League of Dragons


  “Well, my dear,” Laurence said to Temeraire with some satisfaction, when the company had gone, “I think we may have won the field, so far as it could be won. What did you wish to speak to me about, earlier?”

  THE FRESHLY MINTED DRAGON Rights Act 1813 received its first reading in Parliament unopposed, to the great dismay of the Government: evidently no-one had felt equal to raising objections to Perscitia’s face, or rather teeth. Laurence was well aware that the reception he met at the Admiralty, the next day, was restrained only by the almost unwelcome intelligence, arrived that very morning, of the Chinese having promised six hundred dragons to the allied forces.

  He faced Yorke and his subordinate ministers with something almost like amusement, knowing those men wishing to violently castigate him for the one event and stifled by the other. Gong Su had been sent with the news by Crown Prince Mianning, and he had insisted on attending the conference, smilingly. He sat with a placid and benevolent expression that implied—very falsely—that he had only a vague understanding of the proceedings, and his presence forced the admirals to maintain the appearances of respect towards Laurence.

  “It seems you have once more encountered difficulties with your King’s ministers,” Gong Su observed afterwards, as they walked together from Whitehall—that gentleman’s elaborate and impressive robes, and mandarin’s cap and button, as well as his long queue, drawing much fascinated attention from the Marines on duty and every other passerby in the courtyard.

  “I am grateful, sir, that your lord seems to have overcome the objections of his own,” Laurence said.

  Gong Su did not answer immediately. Only when they were ensconced in the privacy of a hackney carriage did he resume the conversation. “Matters in China have altered since your departure. It is my very great sorrow to inform you, Captain, that your dread imperial father is in failing health.”

  “I am sorry to hear it,” Laurence said, although he understood at once how Mianning had carried his point against the conservative faction. Men who might stand against a crown prince many years from his throne would not risk the same opposition when he would very shortly be their emperor. “And sorry as well that he should have been robbed, since we last met: I believe their Lordships have already told you of the hatching of the egg.”

  Gong Su inclined his head. “It is part of my instructions from His Imperial Highness to visit the hatchling and make observations on her character, whenever it should be convenient.”

  Laurence still did not hold himself very knowledgeable in the court etiquette of China, but he had learned enough to know that this meant “without the loss of a moment.” He opened the window and spoke to the driver, who very unwilling had to be reminded thrice of his obligation under the hackney regulation, and promised a half-guinea before he would carry them even to the intersection of Portland and Weymouth, still a quarter-mile’s walk from the gates of the covert. To do the man justice, only so far would his horses go, either; they were already restive and stamping as Laurence and Gong Su disembarked, and shied at the shadow of a Winchester courier falling upon the cobblestones in passing. Fortunately Gong Su was accustomed to the isolation of British coverts, and the alarm the general populace took from dragons; Laurence did not have to make excuses, and a gaggle of braver chair-men were waiting by the corner, hoping for similarly abandoned passengers, who could be prevailed upon to pay twice the going rate to be carried the rest of the way.

  When they had reached the covert, Laurence took Gong Su to meet Ning, not without the liveliest concern; he could not help but fear the consequences of an unfavorable report of her behavior. The alliance between their nations was too tentative and gossamer a thing to easily support the weight of disappointment: not much interest united them, except the desire to see Napoleon overthrown, and a great deal divided. The Chinese port in Australia and its sea-serpent hordes were still thriving, to the ongoing chagrin of Whitehall, and the opium trade continued to evade Imperial restrictions, to the wrath of Peking; resentments which would easily stir up into a quarrel, on only slight additional grounds.

