League of Dragons
There was nothing to do but hope the confusion would save them: Laurence shouted, “Here! Temeraire, over here!” and Temeraire came down beside him with a gasp of relief.
“Oh Laurence!” he said, snatching him up at once. “I flew round and round and I could not see you in the least. I will wring her neck, see if I do not!”
“Don’t tell me Iskierka has done all this!” Granby said, already tumbling into Temeraire’s other claw with Tharkay.
“No!” Temeraire said. “It is not Iskierka’s fault, except it is, for she would have an egg with the divine wind and fire both, and just look where that has landed us!”
“Free, and with your captains,” the dragonet said, which silenced Temeraire and Iskierka, in the midst of their heartily upbraiding her. She lifted a claw and licked her talons neatly—bloodstained, as though having fired the palace, she had taken a moment to go get herself something to eat. Recalling the voracious appetite of new-hatched dragons, Laurence supposed this was indeed the case, as she would otherwise have been complaining extremely. He stared down at the deceptively small creature in some dismay. She seemed entirely untroubled by the enormous chaos she had wreaked: in the distance behind them, clouds of smoke still blotted out half the night sky, and the palace was still limned in the reddish glow of embers.
“But that is only by good luck!” Temeraire said.
“I do not deny there was a risk,” the dragonet said judiciously, “but one must take risks occasionally to achieve one’s ends, when there is no better way of going about it. There is no sense lamenting a necessary evil.”
“It was not necessary for you to nearly burn up Granby,” Iskierka said stormily, “and the next time you mean to take risks, you may take them with your companion, and not mine. Why you couldn’t have made up your mind to take Napoleon’s son, I am sure I don’t know. He will be an emperor, too: it is all muchwhatlike.”
“That,” the dragonet said severely, “is an extremely shortsighted remark. As though one emperor were just the same as another, to all purposes!”
“It would certainly not be as good, as to be companion to the Emperor of China,” Temeraire said, “but for my part I do not see why you should have ever needed to consider becoming a traitor, and joining the enemy.”
“That term I reject, for I should have betrayed no-one in making such a choice: my loyalty has not been given either to China, or Britain, or France,” the dragonet said with a martial light in her eye, drawing herself up and thrusting her head forward in challenge towards Temeraire, although his muzzle loomed larger than her entire body. “I recall you telling me quite clearly that the choice of companion should be my own: did you only mean, so long as I should choose a companion agreeable to you?”
“Oh, well,” Temeraire said, and drew his own head back to rub against his flank in a gesture of embarrassment; Laurence indeed recalled overhearing him make such muttered lectures to the egg in its shell, when it had first sat in state upon the Potentate. “But I do not see why you should at all want to join the French, after they stole our egg, and after Napoleon has caused so much trouble for everyone.”
Satisfied to have defended her honor, the dragonet settled back down onto her haunches. “I cannot say that I have perceived any distinction among the nations of the world,” she answered, “which should entitle any of them to either my full approval or condemnation. I have heard more than enough, being carted here and there and exchanged from one side to another, to persuade me that none are without blame for this unhappy state of quarreling and perpetual warfare. That, I can heartily condemn. It seems perfectly plain to me that it is war itself which must be halted, without wanting one side or another defeated in particular.”
She spoke severely. Laurence supposed her time in the shell had certainly been an alarming period enough to give her a distaste for its cause, if she had been aware through much of it to remember; but she did not seem to have grown shy—perhaps not surprising, when she had already produced a disaster of such magnitude while not yet the size of a pony. It augured ominously for her future capabilities, and he could not help but be concerned to find her so willing to entertain all suitors.
“Certainly the war must be halted,” Temeraire said. “That is precisely why we mean to defeat Napoleon.”
“That would stop this war,” the dragonet said. “But I am quite certain that it would not end all war. I dare say you and your allies would all quarrel among yourselves straightaway, and start a new one.”
“Well, if there were no war, anywhere, how could one ever take a prize?” Iskierka put in. “That would not be agreeable at all.”
