League of Dragons
Instinct moved quicker, and the shadow of the falling blow: Laurence dived aside and took himself rolling into the brush, while Granby fell back in the opposite direction towards the path. The claws passed with tearing force between them, carrying away two of the hot-water pipes. Clouds of hot steam erupted whistling into the air, and the dragon jerked back its talons with a hiss of pain.
The guards were shouting protests and drawing their swords and pistols, but a party adequate to guard three men was not sufficient to give pause to an angry dragon. The two beasts came slithering to their full length out of the pavilion, clawing over the ground with startling speed even with their wings still folded to avoid the trees, their heads swinging to either side back and forth searchingly. The meager cover of the steam-clouds was quickly failing as the burst pipes ran dry. Laurence, getting his feet beneath him, made a crouching dash for a stand of trees—and threw himself behind it only just as the trunk groaned, spitting bark to either side of him, with a blow from the dragon’s head.
Pistol-fire was cracking loud behind him, on the path. One of the dragons had turned that way; another had come after him. She had drawn her head back, shaking off the impact against the tree, and in the brief respite, Laurence dashed for a hollow between a pair of massive boulders, artfully arranged for decorative effect to conceal one pavilion from another; fistfuls of moss tore away beneath his hands as he hauled himself into the small space. The dragon came on after him, putting her gleaming yellow eye to the crack. “British,” she hissed again, full of hatred. She wore a neck-collar of gold, very dirty, which looked also as though pieces had been broken off at different times—perhaps to sell, for her keep. She was a lean and older beast, with scales showing the broadening of age.
He ducked back deeper into his hiding-hole as the dragon tried scraping a couple of talons through the opening, nearly catching him. She clawed against the rocks in frustration, a hideous scraping noise. He might have called out to her, but he had no argument to make which he thought would have any weight with an enraged and vengeful dragon. Laurence reflected grimly that he ought to have considered that not every dragon here would have cause to esteem him; Napoleon would surely have been as happy to recruit more dragons who shared his devoted enmity for Britain.
The boulders jarred violently: the dragon was hurling herself bodily against them. Dirt shook loose, stinging in his eyes, and both the great stones rocked back and forth, one wobbling out of its place. Another blow would shake them apart. Laurence twisted in the hollow, and squeezed himself out on the other side—and ran, with the hunted speed of any creature with death at its back, hearing the splintering branches behind him, the brute cracking of green wood, as its herald. He did not look back. The hissing breath drew close, but in the distance came the sound of more guns, and roaring: the French had summoned their own dragons to be peacemakers. He could not evade forever, but he could buy time. He twisted sharply to one side, and threw himself behind one of the larger trees; the dragon whipped to follow him, and as she clawed for the trunk he ran directly at her, instead, and passed under the arch of her forelegs. Her head doubled on herself, trying to keep sight of him, and she was forced awkwardly to twist herself around to come after him again.
He was panting, nearly out of breath. His chest ached. The dragon had made a wall of herself behind him now, and was slowing a little—which might have seemed hopeful, for a moment, and then he saw she was herding him towards the open path ahead: when he was out of the trees, he would be easy prey to spot and seize. A moment’s calculation, and then he ran, as quickly as he could, and threw himself across the path and behind the wall of a hedge on the other side.
But she had anticipated the tactic; she too leapt, a monstrous jump over the path, her wings half-opening, and landed on his far side—herding him once again, from the other direction, and she had closed in on him. Laurence had rarely felt more sympathy for a fox being run to ground: there was something terrible in feeling the quick intelligence of the hunter on his heels, a sentience without mercy. She would have him in another moment; there was only one final hope to hazard. He gulped a breath, then broke onto the path and ran once more, straight and without evading twists, for the Tswana pavilion, not far, and shouted, “Help! Help!” in their tongue.
And then the world overturned with stunning force. Laurence had a brief peculiar impression of light shining directly through his skull, accompanied by a clamor of bells. Eight bells, he thought distantly, his whole body overcome by a heavy numbing languor. The dragon’s head was lowering towards him, teeth bared; she had knocked him down with a claw, and two talons pinned him like a butterfly to either side of his chest. She peered at him. He was conscious of no pain, but he could not move. Evidently satisfied he was stunned beyond escape, she lifted away her head, and raised her claw for the final blow.
Still in that paralyzing stupor, Laurence saw very clearly as she was bowled over and away from him: a much larger dragon in mottled orange and grey knocked her away and put a protective cage of talons over him. She coiled back up to her feet, and drawing up her shoulders unfurled a large frilled flap which extended above and below her head, patterned peacock-bright in blue and green and violets, and hissing bared her long and vicious fangs. One of these was a little broken at the tip, and a touch of greenish ichor dripped from it.
The Tswana beast, not unimpressed, made a low rumbling comment—Laurence did not entirely follow the meaning, but felt it something vaguely profane and uneasy. But dust was rising from the path, and in a moment two more of the Tswana dragons had landed next to their companion: their massed weight made the blue dragon draw back, and after a moment the frill smoothed itself back down. She hissed at them all again, and slowly backed away down the path, retreating without ever taking her eyes away, until she rounded her own pavilion and was gone from view, the last curve of her tail vanishing.
