League of Dragons
“—I grant that Mr. Tharkay’s circumstances might have justly raised questions. He is a British officer: but he accepted his commission from His Majesty’s Aerial Corps under the demands of exigency, when your master launched his invasion of Britain: I trust you agree no gentleman could do otherwise, in those conditions, than make himself of use to his country in whatever manner was asked of him. His active service then was but brief and irregular. I do not deny that in this last campaign, he was for all intents a member of my crew, and served in Russia in that capacity; but he had lately taken his leave of us, and rejoined only a few scant weeks before to-day, under such circumstances as made it impossible to provide him with anything in the way of uniform or insignia, or indeed anything but the bare necessities of survival. For this, I can offer as proofs the appearance which I myself make before you, which I trust you will do me the courtesy to believe not the manner in which an officer of His Majesty would present himself under conditions allowing otherwise.
“Besides this, I must also express to you the evident—” Here Laurence caught himself back, not wishing to offend where he must court, “—rather, what seemed to me the evident truth that no man in my service could expect himself to be taken for anything other than a member of Temeraire’s crew, when captured in his company, regardless of his appearance.”
The admiral’s frown deepened as Laurence spoke, but it was an expression less angry than concerned; somehow disquieting. With a sense of urgency, Laurence added, despite a sense of delicacy which would otherwise have forbidden him to mention the point, “And if it should weigh with you, sir, I should mention that we took many of your own country-men prisoner in this last campaign, behind our lines, whose clothing at that time could not by any stretch of imagination have been made to resemble a uniform, and without calling them spies for it.”
Here he finished; after a moment the admiral said, “Captain Laurence, I beg you to believe that I have permitted you to speak at such length in the hopes, the greatest hopes, of finding myself persuaded of there having been a mistake of some kind. No Frenchman—no French aviator—who knows what you have done for our dragons, and the sacrifices which you have endured in consequence, could wish anything but to oblige you in any manner where it fell in his power and his duty. But I fear greatly that to pardon M. Tharkay does not fall within my own. I thought perhaps you might say we had mistaken the gentleman, that he was not M. Tharkay at all, or perhaps a different M. Tharkay—a relation?—but all you have said must indeed confirm the reverse.”
Laurence said slowly, “Sir, he is the only man of that name of my acquaintance.” It was the truth, and therefore the only thing he could say, despite a certain faint wheedling hint in the admiral’s words, to suggest that the man might almost have welcomed a lie.
The admiral nodded. “I am desolate, Captain, but your friend has not been taken up on the grounds of a mere lack of uniform, or even a suspicion of disguise: there is indeed a considerable price lately laid his head, for spying, and I am informed M. Fouché desires conversation with him at the earliest moment.”
Laurence could not answer; taken aback, and yet not enough so, to say with conviction that the accusation was mistaken. He had known that Tharkay often served as an agent of the East India Company; his movements had always been secretive, and he had rarely volunteered his motives. That he should have been acting on behalf of Whitehall instead was not so unusual; certainly there were few men better suited for ranging across the world, if he could have been persuaded to undertake the work.
The admiral was regarding him with regret—sincere regret—but without any hesitation, and indeed Laurence could not ask the man to betray his duty, which certainly would have been to execute a spy so notorious to his nation. Only one course remained: almost intolerable, and Laurence could only be surprised that his voice remained steady. “Sir, I wish I could tell you there had been a mistake: I cannot, with certainty, nor can I dispute your understanding of your duty. I can only ask you to postpone the sentence, if you will be so kind as to permit me the time to seek his pardon from—from one who has the right to give it.”
The admiral was quite willing; and gave him pen and ink, though Laurence could as cheerfully have drawn his own blood for the task. But the letter had to be willing.
Sir, Laurence began,
You at one time expressed a sense of obligation to me, for having brought you the cure for the dragon plague, an act which as you know I performed only from an understanding of my duty as a man and a Christian. I therefore cannot claim that obligation as my right, but if you should nevertheless be glad of a chance to discharge it, I would solicit—
There he had to pause a while before he could continue, slowly, and finish the note: a clumsy, graceless thing unfit to send to any gentleman, much less the emperor of half Europe: Laurence feared every word betrayed his resentment. He would gladly have cut his own throat before accepting any reward or personal recompense; he did not want thirty pieces of silver for betraying his country’s interest, and he knew better than to seek anything which might have altered the course of the war—Temeraire’s freedom, the return of the precious egg: Napoleon was a sovereign before he was a gentleman.
But a pardon, Napoleon might grant, as he would not any larger request. Would almost surely grant, his own vanity gratified by a gesture which would cost him little: he might as well keep Tharkay in a prison as cut off his head. That knowledge did not make the request easier to make; only more imperative. Laurence could not let Tharkay die when the sacrifice of his pride might save him.
“I will be glad to send the letter,” the admiral said, “and glad to delay. I will hope with you, Captain, for a favorable answer.”
