League of Dragons
The pavilion of the egg was not far, and Iskierka had been right, after all: half the guardians were absent, and evidently had gone to help with the squabbling on the other side of the grounds. Five remained, alert and peering into the night, but Temeraire roared furiously as he and Iskierka descended, at the stand of elegant trees bordering the clearing. As the divine wind shattered their branches into splinters, Iskierka blew a sheet of flame over the fragments, so they caught and rained down upon the guards like a hail of fire, piercing and scorching all at once.
Cries of pain reproached Temeraire; many of the dragons covered their eyes and folded in their own wings; he shuddered with sympathetic agony. But the attack served its purpose. Together, he and Iskierka seized the edges of the roof and tore it away, and he snatched up the egg and all its nest together into his talons—carefully, so carefully—
Immense relief washed over him the instant he had it safe. “I have it!” he cried, “I have it!” and Iskierka flung her head back and swathed the air over their heads with flame, snaking her head back and forth all the while she breathed out her fire, leaving a streak of violet-green dazzle upon the night sky. Temeraire was beating up as quickly as he could—up and through a wall of hot air, but as soon as he got his wings cupped over it, he began to rise swiftly, and Iskierka was on his heels.
The guards were clamoring below, bells ringing wildly out. “Quick, there!” Iskierka called.
“No!” Temeraire said. “They have already lit the lamps on that side of the grounds, we must try to the north—” But there were lanterns coming alight in that direction as well, hemming them in.
“Over the house, then!” Iskierka said, “and we may as well have a go at picking Granby up, after all.”
“Don’t be foolish,” Temeraire said. “Our only hope is that they will assume just that, and all go to the house, and we must choose a way to get past whoever is left elsewhere. We must go over the lake, and then we must try for a woods somewhere to hide, or a very large barn.”
“I cannot hide in a barn!” Iskierka said. “And neither can you, so don’t you be foolish! The lake is a dreadful idea: if they should catch us there, and I breathe fire on them, they have only to duck into the water, or knock me into it, and it will be of no use, or at least much less. Be careful with that!” she added.
“I am being careful!” Temeraire said. “Only it is shifting all on its own,” and as soon as he had said it, he realized, with a shock of breathless outrage, that the ungrateful thing was hatching, now, after all their trouble.
But there was no help for it: the egg was rocking so that it was sure to fall out of his grasp. He was forced to drop hastily into a small clearing just to the east of the great house. He had the small satisfaction of being proven right: in the lights of the house he could see nearly twenty French dragons milling about in the air, and there was a great noise going forth inside; they were certainly securing Laurence and Granby even now, he thought despairingly, as he put the egg down on the ground—very carefully, despite his resentment. But when the egg split wide down the middle in a single loud crack, and the dragonet inside popped up, Temeraire was entirely of a mind with Iskierka, who snorted a small tongue of flame and said, “Well, I like that! Why didn’t you hatch yesterday, and save us all this trouble?”
The dragonet sneezed twice and shook the slime from her wings—quite mature, and certainly able to have come out anytime this last fortnight, Temeraire noted with some indignation—and answered without a qualm, “I hadn’t made up my mind to hatch just yet. The situation did not seem entirely auspicious. But neither of you seems to know where you are going.”
“It is no joke to find a way out when we are in the middle of the French Army, I will have you know,” Temeraire said. “And what of Laurence and Granby? They will certainly be put into prison: we will never get them out of the palace now.”
The dragonet turned her head to look at the building. “So that is a palace!” she said. “It is very handsome. But if you want someone out of it, I suppose you must go and take them.”
“There are twenty dragons over it!” Temeraire said. “Iskierka, perhaps if we only go back to our pavilion now, quickly, and pretend that it caught fire by accident, and we had only taken the egg and gone to the lake to be safe—perhaps they will not punish Laurence and Granby, after all.”
“Yes, but then you will be prisoners again,” the dragonet put in, “and they will require an answer from me.”
“What answer?” Iskierka said suspiciously, and Temeraire felt quite baffled himself.
“The French Emperor wants me to take his son to be my companion,” the dragonet said. “I did not want to come out and at once have to say yes or no, when I did not know what was best. There is so much that is unclear from inside the shell! I have been trying to think how I might arrange to avoid committing myself. It would certainly be best if we should get away quietly, before anyone knows I have hatched.”
“Well, now you are out of the shell, you will have to manage things for yourself,” Iskierka said. “I am certainly not going anywhere without Granby now.”
“Or Laurence,” Temeraire added, with a feeling of strong indignation: so all his fears had been for nothing, and the egg had never been in any danger of indignity at all. So much for Lien talking of poor mongrels—at least Napoleon could recognize true quality, in a dragon. “We are not going to abandon them, only because you cannot make up your mind.”
“That,” the dragonet said, “is quite rude. I hope I am not to be called indecisive, only because I mean to make a careful choice. But I will pardon you, as of course you are anxious for your companions. I do not expect you to abandon them! Besides, we will never get away with everyone looking for us like this. Plainly we must have a diversion, and at once.” She looked over at the palace, and tipped her head consideringly. “It is a pity, of course, but I cannot see any alternative.”
