League of Dragons


  None of this silenced Poole. “You have already been shut out,” he said to Fidelitas, just as though he were insensible to the importance of understanding the rules of division which should apply to future instances, “and you must be hungry by now; you have not eaten to-day at all, yet.”

  “Any dragon wishing to be excused may of course consider themselves dismissed,” Temeraire said in austere tones.

  “No, no!” Fidelitas said, curling his tail around Poole to block him from general view, and bending his head down to whisper urgently, “I will eat later.”

  “Pray, Admiral Laurence,” Cavernus said loudly, her eye still fixed on Fidelitas, “will you be so kind as to repeat that last award? I should be sorry not to be able to convey the exact particulars to Maxilla.”

  Laurence obliged her, of course, and the other captains at least made no further attempts to interrupt, although they were all of them—even dear Granby, Temeraire was sorry to see—unreasonably inattentive, and insisted on walking up and down in the clearing and talking to one another instead of paying close attention to all the highly interesting details of the awards. Several of the captains even had to be nudged to the edges of the clearing by their beasts to keep them from becoming a distraction.

  Sadly, one could not indulge in such pleasures forever; at last, Laurence had to finish. The lovely ledger was closed, and Temeraire with deep satisfaction reviewed his scroll, and the charming way in which the full tally of shares added precisely to one thousand, and how each number of shares should individually be multiplied by four, and many of them thereby increased to two digits.

  “I should add,” Laurence said, to crown the glorious occasion, “the goods taken having consisted in charqui, that any dragon wishing to take some portion of their share in this meat may have it at the value of two pounds three shillings the bale, equal in ration to a cow of twelve pounds six shillings four pence, for which they shall be credited.”

  The meeting broke up on this delightful conclusion, as everyone collected their captains and went away engaged in calculations. “Why, Windle, only think: that is ten pounds and three shillings difference,” Obituria said, “and I have four shares, that is sixteen pounds, so I can buy six bales, and when I have exchanged those for the cows, that will make seventy-three pounds and eighteen shillings.” Windle only gawked up at her in the most muttonheaded way, as though he had not followed.

  “I will have it brought round to every formation-leader’s clearing,” Temeraire promised, of the scroll, as the others left, several of them inquiring about a chance of looking it over. “And to yours as well,” he added to Ricarlee, magnanimously; he felt a good deal less irritated now by the ferals’ pillaging. “Gerry, pray roll it and tie it carefully, and I suppose you had better have a couple of the ground crewmen to help you carry it—steady men, if you please, Mr. O’Dea, who will not let it get wet, or spattered, or dirty.”

  When everyone had gone, Laurence sat heavily down in a camp chair with rather an explosive sigh and said to one of the new runners, “Brandy-and-water, if you please, Winters.” He drank this off without a pause and said aloud, “Like a very damned merchant,” incomprehensibly, “but we will see if it answers; I think it may.”

  —

  Laurence was half sorry to find the extent to which his and Temeraire’s stratagem, which he could not help but find a little contemptible, did answer. He was surprised to discover in the circuit he made through their encampment the next day that the dragons had set their signal-ensigns to drilling them in the flags—this, even though older dragons by and large had a great deal of difficulty in learning anything resembling a new language. Laurence could not understand it immediately, until he reviewed the list of awards and discovered that he had mentioned close attention to signals seven times. And when Laurence visited the Scottish ferals’ clearing, he found them all present and accounted for: the first time since their departure from Dover that such a remarkable event had occurred. Not a one had stolen out of camp overnight to try for private pillaging. The handful of Ricarlee’s beasts who had stayed aloft and fought with Requiescat—and who had been rewarded with an extra share apiece—were cock-of-the-walk, and the subject of envious sighs.

  He grimly accepted his own victory, and having finished his rounds asked Minnow to take him into the city, where the new headquarters had been established: Major-General von Wittgenstein beaming and delighted with everybody, and despite the surfeit of hangers-on surrounding him and the general chaos produced by too many men without any real work to do, a spirit of energy and confidence suffused the entire establishment, which Laurence could not but witness with a pang of envy.

