League of Dragons


  “Not more than twenty, I should think,” Jane said. “If we can even supply that many. Two formations from Dover, and another from Edinburgh, I would expect.”

  Laurence was silent. He had learned enough of dragon-supply, he hoped, to make material improvements over the traditional standards of the Corps. He could not be fully confident of success, and he was wary of letting his force outstrip their means, but—twenty dragons would do very little, against the force assembling against them in France, and any legions from China would not arrive before late in the spring. “Would the Admiralty let me have more?” he asked. “If I should take unassigned middle-weights, and light-weights?”

  “Light-weights are in short supply,” Jane said. “Unless you can make Temeraire talk some ferals out of the stones for you, which I don’t put past him. Of middle-weights, the Yellow Reapers have recovered nicely since the plague, most of them, and we have a good crowd of them ex formatio. There’s a likely Reaper-Parnassian cross, too, a yearling now at Kinloch Laggan, under Captain Adair—a decent fellow. I expect they’d let you have her, if you ask after they’ve given you the rest of the beasts. How do you mean to feed them?”

  “On corn and salt pork, and not beef,” Laurence said. “Jane, I will undertake to bring them to the battlefield, but I cannot set myself up as a tactician against officers with ten years’ more experience in the air.”

  “The finest formations ha’nt done anyone in Europe a particle of good against Bonaparte these last six years,” Jane said, “so as far as that goes, you know as much about facing him as anyone in the Corps: more, if you have learnt anything from the Chinese, which you ought have done. Besides, once you are in the air, the beasts will be following Temeraire, you know, and not really you, if that is a comfort.” She snorted. “No-one can say he isn’t a fair hand at talking other beasts into line. Although I hear he has met his match at last: tell me about this new terror you have visited upon us. I understand she is the despair of Whitehall, and has been issuing demands to be introduced to our prince, poor fellow, in case he should be more useful to her than Napoleon’s heir, or the future Emperor of China?”

  —

  “And I wish to assure you, Temeraire, that I did mean to give this Prince of Wales of yours a fair trial,” Ning said. “I would not like you to feel that I have acted with disrespect to your companion’s nation and your home. But I am afraid it will not do: this business of Parliament must be an excessive inconvenience.”

  “That,” Perscitia said, much ruffled beneath her sash and medal of office, which marked her as a member of that body, “is only because you do not properly appreciate the importance of the legislature, and its necessity to the promotion of our interests.”

  “I am afraid I cannot allow its advantages over a more direct exercise of power,” Ning said.

  “You are describing Tyranny,” Perscitia said grandly—Temeraire heard the capital letter quite distinctly—“and a moment’s reflection will show you its numerous flaws: only one can be a tyrant, and therefore such a political system will rarely be just, or serve the needs of all.”

  “That is lamentable, to be sure,” Ning said practically, “—unless one should happen to be the tyrant, whereupon it makes everything very easy.”

  “Temeraire,” Perscitia said, when Ning had finished her cow and gone to sleep again, already ten feet longer than she had been that morning; now roughly three times the size of an elephant. “Temeraire, I hope you will forgive me, but that hatchling of yours has some peculiar notions.”

  “I am not certain she is wrong, however,” Temeraire said doubtfully. Laurence had a very low opinion of tyranny, he knew, and therefore he felt himself obliged to despise it by commutation, but there was no denying that it had its uses. He looked around the London covert with some disfavor, remembering too well the beautiful grounds at Fontainebleau. There was a pavilion for them to sleep in now, which would once have seemed to him the height of luxury; but there was only one, extremely crowded, and not even as nice as the one where he and Iskierka had been housed at the training camps near the Alps.

  There was nothing to beautify the arrangements, no fountains or even a pleasant courtyard; the pavilion had only been erected in the midst of the old clearings where they once had slept on bare dirt, and the paths among the trees were too narrow for anyone but a human to walk. The stones were not properly heated, either: there were several braziers going for warmth, but in all, the establishment did not stand up well to comparison with their recent prison.

