League of Dragons


  Laurence now had cause to regret his threadbare crew. He had but few officers; his choices had been scant, in New South Wales, and of that motley selection only a handful had survived the wreck of the Allegiance: small Gerry, who could not yet hold a full sword, brandishing a long knife instead; for midwingmen, besides Emily Roland, he had only Baggy, still gangly in the midst of getting his growth and only lately advanced from the ground crew; and thin, stoop-shouldered Cavendish: brave enough, but likelier by the look of him to be blown overboard by a strong gust of wind than to cross swords with one of Napoleon’s Grognards.

  Laurence had not wanted to take men from his fellow-captains; Harcourt had offered, handsomely, when they had parted ways in China. But Laurence knew he and Temeraire were deep in the black books of the Admiralty; he might have been reinstated, as a matter of form and necessity, but no-one could imagine that those gentlemen would turn a kindly eye on any officer coming from his crew. That consideration might now doom the men he did have, or even Temeraire.

  By unconscious agreement, Roland and the boys were thrust back to make a final defense between the oncoming boarders and Laurence—a prospect which he could only find grotesque; and yet the fault was his own, for not taking more pains to fill out his crew. Forthing had no second or third lieutenant behind him, no older midwingmen who might have bolstered their resistance; there were no riflemen aboard.

  Ferris and Dyhern drew their swords; they joined Forthing, clambering along the line of Temeraire’s back to meet the Frenchmen. Laurence drew his own sword and his pistol—the metal painfully cold to the touch; he could only hope it would fire.

  The world turned over again, a dizzying spiral, and then suddenly they were in a steep climb: the Incan dragons were pursuing Temeraire hotly, trying to prevent him getting his breath back again; they were wary of the divine wind. Laurence had learned the trick of leaning hard into his straps, his boots planted firmly against hide, to keep from falling over during hard flying, but even so he could not avoid a disorientation that blurred all the world into meaningless shapes and colors.

  He shook his head and blinked streaming eyes. The Guards had all kept their feet. Forthing climbed into range—he stood up in his straps—he fired his pistol; one of the Guards fired his at the same instant. A cloud of smoke, and the Guardsman fell; Forthing jerked, twisting around in his straps. A spray of blood burst from his cheek and was slapped back onto his skin by the wind, bright red around a torn bleeding hole: the bullet had gone into his mouth and through the side of his face. Another pistol fired off, the grey smoke anonymous; Laurence could not tell whether the shot was on their side or the French.

  Dyhern was grappling with one of the Guardsmen; he was a big man himself, but the other, a younger man, was bearing him down. Ferris looked down Temeraire’s back, and then, greatly daring, reached down and unlatched his second strap, and let go the harness: he fell ten feet straight down onto the man overpowering Dyhern, and managed to catch onto one of his straps. Before the Frenchman could recover, Ferris had pistoled him in the face. He thrust the spent pistol into his belt, and bent to latch himself on in the dead man’s place; the corpse went falling away.

  All sensation of weight abruptly vanished. Temeraire had opened just enough distance from his pursuers to turn; now he arced over, mid-air. He hung suspended a fraction of a moment, and then he was plummeting, down onto the two Incan dragons so close on his heels. The dragons shrieked, bending their heads away to protect their eyes from Temeraire’s claws and teeth, entangled with one another. The world fractured: Temeraire roared in the dragons’ faces as they all fell, the divine wind drumming beneath his skin again; he roared again, and a third time, his wings beating the air wildly. They were falling, all falling together; Laurence clung to the straps, straining, and saw the other men doing the same. Like being in the tops mid-gale, struggling to reef a sail. And then Temeraire smashed the two dragons together down into the riverbank beneath him, tree-limbs snapping, snow and ice erupting all around like gunpowder smoke.

