League of Dragons


  Iskierka had established a handsome bonfire in her clearing, for her crew, and was also eating; she was pleased with herself, as indeed she had a right to be. By her count, which was only a little exaggerated, she had told for some eight beasts, most heavy-weights, besides keeping their forward line clear and leading their telling strike. She had paid little for her daring: a few glancing musket-balls, fired from enemy dragons more interested in evading than fighting her, and one raking scratch already closed by the time she had come to earth—now poulticed and bandaged for the night by her surgeon, in an excess of caution which had provoked Keynes to mutter about mollycoddling. “And you may tell Temeraire for me that he did not do so badly, himself,” Iskierka said. “I liked what he did with those cannon: it was quite handy, although I do think he might have been more clever about getting shot.”

  “A rotten mess,” Granby said, when they were far enough from the clearing to be out of earshot from his crew, along the paths: their field-covert sprawled nearly two miles over a long stretch of foothills, with most dragons crammed in three and four to a clearing, but Temeraire and Iskierka were established on the upper heights, in prime clearings, and a considerable distance from the central farmhouse where Laurence had established his command. “Damn Poole, anyway; he ought to be broken the service.”

  “I cannot say so, John,” Laurence said.

  “Nor I, anyone would tell you,” Granby said, “but I say it anyway. He wasn’t overborne by some wild start of his beast; he took Fidelitas down, after those mad Scots beggars, and you will never convince me otherwise.”

  “You will oblige me by pretending, however,” Laurence said wearily, and Granby raised an eyebrow.

  “You have something deep in mind, I suppose,” he said. “Do you mean to turn out a politician, after all?”

  “God save me such a fate,” Laurence said, with more force than hope behind it. He felt an inward revulsion at his own present thoughts: a species of scheming against his own officers, those in whom he had been used to repose the fullest trust. He had been assigned officers before against his will, men of limited abilities or whose characters he could not wholeheartedly admire. He had nevertheless always felt himself their captain and not their enemy; his work had always been the straightforward task of helping them to do their duty, and there was a bitter taste to finding himself instead obliged to contrive against them.

  Before the battle, he had hoped—had felt nearly certain—that the engagement, well-carried, would see his command brought in tune. The joy of seeing Berlin liberated, its citizens cheering, and knowing their joint efforts responsible for pushing the French over the Elbe, ought to have swept all small and petty quarrels away, and established that urgently necessary esprit de corps which would sustain them through the long campaign ahead.

  But instead all the satisfactions which their victory ought to have brought, all the sense of good-fellowship and shared struggle, had been wasted. Or worse than wasted. There was not an officer, not a dragon, in their command, who did not know that Poole had deliberately flouted discipline, that Windle had avoided his duty, and that Temeraire and Cavernus and her formation had been forced to run a dangerous risk to cover for their failures. They and their subordinates could not feel themselves part of the victory.

  And no confrontation was possible, which might have cleared the air. Unquestionably they knew they had acted wrongly, and by now must have been feeling the shame of having done so, but Laurence had no expectation of that emotion procuring anything like an apology. They could not acknowledge fault to him, whose guilt was so much the greater in their eyes. Instead Poole would say that Fidelitas had seen the ferals pillaging, and had thought himself entitled to claim his own share of whatever treasure there was to be had; Poole had not thought it his duty to check him, as Laurence had done nothing to check the other beasts. Windle’s reply would be equally pat—the ordered run had been accomplished, and he had known they lacked the dragons for a second pass. His slower beast was vulnerable to the highly maneuverable French light-weights converging upon them. He had acted to preserve her, as was his own paramount duty.

  Laurence did not wish to hear their excuses—did not trust himself to hear their excuses without making such an answer as would only serve the Admiralty, who longed for any justification to remove him, which a quarrel with his senior captains could be made to provide. And he could not dismiss them, either: the Admiralty would delightedly send them back, confirmed and approved in their behavior, and a certain wreck to the discipline of the entire force: there would be nothing left to him then but to resign, and quit the field entirely, with all the evil consequences not merely to himself but to the entire war effort.