  “But it is entirely unreliable,” Perscitia said. “Now Napoleon has decided to be fond of dragons, because he has learned to make us particularly useful in fighting his wars, and for that matter, quelling any of his enemies in France itself—but what of the tyrant who will come after him? What if the next emperor should decide that he does not like dragons? I would rather have the protection of law, and tradition, and know that whatever we have gained cannot be as easily taken away again. Temeraire, we must give real thought to the future. One day they will cast a cannon that can take a Regal out of the sky with one shot fired, and then where will we be?”

  “Nonsense,” Temeraire said uneasily. “I have been shot two dozen times myself, and there has been nothing so terrible about it. Of course a cannonball would be very unpleasant, but unless one goes too close to the ground, or flies into their path, they are not so difficult to avoid.”

  “There were no guns at all, five hundred years ago,” Perscitia said. “I have been assured of it, by my secretaries.”

  “That is quite false,” Temeraire said, glad to be able to contradict her. “They were invented during the Song dynasty, a thousand years ago: I have read of them in China.”

  “But even so they were invented—they did not always exist,” Perscitia said, turning his information around to serve her own argument, which seemed to Temeraire unfair. “And Chinese guns are not as good as ours are now, and therefore guns have improved, and they will go on improving. What do you suppose will happen when they do not need us to make war anymore, and we are only very inconvenient and eat a great deal, and frighten most of them? They were quite willing to let a great many of us starve, when we were too sick to fly and hunt for ourselves, and they couldn’t get eggs out of us anymore.

  “No, it is no good our relying on any one king or emperor, and it is no good letting them only use us for battle. Oh! I am very glad you are come back, Temeraire. Even though I have been elected, there are still any number of dragons who will not listen to me at all, only because I am not large and do not like to fight all the time,” she added peevishly. “But they will certainly mind you, and I am sure you can understand, if you only make a little push to do so.”

  Temeraire was not at all sure he wanted to understand. Perscitia did like to take alarm at things unnecessarily. It was surely nonsense to talk of shooting down heavy-weights as though they were geese—but Perscitia was clever, and he felt uncomfortably she might not be entirely mistaken about the march of progress.

  In one thing at least, however, they were in perfect agreement: he did not at all trust the Government. They certainly would let dragons starve, if they could, and perhaps worse. He had seen worse in Russia, now, and could describe it; he shuddered again at the memory of the cruel hobbles.

  “I see no reason why we shouldn’t have more of us in Parliament anyway,” Temeraire said. “And for that matter, why we oughtn’t go into some sort of business, too. I must tell you more of this John Wampanoag fellow, that I met in Japan.”

  “You needn’t,” Perscitia said, “I am corresponding with him.” Temeraire blinked in surprise. “I thought from what you said he must be well-known there, so I had one of my secretaries send a letter to Boston, marked very clearly to his name, and it did find him, for he was kind enough to write back. We have discussed arranging an overland trade route from Portsmouth to China, or perhaps just to India to begin with.”

  “For my part, I cannot see that we need this Parliame
nt, or to trouble ourselves about business, either,” put in a small beast, who Temeraire realized with a start had been listening all this while to their conversation.

  He had been easily overlooked: he was sitting in the corner of the clearing beneath a windbreak of pine-trees, and was himself mottled dark green with a belly in purplish brown, just barely topping the line between light-weight and courier-weight. He was of no breed Temeraire recognized, although his accent was quite distinctly Scottish, and wore no harness. Smaller ferals had always slipped into the coverts to sneak some leavings when they could, and now the practice was grown more widespread: the porridge-pots made it easy to make them welcome, and once they were there, the aviators could even trade them meat for their labor.

  “But it’s a deal of work, carrying heavy things from one end of the earth to another,” the green feral continued, “with not even a sheep to be sure of at the end of the day; and you may keep your Parliament. A vote never filled anyone’s belly that I heard of, nor this pay we are meant to be getting, which I have never seen. I like that map of Napoleon’s, if you ask me.”

