the floor. A woman came to his side—he stared up at her: a girl not twenty years of age, extraordinarily beautiful with clear green eyes and dark-brown hair; she returned the stare with immense interest. A sharp word drew her away; Laurence turned his head and found her mother glaring at him, with the same green eyes. Laurence inclined his head a little, trying to convey his lack of ill-intentions, if that were necessary under the circumstances.

  His chest ached. A dressing was wrapped around his body, pressing upon the ribs. Blood had not quite soaked through the topmost level on the front. “Captain,” Hammond said, kneeling beside him. “Are you—do you feel improved?”

  “Temeraire,” Laurence said, saving his breath.

  “Von Karlow has gone back to town,” Hammond said. “He has promised to send a message to the covert that we have been asked to stay the night at a hunting-lodge, outside the town. Pray try and rest. Are you in a great deal of pain?”

  “No.” There was no use in saying anything else. Laurence closed his eyes.


  Forthing read out Laurence’s note loudly: it was brief, but quite clear; Laurence would not come back to-day. “Oh,” Temeraire said, disappointed; he had anticipated with pleasure revealing the initial success of his scheme. Laurence would surely approve all his arrangements, and in particular the generosity of his offering so remarkable a reward, and the result which it had already achieved. Indeed, Temeraire had quite counted upon that approval to salve the regrets which could not help but assail him, when he thought too long about the burnished luster of the golden plates, and imagined himself handing them over.

  At least he had hoped to enjoy the satisfaction of showing Laurence that he, too, was not a slave to fortune; that he was quite willing to make the most extraordinary sacrifices in a worthy cause. There did not seem to Temeraire to be any need to defer that enjoyment until the final outcome was determined; after all, he had already made the gesture, and even now suffered the pains of anticipation. Even if Bistorta should not find Eroica in the end, Temeraire had still committed himself, and might as well have the credit of so doing.

  So he sighed; but he only meant to resign himself to waiting, and thought nothing more of the note, until Churki said, “There is something I don’t care for going on here. Lay that out where I can put an eye on it.”

  There was a great deal of sharp authority in her to
ne; Forthing had automatically spread the letter open on the rock before he recalled she was not properly entitled to give him orders. But by then Churki had already bent her head, and was peering closely at the small note; she said, “I thought so; it did not sound like something Hammond would have written, and that is not his hand. Is it your Laurence’s?”

  Temeraire peered at the letter very closely. It was difficult to make out the very small letters, but finally he decided that it was not.

  “And the contents are too scanty for my taste. Where is this hunting-lodge, and who is their host?” Churki said. “Hammond is not given to sailing off without good reason, and he dislikes hunting extremely; whyever has he gone to such a place? None of this looks reliable. Whatever peculiar business your Laurence is engaged upon, it looks to me as though he has drawn Hammond into it, too.”

  “When Laurence has only been going about town because Hammond has made him go into society!” Temeraire said, but this protest was distracted; if anything had happened, it was surely not Laurence’s fault, at all, but in every other respect he found Churki’s remarks uncomfortably plausible.

  “And we will have a bad time of searching,” Churki added. “There isn’t a moon to-night.”

  “Searching!” Forthing said. “What do you mean, searching: flying about and roaring and scaring good people in-doors? No talk of that, if you please. You are both working yourself up over nothing. Here’s a note that Captain Laurence and Mr. Hammond very kindly asked someone to send for them, so you shouldn’t worry when they came home a little late even though they are two sensible gentlemen perfectly able to take care of themselves, and instead here you are brewing it up into a proper conspiracy for no reason.”

  “I do not think it is no reason, at all,” Temeraire said, with dislike. He did not think Forthing was as devoted to Laurence as he should have been, considering how Laurence had condescended to have him as first officer. Churki might be a little over-fretful on account of how Incan dragons were giving to stealing one another’s people, but certainly there was no harm in being cautious. “Only it would do no good anyway for us to begin flying around without knowing anything of where Laurence and Hammond are: we will never find them without some direction. Who brought the letter, Roland, and where did they get it?”

  “Just one of the street boys, the ones who aren’t afraid to come near the covert,” Roland said. “We’ll see if we can catch him; like as not he’ll have gone for one of the bun-sellers down the road.” She tapped Baggy and Gerry, and went running with them for the gate of the covert.

  Baggy returned the first, some twenty minutes later and out of breath. “Tisn’t my fault,” he said, when Churki demanded what was taking them all so long. “When we found him, he could only say he brought it from a message-boy who brought it this far but didn’t want to come in the covert; so we had to go after him, and it is only luck I even got that one at all. And then he said it came from an officer, a Prussian officer named Von Karlow, at a public house near the German Gate, and that is all the way on the other side of the town.”

  “Ah!” Dyhern said. “Von Karlow: I know the man. I have fought with him: a good man—an honorable man. He would not send you a lie, Temeraire, I am sure.”

  “There, you see,” Forthing said.

  “I do not see,” Churki said. “I have never heard this man’s name. How does he know Hammond or Laurence at all, and how does he know that they are at this lodge? Why should it be his business to send a letter on their behalf? I am by no means satisfied.”