  Laurence shielded his eyes with his sleeve, but the flying snow thickly coated the top of his head, covered over his mouth and ears. They had stopped moving. If Temeraire had been wounded in the fall—

  He dropped his arm only to see one of the Guardsmen slash his own straps and come leaping in four quick strides directly towards him. Emily Roland lunged at the man from one side, Baggy from the other; but he had more than a foot in height on either of them, and bulled his way past them. He had a saber ready in his hand; Laurence pulled up his own pistol and fired—with no result; the powder was too wet. He flung the pistol into the Frenchman’s face instead, and met the descending sword on his own: a brutal impact. The Frenchman pounded down on Laurence’s sword with main strength, trying to beat it out of his grip, and seized his arm.

  The surface shuddered beneath them, Temeraire shaking himself free of the coating of snow. The Frenchman let go his hold on Laurence’s arm and seized his harness instead, to keep his footing. They were close enough to have embraced; Laurence managed to lean back far enough to club the man across the jaw with the guard of his sword-hilt. The man shook his head, dazed, but struck down again with his saber; the Chinese sword shrieked as the two blades scraped against each other, but held.

  They were matched and straining; then the bright crack of a pistol, and hot blood and brains spurted into Laurence’s eyes. He jerked aside. Emily Roland had shot the man in the back of the head. Laurence wiped blood and ice from his face as Temeraire reared up onto his feet and shook himself steady. The two Incan dragons lay still and broken beneath him, shattered by the divine wind more than by the fall; the green-blue-plumed head had fallen back limply across the ice, a blaze of incongruous color.

  Laurence looked back. The last two Guardsmen on Temeraire’s back had surrendered: Forthing was taking their guns and swords, and Ferris was binding their arms. All their fellows upon the dragons had been slain: the bodies of men lay scattered around the wreckage of the beasts.

  Further up the river, the soldiers around the carriage stood frozen and staring back at them, clutching their rifles, pale. Laurence felt Temeraire draw breath, and then he roared out once more over all their heads, shattering, terrible. The men broke. In a panicked mass they fled, some scrambling and slipping up the river in blind terror; some flying back eastward, undoubtedly into the waiting arms of the Cossacks; most however ran for the western bank, vanishing into the trees.

  Temeraire stood panting, and then he threw off the battle-fever; he looked around. “Laurence, are you well? Oh! Have you been hurt? What were those men about, there?” he demanded, narrowly, catching sight of the prisoners.

  “No, I am perfectly well,” Laurence said; his shoulders would feel that struggle for a week, but his skin had scarcely been broken. “It is not my blood; do not fear.” He laid his hand upon Temeraire’s neck to soothe him; he well knew what the fate of the prisoners would be, if Temeraire imagined them responsible for having harmed him.

  For once, however, Temeraire was willing to be diverted. “Then—” Temeraire’s head swung back towards the gilded carriage, standing now alone upon the bank and still buried deeply beneath the snow. He leapt, and was on the riverbank. He pushed the large wagon away, with a grunt of effort, and scraped the bulk of the drift away from the carriage with his foreleg. Laurence sprang down, with Dyhern following; they went to the door, which had been thrust half an inch open against the snow before it stuck, and dragged it open against the remnants of the drift.

  Two women inside were huddled in terror half-fainting against the cushions: a beautiful young lady in a gown cut too low for respectability, and her maid; they clung to each other and screamed when the door was opened. “Good God,” Dyhern said.

  “The Emperor,” Laurence asked them sharply in French. “Where is he?”

  The women stared at him; the lady said, in a trembling voice, “He is with Oudinot—with Oudinot!” and hid her face against the maid’s shoulder. Laurenc
e stepped back, dismayed, and looked back at the wagon: Temeraire reached for the cover with his talons, seized, tore.

  The sun blazed on gold: gold plate and paintings in gilt frames; silver ornaments, brass-banded chests and traveling boxes. They threw back the covers: more gold and silver and copper, sheaves of paper money. They had taken only Napoleon’s baggage: the Emperor was safely away.

  “IT DOES NOT SEEM reasonable,” Temeraire said disconsolately, “that when I should have liked nothing more than to have a great fortune, none was to be had; and now here it is, just when I should have preferred to catch Napoleon. Not,” he added, hurriedly, so as not to tempt fate, “that I mean to complain, precisely; I do not at all mind the treasure. But Laurence, it is beyond everything that he should have slipped past us: he has quite certainly got away?”