  “Admiral Laurence!” Wittgenstein cried, on seeing him, and came around to shake his hand again. During the terrible struggle of the previous year, he had been forced to abandon St. Petersburg to Oudinot and Saint-Cyr, and his satisfaction at liberating Berlin had been doubled into joy by having now avenged that painful loss. “The Cossacks tell me they have all certainly crossed the river: there is not a French soldier east of the Elbe, God be thanked! They have fallen back on the Saale. I have just sent couriers to the Tsar and to His Majesty King Frederick with a full accounting of the battle, and you may be sure they have both been acquainted with the noble performance of your beasts.”

  Laurence could not be encouraged by this generous remark, to him a painful reminder that their commanders had very little expectation of the discipline of dragons; he could only be glad in a sour way, that the report would go far to strengthen his own position. “Is there any word about Napoleon himself?” he asked.

  Wittgenstein waved a hand. “Still in Paris, they say!” but added, “Come, step inside,” and took him to a smaller back chamber; here were only a couple of staff-officers, laboring intently over a sheaf of intelligence-reports. “The latest word is he has raised an army of nearly two hundred thousand men and four hundred dragons, at Mainz,” Wittgenstein said quietly, when the door was closed; a piece of intelligence that could not be called heartening, and it was no wonder he preferred to share it in private. “Blücher will cross into Saxony next week, to liberate Dresden and Leipzig, and we hope persuade the King of Saxony to join the alliance. I do not need to tell you, Admiral, how necessary to that end it will be to avoid pillage in his countryside. I understand from Admiral Dyhern that you are supplying your entire force on twenty kine, daily?”

  “And twenty tons of wheat, sir,” Laurence said slowly, already anticipating the coming question.

  “Admiral Dyhern has been ordered by His Majesty to join General Blücher,” Wittgenstein said—Dyhern having himself also been promoted; most of the senior Prussian officers had been quietly retired in the years since Jena, and every chance taken of pushing forward younger and more competent men. “In my judgment, and that of Field Marshal Kutuzov, you and your dragons are urgently wanted there, and our victory here to-day only makes that more desirable. But we do not demand it, Admiral, if you do not think it possible to supply your force there.”

  The question was a difficult one indeed. Laurence could manage it, he thought, but not without putting all the dragons on porridge, even the ones whose captains demanded the official ration of meat, and not without the risk of going hungry for a day now and again. Ordinarily he would have scorned such small concerns under these circumstances: if Napoleon truly had raised four hundred dragons already at Mainz, he could not be held unless the British dragons came. But Laurence could not rely on his captains to reconcile their beasts to short commons, and dragons themselves had little tolerance for going hungry when there was a handsome sheepfold to be seen over the next hill, whether or not the sheep were theirs for the taking.

  This last concern at least, Laurence could air to Wittgenstein without feeling that he exposed the Corps to any particular shame; then he had only to swallow his personal pride, at asking for what seemed to him almost the power to bribe his own beasts. “If you will pardon me, sir,” he said unhappily, “I will say what I k
now must have an unfortunate appearance of self-interest: it would be of inexpressible value to me to have further captures of supply, of the sort you made over to us yesterday, which I might award as prizes among the beasts to encourage them to maintain discipline.”

  “Among the beasts?” Wittgenstein said, frowning. “I do not understand. You mean your officers—you think they will keep them in line, if—”

  “Sir,” Laurence broke in, preferring to be rude than hear so mortifying a character given to his officers. “Sir, I beg your pardon; no, I mean among the beasts themselves.”

  Wittgenstein stared, then gave a small explosive snort of laughter. “What do dragons care for prize-money? We do not have heaps of gold to give them.” But when Laurence assured him that the beasts did indeed care, passionately, he was ready to believe. “But money is in short supply everywhere, Admiral,” he said.