Temeraire was just about to inquire what additional sort of diversion she imagined they might be able to produce, which would not merely draw everyone’s attention to them straightaway, when she shook out her wings and leapt into the air. “No!” Temeraire hissed out in alarm. “Wait, come back; you will be seen at once!”
She was flying directly towards the house. The heads of several of the dragons were already turning towards her wingbeats.
“That is all that we needed,” Temeraire said, despairingly. “We had better go back to our pavilion at once, before she has got herself caught. Perhaps she will take the blame for it all: and serve her right.”
“I don’t want to go back to our pavilion!” Iskierka said. “We will only go back to being prisoners, and I am sure they will lock Granby away much better, no matter what excuse we give. Anyway, what do you suppose she is planning?”
“I do not know, and I don’t suppose she has planned anything,” Temeraire began, only to jerk his head around as a thin shrill whine pierced all the clamor, very like a pot boiling underneath a badly fitted lid. His ruff flattened against his skull involuntarily: a truly dreadful noise, and it kept rising so. The rest of the dragons began to make complaining sounds—not merely the guards but everywhere through the grounds, heads rising up on all sides.
“Why must she make that dreadful noise?” Iskierka said, jetting out a ring of steam in expression of her own displeasure. It was indeed the dragonet, Temeraire realized—she was hovering directly over the house now, escaping notice because all the other dragons were twisting their heads away from the noise, and then abruptly she pointed her head down and blasted out a stream of white flame directly along the ridge cap of the immensely long grey roof. It was quite thin, but it ran away from her with tremendous speed, rippling strangely, and a moment later a shockingly loud thunderclap noise followed it, as nearly every window in the building burst.
Temeraire found he had hunched into himself, head ducked under a wing for shelter, entirely without meaning to. He shook himself out. Glass was raining down with a tinkling noise,
“Is it Temeraire?” Granby shouted over the dreadful shrieking noise, and Laurence could only shake his head without answering. It was like nothing he had ever heard in eight years of his experience of the divine wind, but Temeraire before now had managed to make some new and unexpected use of his abilities, and Laurence could not be sure. Their guards at least had no doubts, he saw from their faces, nor any lack of horror. Brouilly’s grip on Laurence’s arm, above the elbow, was bidding fair to squeeze all the blood from that limb as Aurigny led the way, the guards dragging them urgently down the staircase, surely towards some holding-place below.
Laurence was in an odd state to be flung into a dungeon: he had been dressing for dinner, and he was yet in the evening clothes which had earlier been sent him by the same emperor who had now commanded his imprisonment: knee-breeches with polished buckles, silk stockings and slippers, and his cravat just properly creased; a new coat in deep aviator’s green, lined with golden-yellow silk. The guards had burst in upon them unannounced just as Laurence had shrugged his way into the coat, and without ceremony or explanation had bundled them all off at once down the hallway. Laurence understood well enough; he had not even been unprepared, thanks to Tharkay’s earlier news. Temeraire and Iskierka had acted; they had been seen in some act of rebellion or escape, and the French now meant to secure their hostages. He would have liked to know what had happened, but there was no chance to ask in the confusion, and the guards in no mood to answer.
They had been bundled, pell-mell-tumble fashion, all the way along the hall and down one turn of the stairs, towards the ground floor and the kitchens. Then the thunder had come. Laurence looked round with his ears still ringing, and all down the full length of the hall the massive windows burst: a noise like a broadside full-on through the stern cabin of a first-rate, glass and splinters flying. A sheeting wave of white flame came washing down the outer wall, and reached in roaring through the shattered frames.
“Good God!” Granby said, shouting and yet muffled in Laurence’s half-deadened ears. The carpets were already aflame, and smoke was pouring into the hallway through every crack and open door, grey waves accompanied with screaming.
Brouilly, single-minded in the face of disaster, tried to continue onwards onto the cellar stairs, but Laurence caught the corner of the wall and planted himself. “No,” he said, shouting to be heard. “No: I would rather be shot here, than driven below to roast alive. I have no idea what has happened, but there will be no escaping this house in ten minutes. We must get outside at once: where is the nearest door?”
Brouilly looked down at his senior; Aurigny halted two steps down the stairs and turned, staring up at them a moment out of the dark, irresolute; abruptly he came back up and demanded, “Monsieur, will you swear you had no part of this?”
“I can give you my word as a gentleman,” Laurence said, “and although I cannot answer with certainty for my dragon, I will say Temeraire is not a fool, and I do not suppose, even if he could accomplish the act, that he would willfully set fire to a house where he knew perfectly well I was prisoner. I do not know what has happened, but he is hardly the only one who might wish your master any ill: where is he?”
This decided the matter; Brouilly said to Aurigny, “My God! What matter if they do go free, if the Emperor is lost?” and deserting their prisoners, the Guardsmen turned and rushed up the stairs they had just descended, going in leaps and bounds over the smoke that came rolling down the stairs to meet them in eddying waves.