Laurence found he was trembling in all his parts, in some belated reaction, and a moment later sensation returned: his heart was pounding with violent speed, and he put a hand over his chest involuntarily, imagining he would feel the beat palpable against his fingers. A few deep breaths restored him to something more like equilibrium, and then the sheltering talons came away. He pushed himself up sitting, and turning found himself under contemplation by five dragons, and some ten men wearing the gold jewellery and fur cloaks common to the highest ranks of the Tswana warriors—although their spears had been exchanged for rifles slung over their backs, adorned with exceptionally long bayonets.
“We have a little while to sit and talk, I think,” Moshueshue said, in quite excellent French, pouring him a cup of red-brown tea. “The excitement is not quite over, it seems, and they will be some time determining that you have not been scattered over the grounds in pieces. I was most interested to find you a guest here, Captain Laurence. I had not expected you.”
Laurence lowered the cup, for which he was grateful: a hot and pleasant brew, with nothing bitter about it, even if it were not very strong. He had as yet said nothing to explain his situation, but Moshueshue evidently already suspected certain aspects. “Sir, you are right to be surprised; I am not a guest, but a prisoner.” He outlined in a few more words the circumstances which had brought him and Temeraire, while Moshueshue listened without comment, and then added, “I would be grateful to know more of the purpose of this convocation, and to what end my name has been used.”
Moshueshue did not answer immediately, but sat with a thoughtful and inward-turned expression, which showed nothing of hot emotion. One of the dragons, growing impatient more quickly, spoke to demand an explanation. The prince glanced up, and after a considering moment answered briefly: Laurence understood egg and thief, and was a little startled to see the dragons all draw back their heads with a united hiss of distaste.
“Egg-stealing is a serious matter with us, Captain,” Moshueshue said, seeing his surprise, and Laurence realized that it would of course be regarded as nearly the theft
“Then you can well understand the motive which brought us here, despite all other interest,” Laurence said, “and I hope would not see the practice rewarded.”
Moshueshue smiled very briefly, as if acknowledging a point neatly scored, but he did not pass his words on to the dragons. He was not a man easily read, or easily led; and few, Laurence supposed, better understood how to manage dragons, as he must to have any influence over beasts who considered themselves not only his protectors but his elders.
“I understand the French have suffered a reversal lately, in the east,” Moshueshue said, an invitation Laurence was glad to accept, by furnishing him with the details of Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign.
“There will be an army at his gates by the spring, I confidently expect,” Laurence finished, silently grateful to the cheerful young Imperial Guardsman who had informed him that the Prussians had joined the alliance, “and perhaps you know something already of the situation he faces in the south, in Spain.”
He knew well that he was making an argument. Moshueshue regarded him all the while with a thoughtful expression, and then abruptly nodding said, “Napoleon has proposed an alliance,” answering the question Laurence had not yet asked, but wished to. “Not, as you might suppose, a military one. He desires rather that we should draw up borders among ourselves, among dragons, and he has proposed as well a code of laws, which should govern among us and resolve those disputes which arise over territory. It is a sensible code: its principles are good, and there is much to like in it,” which Laurence, a little dismally, could well imagine.
“But it recommends itself to my people mostly,” Moshueshue added dryly, “by seeking our opinions on how the world is to be divided. We find you Ropeans are inclined to consult no one but yourselves on these little matters, and decide from the other side of the world how best to divide up a country in which you do not live.”
He beckoned to one of his servants, a young boy who ran and brought them the proposal. Looking over the maps therein, Laurence was astonished—although he knew he ought not have been, by any Napoleonic effrontery—to find all Europe and even Russia made into a French province, and from the air divided neatly into territories belonging to various feral dragons who should all owe allegiance to Napoleon direct. Even in England the French flag stood over a quilt of small patched territories. Laurence wondered at it, seeing one marked YELLOW REAPERS, as though Napoleon hoped to acquire the allegiance of the entire breed, and across Scotland a collection of wholly unfamiliar and peculiar names—RICARLEE, VINLOP, SHAL—whose meaning he could not divine. He wished not for the first time that Temeraire were at hand, to be consulted; he could only guess that these were each the name of some particular dragon, like Arkady, who had established himself as chief of a company of feral beasts.
All Africa below the Sahara had been made over to the Tswana, and Brazil marked out for them as well, abutting the Incan Empire’s holdings in the west. Indeed Laurence could see nothing for Moshueshue to complain of in the arrangements, if they had been at all enforceable, with no other European power in a position to quarrel with them.
“Sir, I can tell you that he has no power to assign any of these lands, though he may claim to,” Laurence said to Moshueshue, who shrugged a little.
“Had you the power to assign Cape Town to yourselves, or the Portuguese to claim Louanda? You claimed those places, and acted upon your claims; you took slaves and established your fortifications and your farms, and you would be there yet, if we had not driven you away by force. All maps are fiction when the world is seen from the sky. But if ten thousand dragons choose to believe in this one, I think you will find it nearer truth than otherwise.”