Laurence passed his evening in his comfortable cell with its uncomfortable view. By now he had counted several times over: although he had reached a different tally each time, there were certainly more than a thousand eggs laid out so widely across the field, perhaps even twice as many. Four rows of large eggs in the middle were easily distinguishable by their blue-and-yellow shells: Granby had mentioned them in particular. “Fleur-de-Nuits,” he had said gloomily. “A whole company of them, and nearly ready to hatch, by the dullness of those shells.” Such a company could threaten an entire army encamped at night, and strike to devastating effect while others were halted by darkness.
And the rest of that enormous host was not so far from hatching, either. The first ranks had already begun to hatch, Laurence suspected, for he could pick out the signs of unfledged youth among many of the dragons in the camp, the hint of ungainliness where some limbs were disproportionate, or as yet unfamiliar to their possessors.
Watching the dragons jostle one another at the feeding troughs for their evening meal, a memory broke into his thoughts, in the slightly peculiar way they now from time to time resurfaced, vivid as though newly experienced: the morning after Temeraire’s hatching, that neat, self-possessed creature all absurdly tangled up in the hanging cot in his cabin, no larger than a dog and furious at the loss of dignity. But Temeraire had never been graceless; he had always seemed to be just his proper size throughout, so that Laurence could recall no single day when he had been struck by the vast transformation under way, when he had looked at Temeraire and thought, Look how large he has become! or seen him clumsy with new growth.
The same was not true here: many among the crowd of young beasts were inclined to snarl their wings upon a talon, or overfly and dump themselves into a squalling heap upon the ground. But soon enough they would outgrow their awkwardness.
The young dragons lifted their heads from their meal all at once: their attention had been arrested by a sudden flaring light somewhere near the base of the mountains, bonfire-high flames leaping. Iskierka? Laurence wondered, but could not tell; at this distance there was only a golden-red bloom of light, which vanished away nearly at once. He was not so very surprised, however, to hear footsteps come along the corridor not a quarter of an hour later: a
Admiral Thibaut received him and Granby in his dressing-gown, and after polite apologies for disturbing their rest said, “We have had a little difficulty, which I would not wish to conceal from you: Temeraire and Iskierka have formed the notion that if we do not immediately demonstrate the good condition of their egg, and their captains, the worst must have happened; they are some way along to convincing themselves of the case, with all the evil consequences this must entail.”
Laurence’s first thought was fear for Temeraire: they were not at present in circumstances where rebellion could have anything but a fatal result. The dragons here would be neither sympathetic nor persuadable, as the beasts of the British breeding grounds had been, and there were too many of them: even a simple headlong flight could have been stopped. But Granby said, in heat, “And who has set them going, I would like to know, putting word about that their egg is unfit, and talking of smashing: a handsome way of going about your business, I will not scruple to say.”
Laurence looked at him in surprise: Granby had a temper, but not an ungovernable one, to be provoked to such an outburst; and then his meaning became clear.
It had not before occurred to him that Lien had deliberately spoken in so inflammatory a manner about the precious egg. But as soon as the idea had been proposed, it was hard to imagine anything else. Laurence recalled that had never seen any dragon face with complacency the idea of outright, deliberate harm to any egg; it was a crime universally reviled among them. He had supposed Lien’s hatred of Temeraire to have overcome this instinctive reluctance, but her hatred had never been of a fiery, violent nature. How much more likely that calculation had spoken instead, and made so hideous a threat exactly to lure Temeraire into a cold, malicious trap.
At once Laurence understood, and at once shared Granby’s feelings. It was an underhanded piece of scheming, as vicious as threatening the life of an infant to induce its mother to come running headlong into danger for its sake. Even the admiral was silent before the accusation in Granby’s voice, as though he could say nothing in defense of the act, and therefore in duty could say nothing at all. “We wish to do our best to reassure their feelings,” he said only, with a small bow.
They were put on a smallish dragon called Souci: somewhere between a heavy courier and a light-weight combat-beast, with a certain lean greyhound look reminiscent of the Jade Dragons: a fast flyer, certainly, and big enough to hold an armed guard of six men along with them. “All goes well back there?” the dragon asked, snaking his head around on a long and flexible neck, without any sign he thought it unusual to speak to his passengers without the intermediary of a captain. “Good! Up we go,” and launched himself with a grunt and a spring, and after a startling amount of flapping he leveled and was off like a shot towards the mountains, tearing so rapidly along that Laurence’s eyes streamed.
Souci landed panting not a quarter of an hour later. They had come down near a large building incongruously like an ancient temple: as though a Roman troop had marched out of the dim reaches of the past to erect it, then marched away again leaving it planted here in the French countryside. It was all of a piece with Napoleon’s affecting the trappings of Caesar, and yet not impractical, Laurence realized, as Temeraire and Iskierka came pouring out between the enormous columns, eager for a glimpse of them.
He was asked to stand up, and Granby also: the guards held lanterns near their faces to make them visible. Laurence raised a hand hoping to reassure: they were too far distant to speak. Even so, the dragon nervously took a nimble hop back when Temeraire and Iskierka would have approached a little. “That’s enough, then,” the little beast said, too hastily: Laurence would have liked some more reassurance himself of Temeraire’s health. There were a few lanterns hung on the pavilion, but these showed very little of a black dragon in the dark, and Temeraire did not spread his wings.