“We seem to be abandoned to our own devices,” Tharkay said. “May I suggest the nearest window, however, in preference to a door? I will take being singed over choking.”
Laurence halted in the landing, halfway to following him, when a dreadful thought struck: “The child,” he said abruptly, as Granby and Tharkay turned to look back at him. “The Emperor and Empress meant to dine with us; the boy would have been in the nursery by now.”
The smoke was growing ever thicker as they forced their way up, past the torrent, back to their own landing. Men and women were running down the stairs in a frenzy to escape, coughing and half-blind. Laurence stepped into the hall to seize one of the enormous vases along the wall, full of flowers; he flung the flowers down and wetted himself and his cravat, wrapping it over his face, and handed it on to Granby and Tharkay.
“I suppose this is a judgment on me, for saying I should be grateful for any excuse not to go to dinner,” Granby said, grimly, dousing himself thoroughly. “Let’s hurry: I am damned if I am going to die trying to rescue the crown prince of France.”
They went up another flight. In their rooms they had now and again heard a noise of childish wails and nursemaids singing, coming from above; now they ran down the halls, opening every door, until they found a room strewn with toys: the curtains ablaze and the silken carpet beginning to catch, and the loud determined cries of a distressed child coming from behind another door.
While Tharkay and Granby took the bottom edge of the carpet and dragged it away from the flames, folding it double and stamping upon it, Laurence ran to the inner door and threw it wide to find the bedchamber thick with smoke: one of the nursemaids lying on the floor by the window screaming, on the sooty wreck of a blanket that been used to smother her, her hair blackened and her blistered hands covering her face, while another huddled against the back wall with the crying child in her arms. The third was standing before them, beating at the flames catching around them with a wetted rag.
Laurence hurdled a line of flames and caught her by the arm. “Get out of the room!” he said, and the young woman cried out and pointed: he turned to find a single monstrous smoke-reddened eye peering in anxiously through the shattered glass and flames, calling.
Laurence dredged up a few words of Quechua: “This way!” he shouted out to the dragon, motioning to the next room. He turning caught the second nursemaid, with the child in her arms, and wrapping the wet sheet around her dragged her through the flames, the child between their bodies. Granby had pulled down the curtains with his hook-hand, arm wrapped in his sodden cloak, and now the dragon was tearing out the burning window-frame, emitting howls of pain as it did.
All at once wood and brick gave way, crumbling open a wide gap in the wall. The Incan dragon put its foreleg through the hole, and they got the nursemaids and the child carefully into its talons. Laurence and Tharkay dashed back into the burning bedroom—the other woman had fallen silent, and she lay heavy and limp in their arms as they carried her out, her skin red and scorched. As they heaved her into the dragon’s claw, a roaring from outside, and the sound of beating wings: through smoke Laurence glimpsed Lien, her white belly lit brilliant orange by the flames, hovering before the house. She was calling something out; the Incan dragon called back, “Wait, wait!” urgently, and snatching its precious burden drew its talons out of the opening.
“Maintenant!” Laurence heard Lien call, and from above a sudden deluge of dirt and water came pouring down the sides of the house, splattering enormous gouts through the gap in the wall. Laurence put his head out, afterwards, for a quick look up: fires still burned inside the house, licking out of the windows, but at least the outside had been smothered.
He turned as the door behind him flung open: Napoleon, with a party of Guardsmen crowding behind him, Aurigny among them—the Emperor also resplendent in a magnificent coat of red wool, now badly marred with soot. He stared at Laurence wildly, with the momentary bafflement of one trying to make sense of an unexpected meeting, and then leaping forward seized Laurence by the arms. “My son?” he demanded.
“Safely away,” Laurence said, pointing out at Lien, and the Incan dragon that had gone to join her.
One of the guards sprang t
Two others followed him, all calling together, and Lien’s head swung around as though pulled on a string; she had heard. She dived through the smoke, and the Guardsmen pushed him forward in a knot as Lien reached in for him. “The Empress!” Napoleon said, resisting.
“Safely out by now, Sire!” Aurigny was shouting as the men thrust him into the urgent talons.
Laurence started: Tharkay had his arm and Granby’s, and was drawing them back. “There is a room with no smoke coming out, three windows down the hall,” he said, low. They covered their mouths and ran through the haze of the hallway to the third door, and kicking their way in found a bare room halfway through cleaning, the curtains stripped and in a heap on the floor. One of the window-frames was burning, but the other, though blackened, had not caught. They unhooked the window and pushed it wide. Down the side of the building, Lien was lifting away with Napoleon, and two middle-weight dragons were crowding in to the window to rescue the Guards.
There were many ledges running along the outside walls, some as wide as a man’s foot, and the building was not pitching back and forth, which made the climb down light work for a sailor, much less an aviator. In ten minutes, they dropped down onto the lawns, not too wretchedly singed and bruised, and as he rolled to his feet Laurence heard a voice over the pandemonium, calling, “Laurence! Laurence!”