“I would be very happy to see war come to an end, myself; although a neat little skirmish now and then, with a prize after, no-one could really object to, I think,” Temeraire said. “But I should like to know a great deal how you suppose anyone should accomplish that.”
“Well, I don’t know, yet,” the dragonet said, “but I mean to find a way: just because the business will be difficult is no excuse for not making the attempt. But of course my choice of companion is of great importance. I am not sure that the Emperor of France would not be best situated, after all, to help me.”
“You may be sure Napoleon will not want anything to do with you after this,” Temeraire said.
“Nonsense,” the dragonet said. “Most likely he does not even know I have hatched yet. Since you have escaped, I dare say he will blame the two of you, instead, and if anyone did see me do it, why, I am newly hatched, and no-one could expect me to know exactly what I was doing. Perhaps it was only an accident, or perhaps you even set me on it.”
“We did not, at all!” Temeraire said, with a gasp of indignation.
The dragonet flicked her tail-tip back and forth to wave this away. “I am only saying there are any number of reasonable explanations he might settle on, should he wish to excuse me. And I am sure he would wish to, if I chose to join his side; I imagine he will be quite impressed with what I can do,” which was inarguable. “I did hope it would answer,” she added, with a note of satisfaction, “after all this talk I have heard in the shell of the conjunction of the divine wind and fire-breathing, but I could not be quite sure until I had tried it. I am glad to have made proofs of it!
“But I cannot yet tell whether the Emperor of China or the Emperor of France will be better suited to assist my task. Or,” she added, earnestly, “perhaps the King of Britain: I hope you do not think I am unwilling to consider him. So hadn’t we better be getting under way? Which way is this Dover of yours, that you want to get to?”
“Laurence,” Granby said, when at last they bedded down just before dawn, “what a perfect terror: what are we going to do with her?”
They were some ten miles from Dieppe as best Laurence could guess—they had found an isolated farm in disrepair, the house and barn abandoned, the latter with a collapsing roof: Temeraire and Iskierka were now hunkered down behind it, with a stand of trees and undergrowth to screen them from at least a first glance, if not a second. The dragonet, having slept nearly all the day on Temeraire’s back, had roused only long enough to go and fetch a heap of straw out of the gaping hayloft; she made herself a nest in the warmest hollow between her progenitors, and satisfied with her arrangements went directly back to sleep.
Laurence was arranging handfuls of dry straw himself, with splinters, to make tinder for the armful of wood Granby set down. The fire would be a fresh risk, but in the half-light of morning the smoke might pass unnoticed: they were a good distance from any road but a half-overgrown track. The night had been cold, and they had none of them been dressed for flying: even huddled with Granby and Tharkay in one of Iskierka’s talons, and held against the churning warmth of her belly, a heavy chill had settled deep into Laurence’s limbs; he thought they must have a little warmth before they dared sleep.
“What Napoleon would make of her, if she should throw in with him, I don’t like to think,” Gr
“We will deliver her to Dover,” Laurence said firmly. “I am sure Whitehall will be delighted to restore her to Prince Mianning, and repair the alliance with China thereby. I trust we can rely upon their skill in the handling of dragons, from there, to make her happy to be the future Emperor’s companion. You will recall that they do not harness beasts, until later in their lives, at all.”
“I suppose we can’t do better,” Granby said. “The Chinese may say what they like, and I am sure it answers for them; but I should be a great deal easier if this one had a captain to call her to order from the moment she came out of the shell.”
“You will permit me a little skepticism as to the hypothetical man’s likely success,” Tharkay said, coming back into the barn and putting down an armful of potatoes and carrots, which he might as well have conjured out of the air. “There is a vegetable garden against the side of the house; it seemed likely,” he answered their surprised looks. “We are fortunate in our choice of hiding-place, I think: there were some letters inside from a son gone to be a soldier, written to a widowed mother—the latest half a year old, from Smolensk, and unopened. I dare say there are many young men who will not be coming home.”