  “What will you say to them, then?” Granby asked.

  “Nothing,” Laurence said grimly.

  He stopped at his quarters and armored himself in dress uniform, then summoned the captains to conference, where he maintained the most formal reserve his manners could support: he inquired only after particulars—casualties, injuries taken, armaments consumed—and silenced two attempts at officers trying to say anything more of their dragons’ conduct. No refreshment was offered; he concluded the meeting in remarkably short order, and dismissed them to their dragons. It was a cold reception for men who had won a notable victory against a larger force, and he was sorry not to be able to give a warmer word to Captain Ainley, whose dragon Cavernus had done such work for them today. But he could not say anything, without saying too much. As he preferred not to hear Poole and Windle make excuses, he could not chastise them openly at all, and if he could say nothing to them, he must say nothing to any man.

  “You must make some answer, though,” Granby said afterwards, as they walked back to the clearings together. “They must be thinking you are keeping silent for fear of the Admiralty. If you don’t check them, they will only get worse.”

  “I know,” Laurence said. They had reached the crest of the hill now, and a bright spring wind came rustling the trees; he took off his hat to let the cold air stir against his forehead, looking out over the battlefield: bobbing lanterns traveling over the ground as the corpse-robbers picked over the dead.

  TEMERAIRE LOOKED AROUND FOR Laurence in vain the next morning, all through breakfast and having his wounds dressed fresh—including the two additional bullet-wounds which he had reluctantly confessed to Keynes on the second visit. He had regretted doing so directly afterwards, but he had to admit that to-day they were much better; he did not feel any twinge at all, except if he extended his wings all the way back as far as they could go, and even that was not so very bad.

  He had been ordered to rest, but there was no need to fly: the French had all pulled across the Elbe. Everyone was jubilant that Berlin had been liberated, and all the church-bells had been rung in rejoicing that morning; there was no fighting going, so there was no need for Laurence to be gone, and where?

  “You do not suppose Laurence would ever fight another duel,” he asked Emily finally, growing anxious when the noon hour had come, and Laurence was still away.

  “No, not when he has given you his word,” she said, “and anyway he is admiral now: I don’t suppose you can go about challenging your officers, even in the Navy.”

  “Why would he challenge one of his officers?” Temeraire said frowningly.

  “Nothing,” Emily said hastily. “Nothing—those are the only fellows around, after all. He can’t challenge someone he don’t talk to.”

  She darted away before Temeraire could press past this bit of transparency. He tried to question several other of his officers, but Forthing only looked blank, and Challoner said forthrightly, “Roland oughtn’t have said anything. Pray don’t keep asking around, Temeraire: that will get around, and gossip will only make it worse,” which only increased his worry, and removed any power he had of addressing it, at least until Laurence should come back.

  “I beg your pardon,” Ning said, breaking into his brooding thoughts, “but do you think you will
eat that lamb you have there?”

  “Certainly I will eat it,” Temeraire said, rather indignantly: Ning had refused any part of the battle, even though she might certainly have been of material use, if only she had consented to set a few French guns afire. She had not earned any delicacies. Then he sighed: worry was interfering with the enjoyment of what ought to have been a treat, as the lamb had been sent him in the line of medicine, for his wounds, and Baggy had seen it roasted beautifully on a spit.

  “Do your wounds distress you a great deal?” Ning asked. “You seem out of sorts, despite our victory.”

  “It is not my wounds, only no-one will tell me why Laurence should be angry with his officers,” Temeraire said. “And I do not have confidence he will not fight a duel, if any of them should have insulted his honor.”

  “I am afraid I do not understand,” Ning said.

  “Well, Roland let it slip, that Laurence should like to challenge one of them,” Temeraire began, but Ning flicked her wings negatively.

  “No, no,” she said. “I do not understand why you are perplexed: surely there was ample cause for anger on his part, in the failures of your wing dragons during the battle yesterday? You yourself remarked, last evening, that you intended to speak with them.”