  “Yes,” Hammond answered for Laurence, who was yet bent over the letters which Placet had brought them all from Riga. “Our latest intelligence allows no other possibility. He was seen in Paris three days ago, with the Empress: he must have gone by courier-beast the instant his men had finished crossing. They say he has already ordered another conscription.”

  Temeraire sighed and put his head down.

  The treasure remained largely in its wagon, which was convenient for carrying. Laurence had insisted on returning those pieces which could be easily identified, such as several particularly fine paintings stolen from the Tsar’s palace, but there were not so many of those; nearly all of it had been chests full of misshapen lumps of gold, which had likely been melted in the burning of Moscow, and which no-one could have recognized.

  Temeraire did not deny it was a handsome consolation; but it did not make amends for Napoleon’s escape, and while he was not at all sorry that the Russian heavy-weights now looked on him with considerably more respect and had one and all avowed that in future they would listen to him when he told them not to stop, they would not believe that he had not done it for the gold. “I was doing my duty,” he had said, stiffly, “and trying to capture Napoleon, which is what all of you ought to have done, too.”

  “Oh, yes,” they all answered, nodding wisely, “your duty: now tell us again, how much gold is in that middling chest with the four bands around it?” It was not what he called satisfying.

  “And now Napoleon is perfectly comfortable at home again,” Temeraire said, “having tea with Lien, no doubt; I am sure she has not spent the winter half-frozen: I dare say she has been sleeping in a dozen different pavilions, and eating feasts. And we are still here.”

  “Still here?” Hammond cried. “Good Heavens, we took Vilna not three days ago; you cannot consider our residence here of long duration.”

  But Temeraire personally did not make much difference between Vilna and Kaluga; yes, he could see perfectly well that upon the map there were five hundred miles between them, and it was just as well to have crossed them, and anyone might say that they were in Lithuania instead of Russia; but he found little altered, and nothing to be very glad of, in their present surroundings. The coverts, on the very fringes of the city, were unimproved; the ground frozen ever as hard as in Russia proper, and though there was more food to be had, it remained unappetizing: dead horses, only ever dead horses. Laurence had arranged for a bed to be made up for him of straw and rags, which daily the ground crew built up a little more, but this was a very meager sort of comfort when Temeraire might look down the hill at the palace in the city’s heart lit up with celebrations from which dragons were entirely excluded, although the victory could not possibly have been won without them.

  “Indeed I am almost glad,” Temeraire said, “that the jalan had to return to China; I should not know what to say to them if they had met with such incivility; not to speak of ill-use. It is one thing to endure any number of discomforts in the field, on campaign; one must expect these things, and I am sure no-one would say we were unwilling to share in the general privation. It is quite another to be left sitting in mud, in frozen mud, and offered half-thawed dead horsemeat, while the Tsar is feasting everyone else who has done anything of note, and yet he never thinks of asking any of us.”

  “But he has,” Hammond said earnestly. “Indeed, Captain,” he added, turning towards Laurence, “I am here to request your attendance: it is the Tsar’s birthday to-day, and it is of course of all things desirable that you should attend as a representative not only of His Majesty’s Government—” Temeraire flattened his ruff at the mention of that body of so-called gentlemen, but Hammond threw an anxious look at him and hurried on. “—but of our friendship, indeed our intimate ties, with China; I wondered if perhaps you might be prevailed upon to wear the Imperial robes of state, which the Emperor has been so kind as to bestow upon you—”

  Despite a strong sense of indignation at being himself neglected in the invitation, Temeraire could not help but approve this idea, wishing to see Laurence, at least, recognized as he deserved. But Laurence had a horror, a very peculiar horror, of putting himself forward. He would at once refuse, Temeraire was sure; he always required the most inordinate persuasion to display himself even in honors which he had properly earned—

  “As you wish,” Laurence said, without lifting his head from his letters; his voice sounded distant and a little strange.

  Hammond blinked, as though he himself had not expected to meet with so quick a success, and then he hastily rose to his feet. “Splendid!” he said. “I must do something about my own clothes as well; I will call for you in an hour, then, if that will do. I hope you will pardon me until then.”

