League of Dragons


  —

  “It seems to me I ought to get another share, for carrying her about,” Requiescat said, squinting at the rolls. He and Iskierka had come by Temeraire’s clearing to look them over and argue their divisions, yet again. “No-one else is lugging about another dragon on their back, and she ain’t much like a feather anymore, either.”

  “I don’t see why that should mean you get anything more. She hasn’t done anything of use, herself, so it is not as though you are doing anyone a service by bringing her.” Iskierka snorted a bit of flame disapprovingly.

  “Certainly I am being of use,” Ning said, popping her head up from the other end of the clearing. “Simply because you cannot yet see the Chinese legions does not mean they are not coming, and they are coming because I am here. And you must all hope they arrive,” she added, “because otherwise, you will lose.”

  Temeraire flattened his ruff in some annoyance at this dismal interjection. “We will not lose,” he said, “although naturally the legions will come, and be of great use, but that is not the same as saying we will lose, if they do not.”

  “Well, you will,” Ning said. “I have been stretching my wings, while you all lie in camp all day—”

  “And why are some of us tired, and you not, I’d like to know,” Requiescat interjected.

  “—and I have met any number of ferals, in these parts. Their conversation has been most illuminating. However, I do not mean to quarrel,” she added, “and I am sure I wish you all every success.”

  “Then you might as well do your part, when we next fight,” Temeraire said. “That fire you can make would have been very handy indeed in Berlin, if only you had bothered to exert yourself a little. I am sure if you did, Laurence would be perfectly pleased to award you a suitable share of the prize-money,” he added.

  “And what about me, hey?” Requiescat said.

  “Perhaps Ning ought to then make over some of her share to you,” Temeraire said, “for your services in ferrying her: that would be perfectly suitable.”

  “I must beg your pardon,” Ning said, with some asperity, sitting up on her haunches, “but before you have quite concluded making these arrangements on my behalf, I must demur. I am doing my part, to preserve the alliance with China, and with that you must content yourselves.”

  “Doing her part not to take any side, until she knows who is going to win,” Iskierka said, with a sniff, and Temeraire could not disagree.

  “I know you are not cowardly,” Temeraire said to Ning, after Iskierka and Requiescat had both gone away still arguing, “as you have been perfectly willing to defend yourself, when necessary.” There had been more than one occasion when dragons new to their camp had tried to deny Ning precedence—she was still small, although nearing the size of a light-weight by now—and she had firmly though politely made plain she would not stand for it; three or four dragons still sported a badly scorched toe, or tail-tip. “So I cannot see why you would not like to do your share, and earn your share thereby. Surely you must see it gives a very strange appearance for you to be nowhere on the rolls, at all: you have not a single shilling to your name!”

  Ning did cast a quick, wistful glance over at the rolls, but she only answered, “It is very well to count shillings and pounds. What is a shilling? It is the money that here, to-day, will buy you a rabbit. But in London, before we left, it would buy you two.”

  “Rabbits are harder to come by here than in London,” Temeraire said.

  “Just so,” Ning said. “Because there is a war, and an army tramping through the fields, so there are fewer rabbits, and more mouths to eat them. Therefore, if the war were not occurring, there would be more rabbits, and perhaps you might even buy three rabbits, with your same shilling. Why therefore should I content myself to gather pounds and shillings, when I might instead command their value?”

  “But so long as I have more pounds and shillings than another dragon, I may buy more rabbits, no matter what they are worth,” Temeraire said. “And so long as you have no shillings, you can buy none, no matter how many there are.”

  “A consideration which would occupy my attention a great deal, if I did not have the prospect of becoming companion to a wealthy and powerful sovereign,” Ning said firmly.

  “Yes, but which sovereign,” Temeraire muttered to himself, when she had curled herself back up to sleep. He did not mean to say so, but it made him feel a little uneasy that Ning did not care to join their side properly, just yet. Ning might talk of rabbits all she liked, but no dragon could really wish to be left out of anything so nice as prize-money, so she was only refraining because she really did think they might lose. She was wrong, naturally, but he would have liked to inquire a little further as to why, if he could have done so without suggesting he meant to believe her.

