League of Dragons


  “A remarkable performance,” Tharkay said, when they were at last shown to their own quarters—a magnificent suite more suitable for a visiting dignitary than prisoners of war—and private once more, the guards having withdrawn politely past their doors. The garden outside the windows gave a handsome illusion of liberty, if one did not go close enough to see the additional soldiers standing to attention across the paths, just out of view. “She makes quite the picture of domesticity. You would never think to look at her that she is the absolute ruler of several million people and some five thousand dragons, and a nation larger than Europe.

  “Talleyrand is an interesting visitor for her to host. He quarreled with her husband several years ago, after the failure of the invasion of Britain. I wonder where he is getting his money from these days: Austria, perhaps.”

  Laurence had of course said nothing of the means by which he had engineered Tharkay’s release, nor asked anything about the charge laid against him. He only knew as much as he did by unhappy accident; he could invite no further confidences on a subject where he had intruded without invitation in the first place. But nevertheless he could not help but perceive in Tharkay’s remarks a professional assessment, and Laurence could not but recoil at the idea of a man taking funds in exchange for his own country’s secrets.

  “Spying is not the cleanest business,” Tharkay said, perhaps reading his face.

  Laurence shook his head sharply: he felt certain whatever might be distasteful in the work Tharkay did could have nothing to do with this kind of selfish treachery. “There can be no comparison,” he said, and then realized he had betrayed himself unintentionally.

  Tharkay nodded a little, but did not speak directly to the subject. “The two are not unrelated, I am afraid,” he said only. “A man rarely will compromise himself without assistance.”

  “That does not justify the act upon his side,” Laurence said. “No man may be made a traitor without his consent.”

  He could speak from experience; he had given his own consent, once. He could not understand the coarseness of spirit which could permit a man to do such a thing for money and not the bleakest imperative of honor.

  He paced the room round twice, troubled, and abruptly asked, “Are we not obligated by ordinary humanity to warn her she ought not be in his company? A man who would do treason for money—what would he not do?” Even if Talleyrand was in some sense on their side, Laurence could not help but feel uneasy to have knowledge of his treachery, and yet say nothing as the man was admitted to the private company of the expectant Empress and her small child—the worst fears of Napoleon’s enemies realized.

  But Tharkay said dryly, “You seem to be under the impression she does not know exactly the sort of man he is. At the very least she cannot suppose him fond of her husband; a man who has been publicly called a shit in front of half the Marshals of France by his emperor is not likely to be easily conciliated. In any case, certainly Fouché knows as well as I do that Talleyrand’s expenses outrun his public income.”

  “Why would she entertain such a visitor, if he had not persuaded her of his having been reconciled with her husband?”

  “He might be safer company, if he were the Emperor’s loyal servant,” Tharkay said, “but he would not be half so useful, if she cares to maintain any sort of communication with the other courts of Europe when they have declared war upon France.”

  To reconcile this kind of cold scheming with the charming young woman they had only just left was an incongruous task, but Granby said, “Well, I am not forgetting any time soon that she set a hundred beasts on our tail hunting us across the Andes, however meek and mild she chooses to look at present,” which was a useful reminder. “I am sure I wish Napoleon every joy of his wife: better him than me.”

  “But not, perhaps, for us,” Tharkay said. “Our present circumstances leave a great deal to be desired. Not that I mean to make you regret your happy escape,” he added, with a faintly amused glint.

  “No fear of that,” Granby said. “I don’t mean to say I wouldn’t rather be back in the Peninsula, where I can do some good, but I would as lief kick my heels in France the rest of the war as be married in Cusco. I don’t suppose one dragon can make all that much difference, even Iskierka, when he has a whole horde of them breeding up.” He sighed.

  Tharkay was silent; then he said, “And yet Napoleon does suppose it.”

  “What do you mean?” Laurence said.

  “We are not here by accident, after all,” Tharkay said. “Temeraire and Iskierka were deliberately tempted here, as you have divined, by those threats against the egg; but if you will pardon me, we have not considered how they were tempted: where you heard these threats.”

  “The Prussian dragons had overheard them,” Laurence said, and then slowly, “—you mean that they were deliberately permitted to escape?”

  Tharkay inclined his head. “You would have been a good deal more skeptical of threats sent directly to you, and having received those threats, you would not have supposed you could intercept the egg. Not to mention that it does pass credulity that some thirty dragons were able to flee the breeding grounds of France without challenge.”

  “But surely credulity is passed much more thoroughly to suppose that Napoleon let half the Prussian aerial corps loose, just to get Temeraire and Iskierka here,” Granby said. “Not that they don’t make a good deal of noise, but they are only two beasts: they aren’t worth the exchange.”

  “With as many dragons as Napoleon has in prospect, the relative value of keeping the Prussian beasts captive must have been diminished,” Tharkay said. “But nevertheless, you are right—if the dragons were judged solely for their fighting-qualities. Which must mean there are other considerations which have prompted the act.”

