League of Dragons
“Yes, indeed!” Perscitia said, sitting up sharp. “We must propose a bill, to Parliament, with our requirements.”
“Now that,” Minnow said, to Temeraire’s satisfaction, “is the most sensible thing I have heard. It stands to reason we are better off not fighting with the people here: they have plenty of guns in this country, after all, and anyway we most of us have friends among the harnessed dragons, and don’t care to put them in an awkward position. Now then, what do we want to ask their Lordships for?”
Fortunately, Perscitia’s secretary Mrs. Elsinore was on hand to take notes. Her hand was excellent, although she had some difficulty in keeping up with the lengthening list of demands and requests: higher pay, more frequently and more honestly paid, and even for those dragons who did not choose to fight—“But then you ought to do some work for it,” Temeraire said, to which Ricarlee a little disgruntledly said, “Oh, aye, some work; if they give us aught we can do without breaking our backs,” but at least he and the ferals agreed to that much—and a host of improvements which Perscitia suggested, to make casting one’s vote easier.
“And we must have more seats in Parliament for dragons,” she added firmly. “We must ask for thirty, and allow ourselves to be bargained down to twenty; we must not accept less than twenty,” which provoked some protests on the part of other dragons, who said they were happy to sit on stone, and would rather have more money.
“I do not mean chairs!” Perscitia said. “I mean members: there must be more dragons who have a share in making the law. Oh! And we ought to insist that they make some dragons officers, too. It is nonsense, only having humans as officers in the Aerial Corps.”
“Yes, be sure and put that on the list,” Temeraire told Mrs. Elsinore, and so forth and so on, until they all finished and looked at the list with some satisfaction—everyone pleased, and agreeing that they would all pledge themselves to enforce it, and then Perscitia announced, “I will take it to Parliament on Monday, then, and read it to the other members—perhaps I can arrange for them to hear Bonaparte’s Concord, too,” she added thoughtfully, “so that they have the contrast before them—I think it will be highly instructive—”
Temeraire suddenly woke to the realization that he had averted one disaster only to produce another. For the Concord to come to the Admiralty’s attention would have been bad enough, but no-one would ever be persuaded that he had not had a hand in this new document—as indeed he had, but the point was that Laurence was sure to be blamed for it with even more violence. “You cannot read it!” he said hurriedly.
Perscitia scowled. “It is not my fault I was not taught early enough,” she said, injured. “Besides, Mrs. Elsinore will read it to me until I have it by heart. You may be sure I will not make any mistakes.”
“No, I meant,” Temeraire said, but fell silent; he could not say, Do not read it, for Laurence’s sake. That would be unfair, and worse than unfair; it was just what the Admiralty wanted of him and of every harnessed dragon, that they should betray their own interests and those of their fellow-dragons just to please their captains—and Laurence would not even be pleased; Laurence would never wish it of him.
“I only meant,” he said, struggling, “that we must proceed with more delicacy. After all, if you should spring it upon the Parliament without warning, I dare say they will all refuse to listen. Laurence has told me how often the question of the slave trade has been argued, and how much difficulty there has been in getting the ban through.”
“One cannot spring anything upon Parliament without warning,” Perscitia said, with a lecturing air. “I shall announce tomorrow that I will make a motion to read in a bill, so everyone will know that it is coming. Of course I must first marshal support for the measure, but I have already thought of that. There are several gentlemen of the Opposition who will be glad of a chance to embarrass the Government by putting a question to the Speaker about Napoleon’s Concord, which shall furnish me with an excellent opportunity of warning of all the dire consequences should it be adopted by England’s dragons, and be the best introduction for our bill—which, by the bye,” she added, “must be properly named—and I shall argue that the Government ought to adopt it, and thereby present an example of enlightened leadership to the nations of the Continent, and their dragons—”
“Laurence,” Temeraire said, feeling rather desperate, “I must have a word with you.”
“I am at your service,” Laurence said immediately, turning away from the pair of wide-eyed young runners who had been delivered by courier that morning from Kinloch Laggan, along with four ensigns, seven riflemen, three lieutenants, and a ground crew of twenty men, all of whom had already been pressed into varying forms of service to prepare for the party.
“Oh—to-night will do,” Temeraire said cravenly. “Or tomorrow; tomorrow will certainly be good enough, I am sure.” The pavilion looked so splendid—lanterns hung everywhere, and silk hangings, and even if braziers and hot bricks were the source of warmth, there were so many of them as to make a really comfortable glow. The smell of the roasting cows rose marvelously over the fresh sea-air crashing on the cliffs below, and the pavilion’s prospect could not be improved upon: the wide expanse of the Channel was already dark, as the sun sank westward, the boats with their lanterns bobbing jewel-like. The tables were laid with great magnificence: porcelain and crystal and silver all ablaze upon the inner, large platters of brass for the dragons set behind every captain’s place, and liveried footmen already arranging themselves at intervals around the table. “How grand everything looks!”