  “Yes,” Laurence said, still remote, and Hammond bowed deeply and took himself out of the clearing nearly at a trot. Temeraire peered down at Laurence in some surprise, and then in dismay said, “Laurence—Laurence, are you quite well? Are you ill?”

  “No,” Laurence said. “No, I am well. I beg your pardon. I am afraid I have received some unhappy news from England.” He paused a long moment still bent over the letter, while Temeraire held himself anxious and stiff, waiting: what had happened? Then Laurence said, “My father is dead.”

  —

  Lord Allendale had been a stern and distant parent, not an affectionate one, but Laurence was conscious that he had always had the satisfaction of being able to respect his father. While not always agreeing with his judgment, Laurence had never blushed for his father’s honor, both in private and in public life unstained by any reproach; and in this moment, Laurence was bitterly conscious that his father could not have said the same of his youngest son. His treason had broken his father’s health, had certainly hastened this final event.

  Laurence did not know if his father could ever have been brought to understand or to approve the choice which he had made. He had reconciled himself to his own crime only with difficulty, and he had before him every day all the proofs which any man could require, of the sentience and soul of dragons. He had seen those dragons dying hideously, worn away by the slow coughing degrees of the plague; he had with his own eyes witnessed their agony and seen the carrion-mounds of a hundred beasts raised outside Dover. He had known what the Ministry did, in deliberately infecting the dragons of Europe with that disease: a wholesale murder of allies and innocents as much as of their enemies.

  All this had been required to turn his hand to the act, to make him bring the cure to France and give it into Napoleon’s hand. And even so, he had recoiled from the act at first. He had dreamt of the moment of crisis again only three nights ago; of Temeraire saying, “I will go alone,” and afterwards in the dream Laurence found himself in an empty covert, going from clearing to clearing, calling Temeraire’s name, with no answer.

  With an effort, Laurence recalled himself to his circumstances: Temeraire’s head was lowered to peer at him, full of anxiety. “I am well,” he said again, and put his head on the dragon’s muzzle as reassurance. “I am not overset.”

  “Will you not take anything? Gerry,” Temeraire called, raising his head, “pray go and fetch a cup of hot grog for Laurence,
if you please; as we have nothing better it must do,” he added, turning back down. “Oh, Laurence; I am so very sorry to hear it: I hope your mother is not hurt? Have the French invaded them again? Ought we go at once?”

  “No,” Laurence said. “The letter is a month old, my dear; we are too late for the funeral rites.” He did not say that he should scarcely have been welcome, with or without a twenty-ton dragon. “He died in his bed. My mother is not ill, only much grieved.” His voice, low, faded out without his entirely willing it to do so. The letter was in his mother’s hand, brief, sharp-edged with sorrow. His father had been hale and vigorous five years ago, still in his prime; she might justly have hoped not to be made a widow so soon. When Gerry came running with the hot cup, Laurence drank.

  “In his bed?” Temeraire was muttering to himself, as if he did not understand; but he did not press any further for explanation; he only curled himself around Laurence, and offered the comfort of his companionship. Laurence seated himself heavily upon the dragon’s foreleg, grateful, and read the letter over again so he might at least have the pleasure of being unhappy with those whose unhappiness he had caused.

  “I am sorry, Laurence; I do not suppose he could have heard that your fortune was restored,” Temeraire said, looking over at the wagon-cart, still piled high.

  “He would have known me restored to the list,” Laurence said, but this was only a sop to Temeraire’s feelings. He knew that neither his fortune, nor his pardon and the reinstatement of his rank, which might restore him in the good graces of the world, would have weighed at all with Lord Allendale. That gentlemen could more easily have brooked his son’s public execution, on a charge he knew to be false, than to see his son laureled with gold and praised in every corner, and known to him as a traitor.

  He might have told his father that worldly concerns at least had not weighed with him; he had acted only as his conscience had brutally required. But he had not seen his father since his conviction; he had not presumed to write, even after his sentence had been commuted to transportation, nor since his pardon. And they would now never speak again. There would be no opportunity for defense or explanation.

 
Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via onlinereadfreebooks