  —

  Lien’s unblinking expression, fixed on Temeraire, managed somehow to convey without a word that she was astonished that he should have got himself into such a state, and even disappointed: that her satisfaction in his defeat was somewhat reduced by his looking so ragged, as though it were not much, after all, to have brought him low. Temeraire had not given a thought all this month to his torn-up wings, to his fresh scars; the scales where the fire had burned him worst had grown back hard and dull instead of glossy. None of these had mattered.

  But now he could think of them again, for beyond Lien stood a small but elegant little pavilion, and beneath the roof, an enormous basket lined with silk and much padding held the beautiful shining egg, its delicately speckled shell unharmed, even to the small mark which looked so much like an eight. Half a dozen braziers stood around, warming it, and there were screens to shelter it from the wind, which the servants had drawn aside only to let them see.

  With the worst anxiety eased, others crowded forward to take its place. Temeraire could not help but realize that he made a very disreputable figure at present; as slovenly as Forthing, with no power of repairing his appearance.

  Iskierka felt no consciousness; she was sniffing around the pavilion with immense suspicion. “Are you sure that the egg is warm enough?” she demanded. “Look at all this snow everywhere around; what if it should take a chill? And how has it been brought here, anyway; did you shake it? Did it get wet at all?”

  “All proper measures have been taken for its care, of course,” Lien said, with cool disdain.

  “I don’t see what is of course about it when you have been going on and on about smashing, and hauling it all over the world,” Iskierka said, rounding on her. “What do you mean by it? How dare you go anywhere near my egg?”

  Lien did not—quite—edge away from Iskierka’s flaring anger, but she stiffened her back visibly, which Temeraire found a little gratifying. “Surely one must ask why you left your egg behind in the care of those who were not capable of its protection,” she answered.

  “Oh!” Temeraire said: that was too much. “When you certainly had your friends in China bribe some of the guards, and murder the rest; I hope Crown Prince Mi
anning puts them all to death just as soon as he is emperor.”

  “I will have cause for sorrow enough if China should be brought so low,” Lien said venomously, “as to have an emperor who has lost all the favor of Heaven: his own Celestial companion lost, and willing to pledge his empire to a nation of low opium-merchants to acquire another. But I will not call it the fault of the egg, nor have I permitted any harm to come to it, poor mongrel creature though it is sure to be; but that is more cause to pity it than harm it.”

  “So this has all been more of your scheming against the crown prince, after all,” Temeraire said, nearly choked with indignation at this speech, so wholly different from the report which Eroica had brought him. “And you never meant to hurt the egg at all? I suppose we are to believe that—”

  “I care nothing for what you believe,” Lien said cuttingly. “And need not care. Through an excess of headstrong anger, you have compromised yourselves and your masters,” this with a sneering emphasis, “and now you only see your egg by the grace of my lord the Emperor, who chooses to be kinder to you than you deserve: a reflection of his nobility and not your merits.” And here she gave Temeraire a look, up and down, to make plain these were few indeed, before she went aloft and left them.

  He returned in some irritation of spirit to their own pavilion—also charming and comfortable, with heated stones and everything nice, standing amidst a garden of stone and pine trees and a pond delicately iced over and traced in frost with patterns like leafy vines. Temeraire could not but feel put-upon even by these luxuries, as though he heard Lien’s voice coming from every smooth pebble, saying, Look how well I am situated, and what a poor creature you are, and feeling the truth of the remark all too strongly.

  A troop of servants and three small dragons appeared shortly, bearing great steaming water-buckets in yokes on their sides, and offered to bathe them. Temeraire felt so very dirty and wretched that he could not even bring himself to make a grand refusal, and had to be grateful instead to be standing under the hot sluicing water, with delightful scrubbing-brushes going busily at every talon and dirt-crusted scale, and then to lie down on the hot stones to dry, feeling unavoidably refreshed.

  “Now what is the matter?” Iskierka demanded. “Everything is going splendidly, and still you keep sulking.”

  “Splendidly!” Temeraire said.

  “Yes, of course,” Iskierka said. “A month ago, we had no notion of where the egg was, or even if it had been smashed; a week ago, we were a thousand miles away. Now here we are, just round the corner, and Granby and Laurence are somewhereabouts, too; now we only need to work out how to get us all away.”

  “Only that!” Temeraire said, a little annoyed to find he could make no better rejoinder.

  “We are still better off than before,” Iskierka said. “I think you are being very poor-spirited to keep moaning.”

  Temeraire bristled, but did not argue: they were in the very heart of France, surrounded by Napoleon’s best guards and legions of dragons—but it did feel rather poor-spirited to mutter about such details when the egg was not only safe but so very near-by, and Laurence as well. However, he was not willing to fully share in Iskierka’s satisfaction.

  “And why is Napoleon being so nice to us, I should like to know,” he said, “for I am sure there is a reason for it: Lien would not mind at all the chance to keep looking down her nose at us.”

  “I dare say they are afraid of us,” Iskierka said, “as they should be,” but Temeraire lay his head down and brooded over alternatives, each less pleasant than the next. Perhaps they were only being lulled into complacency, that the pain when at last inflicted should be all the deeper.