  —

  “And still the Austrians are flying back and forth between Vienna and Dresden every day,” Dyhern said, grumbling even as he offered Laurence a cup of remarkably good coffee. “If he gives us one good knock, they will scurry back into his pockets, you may be sure.”

  They were encamped outside Leipzig, near the small town of Lützen, waiting for the order to move onwards. The headquarters of the allied forces had been moved forward from the east and established in Dresden: the Tsar himself was there with Field Marshal Kutuzov—whom report had very ill, which was certainly doing nothing to improve the coordination and communications of their army. And then the word had come last night: Napoleon had left Paris. Napoleon was coming to the front. The whisper had traveled around every campfire at a rapid pace, throwing an evil shadow over every man. Laurence had heard the murmurs as he walked through camp that morning, past the stirring fires and the dim wash of dawn, lightening a heavy grey sky.

  He was meeting with Dyhern and the Russian Admiral Ilchenko, to review the supply manifests for the week ahead. Laurence had not managed to acquire more than a smattering of Russian in the last campaign, and Ilchenko was entirely innocent of English, while Dyhern’s French left much to be desired; they communicated therefore in a patchwork of languages, often translating the same remark more than once, to be sure they had understood. But this awkwardness was the least of their difficulties.

  Further reserves had joined them from the east as the Prussian Army mobilized fully, and more Russian dragons had come from the heartland, now that spring was reducing the need for them to keep the ferals from raiding. In numbers, they now even approached Napoleon’s reported tally of four hundred beasts, although numbers alone were not a sufficient measure.

  The Prussians now could field some 130 beasts, many of them having been liberated on the way to Berlin—but half of these were slow-flying heavy-weights. Even their middle-weights stood on the heavier side, and they had very few light-weights at all. Laurence would privately have preferred to keep the large beasts ferrying men and guns—especially guns. He knew it was a general tenet of the Chinese legions that dragons above middle-weight were a waste of muscle, but a middle-weight could not carry a twenty-four-pounder for any distance, and a heavy-weight could. Napoleon had previously made just such a use of his own heavy-weight dragons to bring a far greater weight of metal to bear upon the battlefield than horses over bad roads could arrange. But Laurence could not direct Dyhern, who with his comrades not unnaturally hungered for more avenging victories in the field. And in any case, the Prussian artillery-men were in no hurry to mount dragons.

  On the Russian side, they claimed eighty beasts, but in practice only the thirty heavy-weights were under military discipline, and these could be used for nothing but battle. They cared too little for men—indeed barely acknowledged their existence save as the occasional providers of food and treasure, or the brutality of bit and hobble. A week gone, Vosyem had sent three hundred soldiers plummeting to a grisly death, because a knot of the carrying-harness had irritated her under the wing. She had not complained to her officers; she had simply turned her head round mid-air and torn away the silk with a few quick slashes of he
r serrated teeth, ignoring the cries and pleas of her passengers and the frantic spurring of her officers. The infantry had since refused to go aboard any of the Russian beasts, and Laurence could scarcely blame them.

  As for cargo, one could give a Russian dragon almost anything to carry, but one could not rely on getting it back again. Only the day before, Admiral Ilchenko had very grudgingly come to Laurence to ask for Temeraire’s assistance: Jevionty, one of his newly arrived dragons, would not surrender a cannon he had been ordered to carry from Vilna to the waiting artillery company whose charge it was, and he had begun to snarl and hiss at any officer who even attempted to approach him.

  “Do not hiss at me,” Temeraire said with great dignity, when he had descended into the clearing. “If I wanted a gun of my own, I should buy one, with my money,” and Jevionty a little abashed had muttered apology: the reputation of Temeraire’s treasure had spread widely among the Russian dragons. “And I cannot see what you want with this cannon. They are not pretty to look at, and they are no use unless you have men to fire them for you.”

  “It is mine,” Jevionty said obstinately, “and it is valuable, or else why do they want to steal it from me?” He had lost his own hoard in the devastation of Moscow, and was keen to rebuild it in any manner possible: the Russian beasts counted standing among themselves almost entirely based on their possessions.