  “I am aware of it, sir,” Laurence said. “I do not require funds: if you can only grant us further quantities of charqui, or cattle, or grain, acquired from the enemy, that will do.”

  He did not describe how he intended to convert these supplies into funds. Wittgenstein surely knew enough of the wretched graft of commissaries to suspect something of the method. Laurence had indeed made an evil use of Jane’s intelligence about corruption in the Supply-Office: before leaving England, he had called upon those men she labeled as the most rapacious, and had quietly discussed with them the high price of meat on the Continent, and the difficulty in transporting even salt pork, much less cattle, to a force which traveled as the dragon flew.

  “And may I say, Admiral, that it is a great pleasure to speak with a man of so much sense and understanding in these matters,” the worst of these villains had said to him earnestly, shaking his hand, when they had tacitly agreed that the cattle meant for them would be sold in port, instead, and the funds made over to Laurence personally in gold. Certainly a handsome quantity of the sums would end in the pockets of his suppliers; just as certainly, they assumed an equal quantity would end in his own, while he fed his dragons on rotten meat, or off the farms of starving peasants.

  Laurence had forced himself to care only that this arrangement would permit him to replace much of the exported cattle with local grain, and feed three times the number of dragons, more healthfully, at half the cost. He knew very well what Whitehall would have said, if he had proposed the substitution to them directly. Jane was feeding her dragons in Spain on corn and horsemeat, but officially the Commissariat was shipping her five hundred barrels of salt pork per day, not a quarter of which reached her. But the rules of supply were a wheel that did not easily move from the deep-worn rut in which they traveled. The thieves in Dover might take half the money they could get for the meat, and still leave Laurence with more than enough for their needs.

  Only after the battle, when Wittgenstein had sent him the vast quantity of bales of captured charqui—“I understand you have a use for this peculiar stuff, Admiral,” the accompanying supply-officer had said doubtfully, delivering him wagons loaded with enough of the dried and salted meat to feed two hundred dragons for a month—had it occurred to Laurence that he might instead use those funds to furnish prize-money, and thereby both persuade the dragons to eat the charqui, and make them more enthusiastic for their duty.

  The entire business left an evil taste in his mouth, the sense of having pushed his hands deep into rotting effluvia. But Wittgenstein was only looking thoughtful, saying, “Admiral, I believe it can be arranged.”

  —

  “You shall have whatever supply I can scrape together, if it will serve you for prizes,” Blücher promised him, without hesitation. The old Prussian was loyal to a fault, when his loyalty was given, and he had before now decided for Laurence on the strength of Dyhern’s testimonials, and the rescue of the Prussian beasts. “I cannot promise the quantity will be great.”

  The rewards were indeed not large, but it did not seem to matter to the dragons whether their share was worth four pounds, or one shilling threepence as was more commonly the case; nor was this due to any misunderstanding or mathematical confusion on their part. Every British dragon seemed able to maintain a full and perfect accounting, down to pence, of their funds. Even when there had been a further four allocations, after small seizures of individual wagons taken in skirmishing, there was still not a beast among them who could not stand before all the separate scrolls—Temeraire now kept these posted up outside his own clearing, under guard—and in an instant calculate the exact value of the shares of any dragon on the list, and compare this against their own.

  This facility in no way diminished their desire of having the numbers written out for them, however, much to the dismay of their captains. “I had no idea of Iskierka’s being so handy at sums,” Granby muttered, as she announced with great satisfaction, “I believe I have one hundred twenty-four pounds sixteen shillings threepence, and Requiescat has one hundred twenty-one pounds eleven shillings tuppence; now pray check it for me, Granby, and show me all your work,” which entailed a quarter of an hour’s hard-fought calculations for him, with one mistake along the way, which Iskierka pointed out severely before he had quite finished writing it down.

  Aviators did not get a great deal in the way of formal schooling. Mrs. Pemberton finally took pity upon the officers and offered her services to make individual copies of the lists, and as her head for mathematics was good enough to satisfy them, the dragons were eager to accept the substitute, although after a week she was obliged to begin charging them a shilling apiece for the copies, or she would have been applied to for a fresh set by every beast, every day.