  Temeraire paused: this construction had not occurred to him. “But whyever should that make Laurence angry with his officers?” he said. “Iskierka has behaved ten times as badly, on other occasions, and that was certainly not Granby’s fault; besides, those ferals were worse than anyone else, and they have no officers to blame.”

  “Ah! Well, one does not like to speculate,” Ning said, but she tilted her head as though she had something else on the tip of her tongue to offer. Temeraire nudged over the platter of lamb towards her. “Why, that is very kind of you,” she said, and swallowed down an entire haunch in one neat gulp, crunching the bones with satisfaction. “Well, your admiral is not an unreasonable man, I think—” Temeraire enjoyed again, privately, your admiral, “—so perhaps you must consider if there might be some cause to have provoked his anger against them in these circumstances. I will regretfully mention,” she added, “that I have heard Fidelitas’s captain make certain unfavorable remarks, about Admiral Laurence, on a few occasions when I breakfasted in the southern clearing.”

  “Do you mean to say that Poole gave Fidelitas orders to go and pillage, while we were all still fighting?” Temeraire said, in dawning outrage. He could scarcely believe it, but when Laurence had at last returned, he did not refute the supposition.

  “I must beg you not to repeat it, however,” Laurence said wearily. “No good can come of such gossip: there is no proof, and I hope to God I shall be given none; I must not act upon it, if action can be helped.”

  “This is what you were afraid of, Laurence, all along, I see now,” Temeraire said, seething. “Oh! It is beyond all that is shocking, and when I think that Fidelitas knows, perfectly well, how like a selfish coward he was behaving: I will certainly have words with him.”

  “You cannot,” Laurence said. “He cannot be blamed for following his captain’s orders.”

  “I do not see why not,” Temeraire said, “when he knew perfectly well that those orders were outrageous. Told to behave like a greedy guts who doesn’t care to know any better, when everyone else was keeping in line, and fighting—I wonder he is not ashamed to show his face at the porridge-pits. Laurence, you cannot mean to let him behave in such a scaly manner, without reproof.”

  “We cannot chide the dragon, and not chide the man,” Laurence said. “And he is protected by the Admiralty, who would be glad of the excuse to force my resignation. No, my dear, I am afraid we must cut our coats according to our cloth. He cannot be punished directly: we can only withhold reward.”

  “Reward?” Temeraire said, pricking up his ruff.

  “The Cossacks seized a French wagon-train fleeing the battlefield, last night,” Laurence said. “Laden with charqui, and enough of it to feed us for two months. Wittgenstein has sent it over to our supply-officers.”

  “Why, that is excellent news,” Temeraire said. “But I am afraid, Laurence, that one cannot really call charqui a reward: indeed, you would not credit how stubborn some of our company are, when it comes to eating anything but raw meat. Fidelitas would not even taste my dinner, the day before the battle, though that new cook we have hired did the mutton so very nicely, all rolled around the barley and chestnuts, with that charming sauce with all the peppers—he looked as though he would have liked to try it, so I felt obliged to offer him a bite, but he pulled back straightaway and said no, no, he would not.”

  Temeraire paused even as he finished speaking, and flattened his ruff. “Is that part of this same nonsense? Do you mean, Laurence, that he has been acting so very strangely at his captain’s prompting?”

  “That, I am afraid, must be the least of it,” Laurence said. “But we cannot correct, so we must attempt to lure. Tell me: would you consider four thousand pounds a sufficient incentive, in the way of prize-money, to stimulate their interest, if divided among our force?”

  “Four thousand pounds!” Temeraire cried, quite unable to stifle his delight. “Laurence, how splendid: of course it would. But wherever has four thousand pounds come from?” he asked, a little worried—he hoped Laurence did not mean to propose that he should furnish such a sum.

  “The greatest unhanged scoundrels of the service,” Laurence said dryly.