  Forthing was inclined to argue with her, but Temeraire interrupted. “Dyhern,” he said, “if this gentleman is your acquaintance, perhaps you will oblige me by going to call upon him, and asking him the direction of this lodge. After all, it must be outside the city somewhere; there could be no real harm in our going to look in upon them, and if they have only stayed the night because of their horses being tired, we might bring them home.”

  He finished decidedly, with a flip of his tail, and felt he had struck a sensible, a reasonable course of compromise, without permitting himself to grow overly alarmed as Churki had. But Forthing, of course, could only bleat objections. “There is no call for your chasing off after Captain Laurence,” he said. “What if he should have left by the time you got there? He would come straight here, and want to know what had become of you; meanwhile you would be flying about half-distracted, supposing the worst, and what if we should get orders to fight?”

  “We will not get orders to fight,” Temeraire said. “We have wanted orders to fight for three weeks, and we have not had any; we are not going to get some now.”

  He turned his head even as he spoke: at last here was Ferris coming back into the clearing. Forthing said, “Mr. Ferris, I hope you have word from the captain; I am sure you will tell us everything is well, and there is no reason for any sort of alarm.”

  “Oh, will I,” Ferris said, and Temeraire, looking closely, saw that his face was set and furious. “He is gone to a meeting; some caper-merchant Russian lag-wit insulted the Emperor of China to his face at a party last night, and he struck the man. I cannot find anyone to tell me where it is, but I have learned for a certainty that one of the man’s friends called on Hammond this morning, some fellow named Karloff or Karlow.”

  “Good God!” Forthing cried, and there was a general noise of excitement and babble among the crew, which made it quite impossible at first for Temeraire to understand what exactly had happened, and why they should be so distressed that Laurence had—quite justifiably—chastised a rudesby, and what any of this had to do with meetings or hunting-lodges. “Captain Dyhern, pray will you go at once,” Forthing was saying, and Dyhern was already coming out of his tent, in his coat and his hat, and Baggy said, “I will run ahead and get you a carriage, sir,” and pelted away towards the street again.

  “What is the to-do?” Roland said, looking as Baggy flew past her; she was coming back the other way. “Did Baggy have any luck finding the message-boy?”

  “Roland,” Temeraire said, putting a forefoot before her, so she could not be swallowed up in the general chaos, “pray tell me at once what it means, that Laurence has gone to a meeting.”

  “He wouldn’t,” she said, but at once said, “Oh, but he would, wouldn’t he; has he?”

  “Yes,” Temeraire said, gripped with horror. “Roland, what is a meeting?”

  “The worst nonsense anyone ever heard of, and he knows perfectly well better; if Mother were here, she would throw him in stocks for it, if he has not got himself shot,” Roland said, stormily.

  “Shot?” Temeraire said blankly. “Shot?”

  “He has gone to fight a duel,” Roland said.


  Nearly the most dreadful hour of Temeraire’s life followed on this intelligence: an hour in which he could do nothing, knowing all the time that somewhere not an hour’s flight away, Laurence might at this very moment be stepping upon a field of honor. This was aptly named, it seemed to Temeraire, as honor was a word which seemed associated with every worst disaster in his life: a hollowness for which Laurence had before now been willing to die in the most unnecessary fashion, and this one more unnecessary than ever. “For no-one could suppose Laurence was a coward,” Temeraire said. “Not even anyone who disliked him extremely: I have heard the Admiralty tell him he had not enough fear.”

  “It isn’t the captain that anyone would call a coward, sure,” O’Dea said, “but the other fellow that he struck; and the captain’s too much a gentleman to hit another and not let him have satisfaction, if he ask for it. Ah, the sword and the pistol have made much food for worms ere now out of men of honor, and watered the soil with blood and the tears of their relics. I have known eight men shot dead in duels, on the greens of Clonmel.” He patted Temeraire’s foreleg, in what perhaps was meant to be a comforting gesture; but Temeraire was too stricken to feel any sense of gratitude.

  His crew had scattered out into the city, all of them trying to learn where t
he duel was to be held, and when; Dyhern was engaged in canvassing his acquaintance among the Prussian officers to find some intelligence of Von Karlow. Temeraire had thought of flying passes over the town, but Ferris had dissuaded him. “As likely as not, they are fighting somewhere outside the city, or beneath some trees, and if you terrify everyone into hiding behind closed doors and shutters, we will never find out where in time.”

  He spoke of in time, but Laurence had been gone so long already; and every minute dragged onwards. Some of the crew came straggling back, without anything to report, until a pale and sweating Cavendish came back; he said, “Is Mr. Forthing anywhere?”

  “He has not come back yet,” Temeraire said. “What have you heard?”

  “What about Mr. Ferris?” Cavendish said, and then he wished to wait for Captain Dyhern to return, and then desperately, “Well, perhaps Roland will be back, in a little while,” and Temeraire realized he was trying to put off bad news.

  “Tell me at once,” Temeraire said.

  “I don’t know anything,” Cavendish said, but a low awful growling was building in Temeraire’s throat, thrumming against the ground, and Cavendish swallowed and said, “I don’t, nothing certain! Only I went along of Captain Dyhern to the public house, where that Karlow fellow is supposed to have rooms; he wasn’t there, so Captain Dyhern went on, but I overheard a couple of fellows in the taproom, from an infantry regiment, talking over a duel—but they didn’t know anything, not really; they didn’t know it was our captain—”

  “What did they say?” Temeraire said.

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