  But Ning comported herself with perfect decorum, rousing from another nap for the introduction and inclining her head to Gong Su politely. “I am deeply honored by the concern shown me by His Imperial Highness, and it is my great hope soon to have reached that maturity of body and spirit which should fit a dragon to assume the august responsibility of making herself a comfort to one who supports the will of Heaven,” she said, in fluent Chinese. “Lung Tien Xiang has with great generosity furnished me with his copy of the Analects, as well as many other works of significance and real value, that my education need not suffer excessively on account of the unfortunate events which caused the removal of my egg from its harbor in the precincts of the Imperial City and prevented the ordinary course of my hatching therein. I would be very glad of any further guidance for my reading.”

  Laurence could not but notice that this speech in no way committed her, but Gong Su was satisfied. “I rejoice to have the pleasure of informing my lord that you are in excellent health, and that no evil effects have attended on the theft which took you with such harsh abruptness from your home,” he said. “He will take much comfort in hearing that you have endured the upheaval with a spirit of resolution and equanimity. I will make every small and humble effort in my power, such as it is, to acquire at least a few manuscripts for your further pleasure. As well, Captain,” he added, to Laurence, “I would be honored deeply if you would permit me to offer on behalf of your elder brother,” this another courtly fiction, as Laurence could give Mianning seven years without a stretch, “the proper festivities of welcome and celebration due the hatching of a new Celestial.”

  “I would like nothing better than to oblige you, sir,” Laurence said, wary of how he might be expected to figure in such a ceremony, “but I must inform you that my present orders do not allow of any delay. We must leave for the Continent at first light tomorrow morning, and I go back to Dover to-night. That need not halt your plans; I trust my absence would not be felt with such a motive.”

  “If I may be forgiven for expressing an opinion in such a matter,” Ning interjected unexpectedly, “I should feel it more appropriate to wait for a more auspicious moment. As I understand it, we stand upon the eve of war, where the armies of China shall strike against the very one who has so grievously offended the Celestial Throne by thieving away my egg. A celebration of my hatching might better be deferred until we may unite it with a celebration of victory, and thereby magnify the joys of the occasion.”

  Gong Su paused, and then said thoughtfully, “I receive your wise proposal humbly and with gratitude, Lung Tien Ning, and without substituting my own judgment for that of the Son of Heaven, believe there can be no objection to a temporary postponement under these circumstances.”

  “I am gratified by your kindness to our guest,” Laurence said to Ning, afterwards, when Gong Su had left to return to his hotel, “and your patience in the matter.” He was surprised to find her willing to postpone a ceremony which should certainly have gone far to establish her reputation in the eyes of the world.

  “This island is too isolated,” Ning said matter-of-factly, “and your own position too irregular: it does not seem to me very likely that any particularly notable persons are likely to attend, should Gong Su offer a feast at present on my behalf—certainly no heads of state, or other personages of importance; I understand from Temeraire that he has never met your own king at all.

  “When Napoleon has been defeated, it is certain a gathering will recommend itself to all the allies to decide how best to divide the spoils of victory: every ruler shall send a representative, and any formal celebration held at that time will naturally attract guests of the best quality, who will not wish to miss any chance of furthering negotiations to their advantage. And the presence of the expected force from China can only add to the consequence of that nation, and therefore myself. It will do much better. Do you find any flaw in my reasoning?
” she asked; perhaps Laurence’s expression showed something of his feelings.

  “No,” Laurence said. “No; your reasoning seems to me eminently sound. And if we should lose?”

  “Such an unhappy outcome cannot really be taken into consideration,” Ning said cheerfully: but certainly having avoided any public display of loyalty to China, or its future emperor, would make it less notable a treachery if she allowed herself to be won over by a victorious Napoleon, to claim the post of companion to his heir.

  Laurence felt a qualm at visiting this scheming creature on an unsuspecting Mianning, who if he did not really have a familial claim upon him had certainly earned his gratitude. But an emperor of China required a Celestial, and Ning had at least proven she could be circumspect when her situation demanded. She might not indeed be so poor a companion for a ruler much beset by conspirators, once she had finally committed herself to his service.