  “And what does Lien mean to do with the egg,” he added suddenly, as a fresh unpleasant thought struck him, “now that she has it? Very well to say she only wanted to deny it to Crown Prince Mianning, but now what? It is sure to be a large dragon, as we are both large, and France does not want large dragons anymore. What if it is left all alone and companionless—told it must win its harness! How insupportable!”

  “Now, that is an excellent question,” Iskierka said, jetting steam from her spines in full agreement. But the guard dragons could not give them an answer, and were anyway not inclined to talk, but only stared pointedly until Temeraire curled back into the pavilion in frustration.

  The gardens sprawled out of sight in either direction; the beautiful house only glimpsed in the distance. “If only I could be sure Granby were not in there,” Iskierka said broodingly, “I would go and set it on fire, see if I wouldn’t, and then I am sure they would tell us,” but Granby was in there, very likely, so that was no help.

  And escape did look rather hopeless, however sanguine Iskierka liked to be. The estate was nearly swarming with dragons of every size and description, darting here and there over the course of the day—some very large and laden with goods; then a steady stream of lighter beasts, then a large party of French combat-dragons, in war harness: middle-weights and light-weights, and then a stream of small motley companies, very different in character from one another.

  Temeraire idly counted some nine or ten different groups, so peculiar and distinct from one another in appearance that he could not work out what sort of dragons they were; none of them even looked like the French dragons he had known. Not even the newer cross-breeds, which at least had some distinguishing feature to remark upon, or at least a consistent shape of the second wing-joint, quite characteristic to most French breeds.

  He could not make any real sense of it, but he was only observing dully, without giving the question much thought: what did any of it matter when half so many dragons would have done to keep them penned up? But late in the evening, a company of heavy-weights in remarkable colors and familiar conformation landed at a pavilion not distant, and his attention finally sharpened.

  “What is it?” Iskierka said, as Temeraire raised his head to peer at them through the dimming twilight.

  “Those are Tswana dragons,” Temeraire said slowly. “What are they doing here?”

  —

  “Your Imperial Highness,” Napoleon said, and when he had heartily embraced Laurence in the Gallic manner, with a kiss upon either cheek, he had completed Laurence’s discomfiture: a welcome more suited to a fellow head of state and an ally than his prisoner. Not content to finish there, Napoleon with cheerful familiarity greeted Granby, and rallied him a little with a sly apology for having stolen his bride out from under his nose, a bit of pleasantry to which poor Granby was hard-pressed to make answer; then the Emperor noticed Tharkay, saying, “Ah! So this is the infamous gentleman? Laurence, you do not know how much you are in my debt: Fouché outright gnashed his teeth at me when I told him he must give up his prey”—a none-too-subtle reminder of the favor Laurence had asked; and Tharkay’s narrow glance told him the remark had not passed unnoticed there, either.

  The Emperor was not alone, although the force of his presence at first commanded all attention in the room, but when he had turned to unnecessarily badger the servants to add to their comforts, one of his companions stepped forward to make Laurence a bow, and Laurence was surprised to belatedly recognize Junichiro, his hair pulled back and wearing an aide-de-camp’s uniform.

  “I am glad to see you well,” Laurence said, a little constrained.

  “I would be glad if it were so, Captain,” Junichiro said forthrightly, “but I do not presume to expect such consideration from you.”

  Laurence’s feelings were indeed divided, and so opposed to one another as to be difficult to reconcile. Junichiro had placed him under such profound personal obligation, in aiding him to escape execution in Japan, that Laurence had given himself no real hope of discharging the debt. That Junichiro had provided that aid not for Laurence’s sake, but to save his own beloved master, in no wise diminished that lingering obligation. The boy had made himself a criminal in his own country, had forfeited all hope of rank and place and home.

  And yet—Laurence had done his
best to discharge the debt: he had given Junichiro a place among his crew, and sought to establish him as an officer—not impossible in the motley ranks of the Aerial Corps. He had done everything in his power to secure the young man a respectable future, and to make him comfortable if not happy. But Junichiro had spurned all these good offices, in the end, and gone—gone to the French, hoping to promote among them an alliance with Japan, as counterbalance to the threat he saw to his nation from the deepening connection between China and Britain.

  It was impossible to see him now and not realize that here was the architect of Temeraire’s distress and his own. Junichiro had been among their party in China; he had known everything of the negotiations which pledged Temeraire and Iskierka’s egg to Crown Prince Mianning, in exchange for the alliance that had sent the Chinese legions to the war in Russia. He had seen with his own eyes the pavilion where the egg had been established in state, and the guard placed upon it. His intelligence had undoubtedly been responsible both for Napoleon’s forming the design of capturing the egg, and for its success.

  —And yet Junichiro had not behaved dishonorably. He had openly avowed his intentions before resigning Laurence’s service, despite the personal risk he ran thereby. And it was by no means clear to Laurence that Junichiro understood his duty to his nation wrongly. While desiring nothing but peace with Japan, Hammond had made no secret of valuing higher an alliance with China: Britain would certainly look the other way should that power decide to turn their attention to their smaller neighbor, an event not so unlikely when Prince Mianning ascended his throne: the crown prince had already demonstrated his intentions to broaden China’s reach, and bring his nation more into the world.

 
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