Laurence looked at those neat lines, which divided the fields of Scotland among a dozen feral bands—who should, he found, reading into the Code Napoléon Draconique, be entitled to take a certain amount of cattle in their territory, and to call upon one another for aid if their claims met resistance—and he began to understand. He knew well the jealousy of dragons, over anything they considered their own possessions and their own territory in particular, even if very lately acquired, or by dubious means or even outright stolen. Napoleon meant to put all that possessive spirit to his own service: by telling the dragons they were entitled to these rights, he would make them willing to defend them, and by providing them with a network of alliances would enable them to do so—if not forever, then certainly for long enough to be a powerful distraction to the human nations whose borders they occupied.
It was his stratagem in Russia refined and writ large: he would make all the ferals of Europe into enemies of the very governments who presently fed them in the breeding grounds or ignored their small depredations. That most of those ferals would be slaughtered in reprisal, or starve in the ensuing chaos, he would ignore, save when convenient for him to come to the aid of one or another band, as an excuse for making still more war upon his neighbors.
Laurence looked up from the sheaf of papers. “And would you lend your aid, to a feral band in Britain, seeking to seize lands not their own?”
“Where would you prefer to see war made, Captain Laurence?” Moshueshue asked softly. “In your country, or on the other side of the sea?”
“War has a habit of spreading, sir,” Laurence said. “I would prefer to see peace.”
Temeraire settled back down uneasily. “Well, it all seems to have gone quiet again,” he said to Iskierka, “only I cannot see what any of them were about, except some sort of quarreling—it does not seem to have gone near the house, or near the egg, so I suppose it can have done no real harm.”
He felt unconvinced by his own words: he did not at all like the sound of gunshots so near-by, and such a squabbling of dragons. He had seen five all together go skirmishing aloft; a bright blue dragon fighting three and finally four of the French middle-weights, until they had harried him back to the ground. Temeraire had not recognized the breed at all, and so knew nothing of his allegiance, but what should any dragon be doing here, if not a friend of France, and if a friend, why starting up such an enormous fuss?—and why putting on so disheartening a display? The French dragons had brought him down so very skillfully, even though he had been quite large and old and impressively scarred. Temeraire had not liked observing it at all. As dreadful as it must be to think of leaving Laurence behind in captivity, to save the egg, it was far worse to think of being captured in the attempt to do so—the egg taken away again, and locked up this time somewhere in secret, so there would be no second chance.
“You will insist on making trouble as though we hadn’t enough,” Iskierka said, eating her cow with unconcern bordering, in Temeraire’s opinion, on a complete lack of sensibility. “So what if they are quarreling among themselves? If you ask me, this is as good a chance for us as anything. We had much better stop worrying and just go at once, while they are busy with the nonsense over there.”
“Why,” Temeraire said, beginning to explain why this was a singularly bad idea, as Iskierka’s always were, and then discovered he could not find a satisfactory argument against it. He struggled a moment longer, then said, “Oh, very well, then,” and gulped the last hindquarter of beef out of his own bowl—they had complained falsely of hunger, and asked for beef in the British tradition. Temeraire had felt a bit guilty at putting their guards to such trouble, but they could not be sure of getting anything much to eat between here and Dover. He and Iskierka had settled it between them they should make for the covert there.
The bowls were clean; they had drunk deeply from the fountain. The evening was fast approaching: the lights of the house shone golden against the blue night. Laurence was there now,
“Let us go at once,” Temeraire said, before courage and resolution failed him.
“Very well, but if anything should happen to Granby, I will never forgive you,” Iskierka said, adding not a little to his unhappiness.
“Be quiet, and start that fire going,” Temeraire said resentfully. He rose up on his haunches and spread out his wings, making as large a screen of himself as he could manage. They had surreptitiously scraped together a heap of old branches and leaves into the back corner of their pavilion over the course of the day; Iskierka put her head low to them and blew a narrow line of flame upon the pile until it had fairly caught, and the fire began to lick up the columns of the pavilion. In a moment, the roof was blooming with small flames, surprising Temeraire by a wholly unaccustomed feeling of deep terror, which sent him jerking out of the pavilion with a gasp of dismay.
Iskierka followed him out, snorting. “Whatever is it? What if they look over and see us too soon?”
“The fire is far enough along,” Temeraire said, striving to sound calm and sensible, and to be so as well; when really he wanted only to be gone, aloft and away from the flames. He shook out his wings and looked them over, covertly—surely some embers had caught upon them? There was no sign of so much as a spark, but as soon as he turned away he felt the small stinging sensation of prickling heat upon the membranes. He looked again: there was still nothing there.
“Come on, then,” Iskierka said, and there was no help for it: he reared up with her and together they fanned the flames energetically with their wings, until it climbed rapidly into a towering pillar, crackling and roaring as the roof went up. Temeraire managed to remain in place, but he was grateful when the cries of alarm rose behind them and he and Iskierka went aloft at last, circling away, the blazing flames making them invisible against the night to their guards.