  —

  It was with the greatest satisfaction that Temeraire set himself up at the head of his clearing, later that afternoon, when the other dragons began to assemble: Iskierka and Requiescat, and all the formation-leaders, as well as Ricarlee and a handful of the other senior unharnessed dragons as well. Minnow had been sent round, to summon them all, and Temeraire received them with a stately calm he felt befit the solemn occasion, and frowned down Ricarlee into order, when he would have gone poking into the simmering leavings of breakfast. “What’s it all about, then?” the unrepentant feral demanded.

  “You must wait and hear with everyone else,” Temeraire said coolly, “although I do not scruple to say, it shall be something of the greatest interest, and to the advantage of any honorable dragon, who is a member of our forces.”

  “Temeraire,” Laurence said, walking into the midst of the gathered circle, “I hope you will oblige me by writing down these accounts as I read them off, large enough for all the beasts to read.”

  “Of course, Laurence,” Temeraire said. “Baggy, light along my writing-table, if you please.”

  He settled himself above it, as Laurence opened the large leather-bound book he had brought—not printed, but full of numbers written by hand, organized in small neat columns. “I trust every one here will share in my satisfaction,” Laurence said, “that the senior commander has ordered that our forces should receive the equivalent of four thousand pounds in prize-money, in recognition of our labors yesterday.”

  Temeraire, forewarned, preserved his countenance and the appearance of calm satisfaction; the other dragons did not manage as much, but made a great swelling noise of delight among them: they all knew pounds, of course, since they were paid now, and just what so dazzling a sum meant, in gold and in cattle.

  “As there may be future prizes of this sort taken, I think it desirable that every beast should understand clearly the division of awards, both in this case and henceforth,” Laurence went on, “and find it easy to call to mind at any moment during our campaign the reward due their efforts. As there are presently one hundred dragons in our company, our base unit will be a one-thousandth share, equal in this instance to four pounds.” He nodded to Temeraire, who quickly wrote 1/1000—£4 upon his paper, and displayed it large.

  “Middle-weights and heavy-weights are entitled to a double share,” Laurence continued, “and formation-leaders to a triple share. Iskierka, Requiescat, Levantia, and Ricarlee, as flying captains, shall be counted as formation-leaders.”

  Laurence paused a m
oment, amidst a perfect hush: everyone had stopped murmuring and pricked their ears forward to hear all the details. “Naturally,” he said, “any prize distribution will omit dragons who prefer to take private pillage in the course of a given battle.”

  This produced a half-cry of protest from Fidelitas, stifled, and an outright one from Ricarlee, who sat up sharp. “Why, there’s naught fair in that,” he said. “There wasn’t anything in those carts we took but some sacks of grain, and a few scraps of this and that.”

  “I see nothing to dislike in it,” Cavernus said, very loudly, and the other formation-leaders murmured in agreement.

  “You may have a fair share, earned with the company, or you may scrape along as chance serves you,” Temeraire said crisply, when the murmuring had died away. “We are certainly not going to encourage selfish pillaging, or even make an attempt, which anyone might see could only lead to endless argument, to carry out an accounting of pillage after every engagement.”

  “On the contrary,” Laurence said, “any remaining shares will be allotted after each engagement in accord with the usual principles of prize-money, to encourage valor, attention to orders, and reward the wise exercise of initiative. Temeraire, if you will be so good as to make note of the particular awards. I am delighted to recognize Cavernus, first, for steadfastness under fire, and for bringing down the Petit Chevalier: ten additional shares.”

  This fascinating and highly agreeable proceeding occupied the entire golden afternoon to the satisfaction of all, except, it seemed, the captains, who began to fidget even before the first hour had concluded. Poole was even so rude as to break in and say, “How much longer are we meant to stand for this litany of—”

  “Roger!” Fidelitas hissed, with a glance of mortification, while every other head turned censorious looks in their direction, especially Cavernus, whose wing dragon Maxilla was presently being allotted two additional shares for having held position in the face of a heavier beast opposite.

 
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