But Souci would not linger; he thrust himself into the air again, with that same storm of flapping, and as quickly as they had come dashed back across the camp. When they had dismounted, he indulged himself in a shudder of his whole body. “That is more than I undertake to do again!”—this to the admiral, in reproachful tones. “Those two monstrously large beasts! Going right up to them like that and dangling their captains in front of them just as if to say, Look what I have got, ha ha! I am all astonishment they did not leap upon me at once. I hope they did not get a clear look at me. If ever they saw me again I am sure they would not let it pass.”
“I beg you not to repine upon it,” Laurence said. “Temeraire understands well that orders must be obeyed, and will not hold it against you; he knows it was not in your power to deliver us to him.”
“Well, but it was,” Souci said, not conciliated, and Granby said nothing reassuring at all. Iskierka did not allow of assurances of her behavior, good, evil, or otherwise.
They were returned by their polite but firm escort to their rooms, and Laurence did not try to speak with Granby, both silent with their own shared and private unhappiness, and shared anger as well. Laurence had in some sense felt they deserved to be captured: that it had been the only reasonable outcome of skulking about on the very borders of France. That feeling had spared him real regret, like a gambler at the table who had staked all upon one unlikely throw, knowing all the while it would not come, and even in despair had accepted the natural course of the event. But now the trick dice had been uncovered: indignation burned in his chest, the resentment of having been taken by what felt a low cheat.
He slept well, despite it all. He could have slept for a month. In the morning, he was asked to the admiral’s rooms for breakfast, and met with a bow. “Captain Laurence,” Thibaut said, “I hope to gratify you,” and handed to him a letter; Laurence steeled himself to meet with a reply which, however generous, could only stoke his still-hot indignation.
But surprise banked the fire. The letter was addressed to Thibaut and written in the neat hand of a secretary, but the words, abrupt and decisive, were all Napoleon: Tell me you have shown him every courtesy! Nothing is too good for such a man, adding the phrase, il a bien plus de valeur que les perles, a phrase which Laurence, half-amused despite every will to be otherwise, recognized as the description of the virtuous woman.
We have sent an escort to bring him and his companions to Fontainebleau, and the dragons as well: let them depart at once. Here they will see the egg in its safe repose, and arrangements will be made for their comfort.
“I have sent to ask M. Tharkay and Captain Granby to join us for breakfast,” the admiral said, “while the dragons of your escort make their own. You will leave immediately.”
“YOU WILL FORGIVE THE Emperor’s absence,” Empress Anahuarque said, in quite fluent English, improved still further beyond what she had acquired at great effort in her own country; she had evidently kept up her studies.
Laurence had last met her in her own court at Cusco, dressed in the Incan style in bright-woven wool and adorned in gold; yet she seemed not a whit out of place here in the sitting room where they had been received, nor the least uncomfortable in a morning gown of white made elaborate by gold embroidery, striking against her dark-brown skin, and her black hair bound up behind a tiara of diamonds: overdressed perhaps for a private visit, yet not inappropriate to an empress. Laurence was surprised to find the crown prince of Prussia in her company: a gangly young man of seventeen, who bowed and spoke to them in very fluent French. Her own child, a handsome and sturdy-looking boy with a cap of dark hair and large dark eyes, was playing upon a blanket in the corner of the room. He was overseen by a trio of nursemaids and a fourth just outside the house: the massive feathered head of an Incan dragon, one of the sleek and venomous Copacati, peered in through the barn-wide glass doors at the end of the chamber.
Laurence offered his congratulations on the child, as a little more awkwardly did Granby: difficult to kno
Laurence bowed again; there was nothing else to say, although any enemy of Napoleon might feel some regret at his finding so much success in securing his dynasty, and his alliance with the Inca.
“My husband wished to be here to greet you, but matters in Paris demand his attention for a few days more,” Anahuarque continued. “But I greet you in his stead, and I assure you that you will be made comfortable. Although the unhappy state of war between our nations makes you our prisoners, feeling must make you our guests,” a pretty sentiment, though of course meaningless.
She sat with them a quarter of an hour—unusually gracious, particularly as a heap of letters upon the writing-table and a silent and hovering pair of secretaries made plain there were many demands upon her time. It fell to Laurence to carry the conversation on their side; Granby was stifled by embarrassment and by the surroundings, and Tharkay only sat observing with a sardonic expression in his eye. But the Empress was well able to supply her own share, and when Laurence had asked her how she liked her new home, she recounted with charming frankness several amusing stories of the misunderstandings that had plagued her on arrival, and laughed at her ongoing travails in learning to read and write: the Inca had been used to rely instead upon a system of knotted cords to communicate.
The handsome clock against the wall chimed the hour softly, and a footman came in to speak to her in a quiet voice; the Empress rose to her feet, and they rose with her. “Gentlemen, I am afraid I must bid you farewell,” she said, giving them her hand to kiss in dismissal, and they were escorted out past another visitor waiting to be taken in. The gentleman was standing at the other side of the antechamber, studying the large landscape upon the wall; Laurence saw him only briefly and from the back, but some vague sense of familiarity tugged at him, and when they had gone on into the hallway, he almost stumbled a moment in surprise: it had been Talleyrand.