“Yes, I mean to dine in proper state,” Laurence said. “If only captains might be impressed so certainly by such things as their dragons, I would be content. But at least they will have no cause to feel I slight them, and I admit that I hope the formality of the table may encourage a like formality in the behavior of the guests; I can rely on no amiable feeling among them.”
Laurence knew this was a polite understatement, but he had no intention of letting Temeraire know that Captain Poole had five years ago loudly expressed to Laurence’s face the opinion that he ought to have been drawn, quartered, and thrown to dogs, in the good old fashion; nor that Captain Windle had on the same occasion struck him—in the midst of a general melee broken out in camp, where Laurence had been able to return the blow in kind rather than take insult—and still less that Windle’s first lieutenant had tried, drunken and ineffectual though the attempt had been, to stab him with a table knife.
Temeraire, if he knew, would certainly have objections of his own to express to all of these gentlemen; violent objections. But Laurence himself could not blame them for their feelings, nor the honesty of their open avowal. The Admiralty had been brutal indeed in spreading the blame of his treason across all aviators, then compounding that injustice by postponing their own sentence and keeping him alive. Since then they had transported him, restored him, and now, to crown all, promoted him. Their actions implied too plainly that better was not to be expected, from aviators; that they were to be regarded much as were their beasts, as unreliable, half-controlled, and lacking in all discipline—a bitter swallow for officers who loved the Corps, and aspired only to perform their loyal duty to the Crown. Laurence would have gladly counted himself among their number, once; only extremity had driven him out of their ranks. The men who objected to his pardon were guilty only of loving their service, and resenting the insult to its honor.
He was nevertheless relieved that the first to arrive was Jane’s recommendation, Captain Adair, whom the Admiralty had grudgingly allowed him. Adair was of an older Corps family and a gentleman; he and Laurence were even connected distantly, fourth cousins somewhere on the maternal side, and while he could not be called warm, his manners were punctilious. His dragon Levantia was young and not a little nervous; she had the claws of a Parnassian and the cheerful yellow coloration of a Reaper, and an anxious habit of mind distinct from either breed. But she was sq
The rest of the party arrived in slightly tardy stages, and made Laurence greetings stilted when not verging on outright rudeness. Captain Poole did not verge: did not offer a hand, nor even make the smallest bow, and said only, “Laurence,” in a cold and remote voice.
Laurence paused and said quietly, “Admiral Laurence; or you may report yourself to Whitehall for insubordination.”
Poole stood a moment. Thin and thin-lipped, with almost a pared quality, as though someone had whittled him down like a stick; there was a hardness in his face, and his hair was shingled close to his head. But he was a young man still; he had been a lieutenant when Laurence had last seen him, on the eve of the ill-fated Battle of London. He had won his step sometime in the intervening years; his young Anglewing, Fidelitas, was larger than most of that breed, solidly in the heavy-weight class, and was likely one of the eggs bred up while the plague had been ravaging the British ranks with no prospect of a cure.
“Admiral,” he said finally—adequate; Laurence nodded and stood aside. Poole immediately continued into the pavilion and crossed the length of the table to join Windle and three other captains, who were holding themselves well apart from the rest of the company, and speaking in low voices; the glances they threw at Laurence from across the table left little doubt of the likely subject of their conversation, nor their sentiments thereupon.
The dinner was not a success by any measure Laurence would ordinarily have used: the conversation stilted and labored, and the atmosphere heavy. His preparations achieved the quelling effect he had desired, but not by mere elevation of tone. He was sorry to realize that several of the captains had never before been confronted with the full array of a formal dinner service, and found themselves at a disadvantage. A quarter of the gentlemen refused soup until nudged by their neighbors, and nearly all of them plainly had to remind themselves at regular intervals not to eat from their knives. Captain Whitby called out across the table to say, “Hi, Alfred, light along those mushrooms you have there by you,” only to make poor Alfred—Captain Gorden—startle violently and knock over his glass when one of the footmen made a desperate leap from behind him to fetch the desired dish before he could reach it.
So Laurence had without intending it established a distinction of social standing, and if he had made his captains polite, he had also made them uncomfortable. But the dinner succeeded in avoiding the worst dangers he had foreseen: there was no open rudeness, and the conversation though not lively was unobjectionable. The most resentful of the captains had been scattered around the table by the correct order of seating—although a little whispering had been required to arrange that, aviators as a rule not much given to working out their exact precedence—and as a result, had less opportunity for speaking among themselves in a small group. Laurence was willing to have their dislike a little transmitted, in exchange for having it dispersed and thereby restrained.
He proposed the loyal toast to the King, and afterwards necessarily saluted Windle, as the most senior captain present; all raised their glasses, even if Windle looked sour at the honor, and from there the round of toasts proceeded without incident. The excellent wines had a mellowing effect upon the company, and Temeraire meanwhile was having some success among the dragons seated in the outer ring to enjoy their own meal—an arrangement which if it surprised them and their officers plainly recommended itself to the former. On landing, one captain had said, loud enough to be overheard, “Bellamar, if they should try to feed you any foreign mess, or some nonsense of gruel, be sure I will see you properly fed back in Dover,” but when they were ushered inside the pavilion to their places, the glittering array of the tables had an appeal which not the strongest captainly opprobrium could entirely overcome.