The sunrise was giving a mellowing warmth to the weathered grey boards of the barn, and gilding the edges of the bare branches. There was a comfortable familiarity to all the arrangements of the farm that made the absence of life all the more disquieting. There ought to have been lowing cows and a gabble of chickens, and a farmer hurrying with half-closed eyes to tend his stock. Instead, empty stalls and silence, and untended fields just beyond the doors: the cost of Napoleon’s wars.
They roused Iskierka just enough to start the fire with a gout of flame spat onto their carefully scraped ground; her eyes lidded down again at once. The half-frozen bounty of the garden roasted in the coals as they warmed their hands and numbed feet, and melted snow to drink hot out of a tin pail left hanging on a hook. Laurence scratched in the dirt his best memory of the coastline, and they considered the distance.
“We had better go by sea, if we think they can manage it,” Granby said.
“I will be so bold as to be certain that we are scarcely a hundred miles from Eastbourne, flown north-north-west,” Laurence said, “and once we are fairly into the Channel, most ships of the blockade can throw us out some pontoons if we should get into trouble with a cross-wind. We may have some difficulty signaling, if they do not recognize us.”
“That don’t worry me,” Granby said. “It would be wonderful indeed if any captain who has been in the Channel since the year seven didn’t remember Iskierka, and curse to see her coming to snatch a prize out from under his teeth. They would be heartily delighted to see her drown, but I suppose they shan’t turn us away if we appear on their doorstep, as it were. We’ll have to go on from there to Dover straightaway, though—there’s a covert at Eastbourne, but it is not much more than a courier-stop; they won’t like us dropping by with a couple of heavy-weights and a fresh-hatched beast.”
“Do you insist upon making for a covert?” Tharkay said, unexpectedly. “I trust you will forgive my raising a point of concern,” he added, when they looked in puzzlement, “but do you suppose your hatchling likely to be impressed by the conditions she will find at Dover, compared with those she has lately left behind—before she set them on fire, that is.”
“Well,” Granby said, and halted there. Of course he could not without pain admit any evil of Britain’s coverts, when held against those of France, and Laurence shared his sentiments of loyalty to the service; but there was no denying that the disparity would be a marked one, unless such changes had been made in their five years’ absence as they could hardly hope for. Temeraire had kept up an irregular correspondence with Perscitia, a comrade of his breeding-ground days who had energetically pursued in his absence the liberties—and prosperity—of dragons. Her letters when they came were universally a litany of complaint, cataloguing obstruction in every direction.
“Let us get out of France, first,” Laurence said, after a moment. “We must content ourselves with escaping Bonaparte’s borders before we can entertain other concerns.”
Laurence stirred in the late afternoon, conscious of some near presence, and opened his eyes to find the dragonet staring very intently directly into his face, the long arrow-shaped head extended to the full length of her serpentine neck. He could see her colors now, and also the difficulty of making them out: the underlying color of her hide was certainly black, but heavily overlaid with an opalescence of red and green and blue which became dominant at the extremities of limbs and wings, almost casting off a reflection.
“Good,” she said, drawing back to let him sit up. “You have woken up. I am very sorry to be the cause of difficulty, but I am afraid I must have some more food at once.”
She was not wrong about the difficulty. The sun was still well up, despite winter, and neither Temeraire nor Iskierka could possibly go aloft in settled countryside like this and not be noticed at once against the sky. The farmers would certainly raise an alarm, and even if there were no pursuit close enough to pounce upon them immediately, the entire coast in flying distance would be roused against them.
“Over the Channel, Temeraire will certainly be able to get you a decently sized tunny to eat,” Laurence said. “Can you only wait until sunset?”
She looked up at the sky, and then turned back and said firmly, “I cannot.”
“I don’t see that we must wait. I would not mind a cow myself, now I think of it,” Iskierka muttered, having been half-roused by the discussion.
“That is all we need,” Granby said, rubbing a hand over his own face as he sat up.