  “Meanwhile,” Ning went on, “after consideration I have decided it would be best should I accompany you to the Continent. Although I cannot take part in the fighting directly, as the Chinese will think it inappropriate, I feel there will be much for me to learn by observation, and I expect there will be more opportunity of acquainting myself with other officers of high rank while in your company, now that you have been made an admiral—so long as you were not demoted to-day?” Her head came swiveling down to inspect him, tilting an eye towards the bars upon his shoulders. “There were some remarks I overheard made among the couriers that supposed this might be the case.”

  “No,” Laurence said dryly. “I am happy to say I remain an admiral, and of more use.”

  “That is excellent,” Ning said, quite unruffled. “It would have been inconvenient otherwise.”

  “I must however demur: you are not yet up to the flight,” Laurence said. “We have near six hundred miles to cover in three days’ flying, and every dragon of our company will be under full weight of harness and men; none of them can carry you. You must remain here.”

  “That will not do,” Ning said. “No-one comes to this covert except low officers and couriers, and too few of those besides. But pray do not worry,” she added. “You are beset with many cares, and must be desiring to return to Temeraire at once. You may dress for flying; I will make all the necessary arrangements.”

  Laurence did have to dress, so he deferred further argument even while wondering what arrangements she thought she might make. There was no dragon in the covert who could manage her bulk and the necessary speed of their flight both: she was growing with the same explosive speed Laurence recalled from Temeraire’s early weeks, and more nearly approximated the size of a light-weight than a courier beast, by now. In an emergency, she might have been carried, but he would not slow the entire company for her and her unknown purposes.

  But when he emerged from his cabin, she looked only satisfied and said, “Good, you are ready; our transport is nearly here.”

  Nearly in this case proved to mean the better part of an hour, and only when Laurence was on the point of refusing to wait any longer, and taking a courier, did a heavy ponderous flapping of large wings aloft clear the landing-ring of the covert. The massive Regal Copper of Temeraire’s acquaintance from the breeding grounds, Requiescat, came thumping down.

  “I regret that it was not possible for you to be more timely,” Ning said, rather coldly.

  “It ain’t my fault,” Requiescat said. “I don’t fly a mile straight up for my own pleasure. But you can’t guess the fuss the groundlings make, only if I choose to coast in at a decent height—‘stampeded everyone on Rotten Row,’ ” he mimicked a whine. “They don’t take much stampeding, let me tell you. Climb on, since you’re in such a hurry, and let’s be off.”

  “A moment, if you please,” Laurence said.

  The Regal startled and peered very carefully down. “Why, I didn’t see you there,” he said, addressing a shrub somewhat to Laurence’s left. “Who are you, then?”

  “I am Temeraire’s captain,” Laurence said in some asperity. “Do I understand that you are volunteering to come to the Continent with us? And fight?”

  “I might as well, I guess,” Requiescat said. “I am tired of carrying rocks around. It may be good money, but it gets stale, there’s no denying.”

  Laurence contemplated without enthusiasm the project of feeding a Regal Copper, with six other heavy-weights to manage already among their force—but there was no denying the breed exerted a kind of moral force upon their fellows disproportionate to even their immense scale. He was sensible of the advantage Requiescat’s presence should offer not merely in battle, but in securing the uncertain discipline of his company. His worst fear at present was not defeat, but a mutiny among his captains, which might rob them of a victory otherwise in reach—and he would hold himself responsible regardless of the ill-management of the Admiralty which had served him with such officers as made that mutiny a prospect more probable than unthinkable.

  Laurence looked at Ning, who regarded him with placid mien. How she had prevailed upon an unharnessed and indolent beast to volunteer for war, Laurence did not know, and suspected some inducement had been privately offered, which might well be held to his own account in future. But so far as the practical side of the matter, she had indeed found a solution: Requiescat could certainly manage her weight, even if he were armored to boot.