  “What map is this?” Perscitia demanded, as Temeraire flattened his ruff in irritation: they certainly had not asked him.

  “Napoleon has had the splendid notion of offering dragons territory which he has no right to offer, nor any power to give,” Temeraire said, “and trying to trick them into fighting for it, all to distract his enemies: I had not supposed,” he added coolly, “that any British dragon would be taken in by his chicanery: as though we had not learned before now that all he wants is to take all our territory for his own, and bring his own dragons over here.”

  “He hasn’t any quarrel with me and mine that I know of,” the feral said. “All right, he invaded, but that was to beat that mad old king the men have over here, and I didn’t see any of his beasts setting eggs while they were here, did I? Meanwhile the men in this country go about taking our eggs when it suits them, and hunting up all the game, and coming after us with guns if we want a sheep to eat now and then. I’d just as soon take a chance on a fellow who has done right and proper by his own dragons. Two of my wing were in France lately for his big hullabaloo, and said their leavings at breakfast are better than what we get for dinner, and their pavilions make this,” he flicked his tail dismissively at the small pavilion, “look like a wet hole as you’d put a pig in, to keep for later.”

  By the end of this speech, more than one of the other dragons sleeping inside the pavilion or around the fringes of the clearing had lifted their heads to listen. The Scottish feral—his name was Ricarlee—was informed well enough to sketch out Napoleon’s map in the dirt for them all to examine, and Temeraire was sorry to see the interest it produced, particularly among the feral beasts. The Yellow Reapers crowded round the side of northern England which had been allotted to them and murmured thoughtfully in a way that made Temeraire uneasy, and not only the unharnessed ones, either.

  “Outrageous,” Perscitia said loudly, and, “Mercenary,” and “A return to the Dark Ages, even if it worked, which it shan’t,” but she was the only one to raise a protest.

  Even little Minnow, who had stopped by the covert to say hello to Temeraire, only gave a shrug, even though she had done rather well for herself since the invasion. She and Moncey, and the rest of the Winchesters from their old company, had established a private courier-route. They carried packages and urgent messages and the occasional passenger, for anyone who could afford their rates, and the leather satchel which she wore over her neck and forelegs was beautifully trimmed in gold and pearls.

  “You can’t blame anyone, can you?” she said, nevertheless. “It is our territory, too, or else why did we all fight, in the invasion? Why oughtn’t we have the right to take a sheep or cow—along sensible lines, that don’t spoil the herds, or anything else stupid.”

  “But the sheep and the cows are not simply there, by accident,” Temeraire said, glad to have worked through this very subject with Laurence on several occasions; he had found it quite baffling, himself. “The humans have arranged their being there, by raising them and looking after them, and growing grain to feed them. Naturally they are angry if a dragon swoops down and snatches one, without making any return for all their trouble.”

  “Ah! Easy enough to say, it is all their work!” Ricarlee said. “And if those herds weren’t there, and those great fields of grass the humans like to plant? Why, then there would be some wild goats or pigs, or a tasty venison, free for the taking. I have seen it myself a dozen times in the North: here comes a farmer, cutting down the trees and plowing under the earth, and soon enough the game have all gone away and there is nothing to eat but the sheep. Just because a man is small don’t mean a hundred of ’em can’t steal our territory if they work at it together, and I don’t see why we ought to put up with it.”

  And Temeraire was sorry to see the dragons all around the clearing nodding enthusiastic agreement.

  —

  “Laurence,” Temeraire said reluctantly, when Laurence returned to the covert in the morning, “I think, I am afraid, we may be going to have some small difficulty—some awkwardness—”

  “Certainly we shall,” Laurence said. “Have you heard already, then? I was coming to tell you, but I cannot be surprised that the couriers have passed you the word. I am glad you recognize the magnitude of the challenge before us. The Admiralty have already named me a dozen of our captains, and half of them the most hidebound formation-flyers of the service; how we shall use them without Napoleon bowling us over as thoroughly as he did the Prussians in the year six, I have very little notion at present.”