“Is this a dinner-party, then? Why, they are very splendid after all; I did not know how it should be,” said Windle’s own Obituria, a large Chequered Nettle, to the visible and scowling annoyance of her captain. It was a sentiment much repeated, particularly once the beef was served—one entire side to a dragon, roasted beautifully and showing to advantage upon the brightly polished platters, with whole oranges stuck upon the points of the ribs. Many harnessed dragons had developed an expensive taste for strong spice, much used during the plague to overcome the deadening of their appetites, which they of late had little opportunity to indulge. The curried sauce, delivered in large tureens, went around to especially loud enthusiasm, and, it had to be admitted, equally loud consumption.
The wheat porridge served after, which might have occasioned protests, was presented to them decorated with large lumps of rock sugar that had a look almost of jewels, so that several of the dragons leaned forward to ask their captains in undertone if they were really meant to eat such marvels, rather than take them away to keep. Temeraire had to give the company their lead and say, “Are the sugar jewels not remarkable? Pray tell me your opinion,” to Obituria, on his right, as he took his own first large swallow.
The porridge-bowls were cleaned bare all around the table, and then the dragons’ second course brought out: fish, overlapped and arranged on the plate into the shape of a sea-serpent, each appropriate to the size of the guest, with an enormous stuffed pumpkin for a glaring orange eye and masses of stewed greens for the ocean waves, oysters and clams and mussels in quantity rounding out the sea-bed, and for each plate a handsome lobster bright red as a flourish. Delight reigned; even Poole’s dragon might be overheard whispering—as dragons whispered—“Roger, but he cannot be so very bad, only look at my plate—and the lanterns!” Poole looked irritable.
Laurence was glad to establish Temeraire, at least, in the esteem of the dragons. Meanwhile, at the officers’ table every man had been toasted, as well as Nelson’s memory. The second course was carried away in satisfactory ruins, particularly the same turbot which had furnished the dragons’ dish, and the cloth being removed Laurence took his chance and rising said, “Gentlemen, we leave for the Continent in three days’ time. We confront a tyrant whose genius for war has made him the dismay of every army he has faced, and the architect of misery in nearly every part of the world. He has seemed at times unassailable and invincible. But we have proven him otherwise here on England’s soil and in Spain; the Russians have lately proved it in their own country. The hour advances when we shall prove it in Germany and in France, God willing. May we all of us, man and beast, do our part in ensuring his defeat.”
It was not a long speech, nor very elegant, but it served the purpose: “hear, hear,” went around the table, every man drank, and Laurence sat again conscious of relief and having bound his officers in at least so much unity of purpose. The dessert was spread out over the table and the company might now circulate more freely, but those early knots of opposition had been broken up, and the captains did not move far from their dragons, who were murmuring raptures over their own pudding, flickering blue with a monstrous expenditure of brandy. Laurence counted it well-spent to the last shilling for the ecstasies it produced among them. A small group of musicians—intrepid and overpaid—had been set to play for the company, and now began their work. Laurence had been used to this form of entertainment after shipboard dinners, if more informally produced by the hands, and if the music served to dissuade low conversations, that, too, was just as well.
He had never before given a dinner with so much calculation, but there was a familiarity to the undertaking: just so his mother had on many an occasion organized her political dinners, more akin to a military campaign than a convivial gathering. He thought of her with brief pain, and looked down at the black riband on his arm tight against the green coat. He would have no opportunity to see her: there was no time to fly to Nottinghamshire, and she had no heart to come to town; she had written to tell him so, and to congratulate him on his f
“Oh, and look,” Temeraire said, as the dragons finally emerged from the pavilion onto the crest of the hillside for some air, “there is the Spartiate, beating up the Channel. Let us salute her: I am sure if we roar all together, it will be as loud as a broadside, and it is only due her,” that ship being the one survivor of the wreck of Nelson’s fleet, after the battle of Shoeburyness.
The dragons were nothing loath, and even the most sour captain could hardly have made objection. The roar they made was a prodigious noise, once, twice, and then the third something else entirely. Laurence was braced, as was Granby; but all the other guests man and beast fell silent as Temeraire unleashed the full unthrottled roaring of the divine wind over all their united voices, and drowned them beneath that endless wave of noise. All was silent when he finished: the stones beneath their feet still trembling with resonance, and faint splashes coming from the surf below as gulls fell out of the sky dead into the sea.
The Spartiate—Laurence had sent a courier to her captain to warn him of the honor to be paid her—took a moment to recover, but then answered with all her guns, a distant rumbling at the distance but full of glowing fire and smoke. She was a fine and martial sight against the growing dark, enough to lift any heart with zeal.
After the ship had passed, Temeraire with sudden inspiration leaned over and whispered, “Laurence, ought we give everyone one of the lanterns, to take back to their coverts?” and the dragons, at least, were won. They carried away their paper baubles as jealously as gold, with many abjurations to their captains to be careful of the sides, and the hanging-cords, and not to let them fly off during the passage.