  “Very well,” Laurence said, yielding. “If you are set on this course, you are welcome; and you may accompany us as well, if you choose,” he added to Ning, “but I think I will require your promise that so long as you remain with us you will undertake no action inimical to Britain’s interests, nor hold any conversation with the enemy.”

  Ning considered this demand long enough to make Laurence glad he had made it, and at last judiciously said, “I believe I can commit myself so far: you have my word,” and he could only hope that would be sufficient bond to keep her from either imprudence, or a dishonorable excess of the reverse.

  —

  “Requiescat is welcome: he is very handy in a fight when he likes to be, even if he does want the biggest share of everything, always,” Temeraire said. “But I do not understand why Ning wishes to come along, and—Laurence, of course I do not mean to imply there is anything wanting in a dragon of my lineage, only I am afraid Ning—that she is—” He stopped, wondering how best to put it into words, without inviting any reflections on her breeding.

  “Just so,” Laurence said with a sigh, “but we are most likely better off bringing her than leaving her behind; she would certainly make some form of mischief in our absence.”

  “I am quite content to come,” Ning herself said, when Temeraire tried to suggest that perhaps she would be better off remaining out of the noise and tumult of war, where she might easily be injured, particularly at her small size. “I will be careful to evade any danger.”

  “I am sure she will,” Temeraire muttered, disgruntled, but there was no more time for persuasion to act upon her; the last furious bustle of preparation was under way, and Challoner, the new second lieutenant, was begging his pardon, but they needed his help with the armor.

  Temeraire had scarcely remembered the enormous effort involved in getting a British heavy-weight under full arms and under way, and the size of the crew required to make the operation possible at all. He had once taken it for granted. Now he had learned to look with a critical eye upon the service which had then been all his world, and yet the cheerful ordinary shouting and cursing still had the power to raise a pang of pleasurable nostalgia—officers and ground crew all scrambling in every direction, checking over every buckle; the supplies all laid out and going aboard in their orderly fashion, as unchanged as sunrise. There was even something satisfying in the imposing weight of harness and chainmail, and more still in knowing his belly-netting held nearly fifty incendiaries, and a full complement of seven riflemen were already gone aboard his back.

  He had been luxuriously scrubbed yesterday, under Challoner’s su
pervision—Lieutenant Challoner herself entirely satisfactory, with a silver-buttoned coat in bright green, hair neatly braided and tied at the end with a matching ribbon, everything about her deeply comforting to Temeraire’s sense of what was due their new rank and stature. She had also the charming quality of being the sister of one of Temeraire’s former officers who had died at the Battle of Dover, and therefore seemed rather like a lost valuable recovered: although it was puzzling Rebecca should have described herself to him as the younger sister, when she was older than Dilly had been; but Temeraire put this aside; he did not like to think too much about the way time passed for people.

  She had gracefully accepted Temeraire’s hints on the subject of the appearance he should like the crew to present, and acted upon them: there was not an officer who did not have a tidy black neckcloth and a freshly pressed coat; their boots were all blacked to an equal shine, and the ground crew, too, were all tidy and had clean shirts and clean leather vests. The whole clearing offered a handsome portrait of industry and order to Temeraire’s survey, and he could not help but regret that Forthing should very soon mar it again with his own disgraceful appearance, quite likely leading a good number of the crew astray with him.

  He had tried to broach the subject with Laurence—“Surely we ought have a first lieutenant more—more suitable”—but Laurence had firmly put a period to the discussion.

  “My dear, I must ask your pardon. I know you are not fond of Forthing, but you must see the injustice of having accepted his toil and service all this long and thankless way, only to push him aside at the first opportunity where that service might receive its just reward. He has served honorably and to the best of his abilities, and I cannot entertain the suggestion of replacement.”

  Temeraire sighed again, but consoled himself: at least he had no reason to blush for his crew now, and battlefield conditions might excuse the lack of that formality and neatness of uniform which were under better circumstances considered appropriate.

 
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