  “Our captains?” Temeraire said, puzzled, wondering what on earth this had to do with the ferals of Britain threatening to go over to Napoleon en masse.

  “De jure, at least,” Laurence said. “But judging by their choices, the Admiralty mean to assign those men they think more likely to disobey me than otherwise.”

  Temeraire hesitated, still at sea, and then Granby came into the clearing with his hat, beaming, and said, “Well, Admiral Laurence, may I congratulate you?” and shook Laurence’s hand.

  In half-appalled wonder Temeraire said, “Laurence, they have never made you admiral? Not that there is anyone better deserving the rank—!” he added hastily, only that the Admiralty should have done it was almost incredible. And yet it seemed they had—a very meager, very late sort of apology after all their misdeeds and unjust punishments, and nevertheless astonishing they should have made it at all.

  “It has been done very unwilling,” Laurence said. “Likely at the Tsar’s behest, and in hopes of more aid coming from China. But yes, it has been done, and I have my orders. We leave England in a week. John, I have a favor to solicit: I must give a dinner for the captains, and I hope you will ask Iskierka to permit me to make use of her pavilion for the occasion.”

  “A dinner?” Granby said dubiously. “Laurence, have you heard who they have—I won’t say saddled you with, but I do say it; I don’t know what they can be thinking.”

  “They are thinking to have men at my back who will counter my heretical spirits, and who will not hesitate to disobey my orders if they suppose me to be doing anything contrary to Britain’s interests,” Laurence said. “They have chosen as well as they could, for that purpose. But I have no choice; I must take them, for all that. So we must begin with the fiction of ordinary relations, and hope to make it truth in time.

  “But, Temeraire, I fear I must ask you to find some excuse to exert yourself, on the occasion, and if possible give their beasts cause to respect your abilities. I am sorry to make the request: offensive to those who must witness it, as implying they require any such display to maintain discipline, and painful to you to make, as implying the respect which ought to be due you cannot be taken for granted. But I think the urgency of the situation demands it.”

  “Oh, I do not mind that at all,” Temeraire said, “but Laurence,” and he opened his mouth to explain that ther
e was an entirely different source of difficulty and trouble—to tell Laurence that Napoleon’s Concord had somehow reached Britain, and the ferals thought much of it, and several of them were even trying to forward the arrangement.

  But Laurence looked up at him, and Temeraire halted. There was color in Laurence’s face, and though he had spoken so seriously, he was despite that smiling a little, as though some inward happiness buoyed him against all the difficulties of his new position. Laurence had said before that he did not grieve the loss of rank and fortune, of his reputation. But of course, he had been trying to save Temeraire’s feelings. Temeraire could not bear to spoil this moment of vindication and triumph. And if he spoke, Laurence would at once report to the Admiralty, of course, as he would say was his duty; and undoubtedly they would find some way to blame him for it, and perhaps even take back the command, after all.

  “Yes?” Laurence said.

  “—ought you not have another set of golden bars for your coat?” Temeraire said faintly.

  Laurence laughed—laughed, quite aloud!—and said, “I thank you for the reminder; indeed I must make shift to acquire them at once.”

  “He must not learn of the Concord going around,” Temeraire said to Perscitia anxiously, when Laurence had gone with Granby to begin arrangements, for the golden bars and for the dinner. “At least, not until we have contrived some solution; only what am I to do?”

  “LAURENCE, I HAVE BEEN thinking,” Temeraire said. It seemed an opportune moment: Laurence was busily engaged in figuring in a very large ledger the various expenditures required to fit out Iskierka’s pavilion for the dinner. “I have been thinking, it might be suitable for me to host a dinner as well—for some of my old friends from the breeding grounds—veterans, and unharnessed fellows—and perhaps some ferals might stop in—”

 
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