“Perhaps we might make some broth, if anything more can be found,” Laurence said.
They all dug in the garden for a few more leavings of vegetables, and Tharkay managed to take a squirrel with a stone, although this was not much to put into their stolen pot. A few handfuls of old barley were the only other addition, found in a cupboard. As they stirred the fire urgently, Granby said to Laurence, under his breath, “Are you sure you don’t want to try and put some harness on her? I suppose Temeraire wouldn’t like it in the least, but a dragonet’s hunger is no joke. Her patience will go hang before we can make this fit to eat, I expect.”
“I would not like it in the least, either,” the dragonet said, poking her head up over the rim of the soup-cauldron unexpectedly, having overheard. “Besides, I am perfectly capable of seeing for myself that concealment is of the essence, at present. So that is quite enough of that sort of talk.”
“Oh, Lord,” Granby said, with a start.
“You might hurry up that soup, instead,” she added, in reproachful tones.
“We are hurrying it as fast as ever we can,” Granby said. “And in the meantime, you may as well decide, what are we going to call you? I suppose you can’t wait for a captain to hand you a name, if you don’t mean to settle for anything short of an emperor.”
“You may call me Lung Tien Ning,” the dragonet said. “That will satisfy the Emperor of China, as he does not expect to name his companion, but requires me to be considered a Celestial; and the Emperor of France may always give me a French name later, if I like.”
“As though she has any right to be called tranquility,” Temeraire muttered to Laurence, who could not disagree.
But Granby’s pessimistic shake over the soup was at least mistaken: Ning did pounce upon the pot immediately the barley was toothsome enough to chew, but she waited patiently until they had pronounced it ready, and even then drank the soup down slowly in measured delicate swallows, pausing halfway through to demand that they add some more snow to the pot and heat it up again: evidently trying to trick her own belly into a temporary complacency.
“There,” she said at last, having licked the pot not merely clean but dry, “I think I can manage until dark, now. I
She slept again afterwards, and so managed to last until sunset: but then she had reached her limits. She roused Laurence again with a sharp nudge of her head, the sun lowering and golden beneath the tree-tops and a grey chill descending. “How long until I can have that fish?” she demanded.
There were lights clustered ahead of them to the west, gathering more closely as they neared the coast where five years before Napoleon had mustered and launched his invasion. Only a quarter-moon rising, fortunately. Ning hunched on Temeraire’s back, restless and scraping the sides of her claws against his scales—a dusty noise that crept forward into Laurence’s ears and along his spine.
He had preferred to stay aboard Temeraire for this flight, despite the cold, when they might too easily be separated from Iskierka during the crossing. There was too much uncertain in their position, under British law, for him to be glad to send Temeraire flying alone, without anyone who might more easily be heard by a naval captain who knew more of their disgrace and transportation than of their more recent pardon. Those men might remember Iskierka’s pillaging their prizes, but they would remember also the final disaster of the invasion, the sinking of Nelson’s fleet, and all accomplished by a single Celestial. The silhouette of the sinuous body, the horns and frilled ruff, had been the subject of many an artist’s mourning, and whether dark or light would be unwelcome overhead to any ship or shore battery.
“There is a Fleur-de-Nuit flying out there, I think,” Temeraire said low, turning his head back a little. “I saw someone cross against the stars, there to the south: she may have seen us.”
Laurence nodded. The word would be out for them by now, all up and down the coast. He leaned forward to look down past Temeraire’s shoulder, a cupped hand shielding his eyes against the wind: the bobbing of fishing-boats tied up on shore and the lighthouse flashing near Dieppe a firefly-beacon. They were nearly out over the water.
And then a sudden flare going out, mid-air, blue and hissing—in its burst, Iskierka was lit vividly against the flattened black of the sky, her reds and greens made shades of black and grey, and to the south, not three miles distant, were three Fleur-de-Nuit dragons all hunting together. Temeraire stretched out long and flew, as the beacon-fires went up beneath them.