  One difficulty briefly reared its head: Windle, plainly resentful of the mechanism which had made his dragon an earnest advocate of pleasing Laurence’s judgment, loudly said, “It is nonsense, Obituria. Where do you suppose this money is, really? It is jots on paper, not cash in hand, and so it will remain. And meanwhile you are eating this smoky charqui stuff instead of good fresh beef; you have dropped two stone of flesh, I dare say, in this last week.”

  Obituria had, and looked far the better for it; Laurence knew what General Chu would have said of the regular diet of British dragons. But she looked uncertain, and Ricarlee, never backwards in suspicion, presented himself that same afternoon demanding his funds in some less ephemeral form.

  “Very good,” Laurence said however, having prepared himself for this eventuality, and presented Ricarlee with a neatly bound sheaf of paper money, and a scattering of shilling coins and pence, which the dragon could not have held conveniently in any manner. “Perhaps you would prefer me to deposit it with your bank?” When Ricarlee professed himself innocent of any accounts, Laurence added, “Temeraire banks with Rothschild, and has had no cause for complaint, I believe.”

  He was glad, now, to have been forced to grapple with the difficulty of managing Temeraire’s funds. Drummonds’ and Hoare’s had balked entirely; they refused to do anything but put the money into an account in his own name. Tharkay had come to his rescue: Avram Maden had a considerable acquaintance among the notable Jewish families of Europe, and the Rothschild bank in London had as a favor to him offered Laurence an appointment.

  The young man he had first spoken to, in their offices, had been polite but skeptical; their business was ordinarily more in the line of coin-dealing, Laurence vaguely understood. But unexpectedly the head of the bank had come into the room: Mr. Nathan Rothschild, who had been distantly acquainted with his father through Mr. Wilberforce. The gentleman had paid Laurence his condolences, listened to the difficulty before him, asked briefly about the rate of pay dragons were entitled from the Admiralty and the length of their life spans; shortly thereafter Temeraire had become the proud possessor of an account, and if the bank-book were inconveniently small for his talons, at least he showed no signs of needing to consult it.

  “Well, if Temeraire banks with them, I suppose I will allow them to hold my money, too,” Ricarlee said loftily, willing to be satisfied
by whatever Temeraire possessed.

  The bank was equally willing; indeed, after all the hundred dragons of their force had followed suit, a representative was even sent to pay a visit to their camp. That young gentleman plainly entered the field-covert in a spirit of calm desperation, and as he hailed from the Frankfurt branch, his command of English was imperfect, which increased his miseries: the dragons—who had awaited his advent with a fervor rather like idolatry—kept putting their heads down to hear him more closely. But when no one had devoured him after an hour, he began by degrees to be less anxious, and to speak more fluidly of markets and shares to the enraptured attention of his audience, who by the time he left had all begun a lively debate on the merits of putting their money into the Funds as compared with speculating in currency or investing in shipping ventures.

  Still, Laurence could not rejoice at his success. There was something low in this method of bringing dragons to heel, something nearly ignoble. He could not fault Poole’s silent but visible indignation; even Granby looked a little distressed during the regular conferences which the dragons demanded, where Laurence announced each division. The entire enterprise had a quality of interference in it, thrusting himself between captain and dragon, which Laurence knew very well was anathema in the Corps. But even Poole could scarcely make a complaint that his commander was keeping his dragon in good order, against his will.

  Nevertheless, he seethed visibly, and many of the other captains were more discreetly resentful, when they ought to have been in alt. Blücher had marched into Dresden and Leipzig nearly unopposed, and still Napoleon’s growing army had not stirred out of Mainz: the campaign would begin well into the territory France had formerly conquered, and in every other part of the army, confidence brimmed over, with an eagerness for battle; meanwhile in the field-covert, his officers were sullen and silent, and performed their duties grudgingly.

 
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