  “Well, they are an artillery company and they can fire it, so it is worth a great deal to them,” Temeraire said. He scratched a claw thoughtfully along his eye ridge. “It is true that the value of things may depend upon how much someone else wants them. But I cannot call it anything but mean to keep it for yourself when you can get no good from it, and anyway, where are you going to keep it? You had much better let the men fight it for you. Have them paint your name upon the top of the barrel, so you can always see which gun is yours while you are flying above it, and then let them manage it for you.”

  After a little more nudging, and the promise of gold paint, Jevionty was persuaded to accept this solution, but the episode did not inspire any confidence in the Russian dragons as porters.

  Meanwhile, the large body of Russian light-weights, who would have been by far the more valuable as part of their unified force, were nearly impossible to make use of or even to count: their numbers in camp varied widely from day to day. Barring a handful of beasts like Grig, who had established a stronger relationship with one or another of the officers, they would only perform errands given to them in the moment and with the promise of an immediate reward of food.

  “The heavy-weights must eat first,” Ilchenko answered flatly, when Laurence suggested he might establish a regularity of feeding time, to create the beginnings of discipline among the light-weight greys. But the ferocious heavy-weights were the pride of the Russian forces, and Ilchenko refused to care that they often left their feeding pits scraped clean, or spoiled what they did not eat with hot squabbles. So the greys were left to scrounge for scraps, and likely to go stealing from the local farmers. At least the irregular Cossack troops fed themselves: their fly-weight beasts were well practiced in living off the land without excessively offending their neighbors, and ate a cheerfully indiscriminate variety. But they were no use in a pitched battle, or against the French dragons, unless they came across one of them alone and unwary.

  All the dragons were by now reconciled to the porridge-pit, but while this made feeding their enlarged force possible, it did not make it easy. With so many bellies of such enormous capacity to fill, their supply was in regular danger of running out and required the most careful and constant attention.

  Laurence straightened up from the ledgers when they had finished their tallies, and nodded to the young aide whose duty it was to send their numbers on to Blücher’s staff. He stretched backwards, hands pressed into the small of his back, thoroughly stiffened after the hours bent low: he ruefully thought he felt his years more sharply after an afternoon in a tent than after two days aloft. He and Dyhern stepped outside together, while Ilchenko stayed in to finish the letter which he would send to the Tsar with his report: a rather more formal affair.

  “I cannot delight in this book-keeper’s work, Laurence,” Dyhern said, “but I have no right to complain. When I think how we gnashed our teeth at you for twenty dragons, before Jena! And look upon our coverts now. My heart must be appeased.”

  They were encamped in the bowl of a nameless valley perhaps a hundred miles from Leipzig, dragons strung along the heights and hillocks all around like decorations, nearly covering all the open ground. The steam rose in pearlescent gusts from the cooking-pits, in the center of the camp, and on every side the voices of dragons—the hissing of their breaths, their deep rumbling speech, the dry rustle of scales rubbing over one another. The sheer number of them echoed the tales of the uncountable hordes of the Huns, of fairy-stories; Laurence could well share Dyhern’s dissatisfaction and pleasure both, in the scale of their force and the difficulties of its management.

  A tiny figure came gliding down over the tree-tops to the north-east, a bird Laurence thought at first, but moving very fast; the sentry-dragons did not even lift their heads until she was already far beyond them, and before they could raise a warning, she had darted twice across the bowl of the valley, her head seeking, and then dropped with startling speed to the ground directly before Laurence, folding her disproportionate green wings in. “Yu Li,” Laurence exclaimed, very surprised, as the Jade dragon bowed very low as well as she could, with the dragging ends of her wings.

  “Forgive this clumsy one’s rude and hasty approach,” she said. “I have been sent to establish lines of communication with Your Imperial Highness and Lung Tien Xiang—”

  “Why, you are very welcome to startle us all ten times over, on that account,” Laurence said, and turning to Dyhern explained, “She is the leading edge of the Chinese legions.”

  But Yu Li was not finished. “Honored Brother of the Dread Lord,” she said, and Laurence turning caught the change in her address, and realized with a start that the Emperor must have died, and Mianning by now crowned, “I beg your forgiveness for my hasty and improper address, but I have grave news to impart. Having mistaken your location, I first sought to find you in the small town not three hundred li from here, where a great many noble officials were encamped.”

  By small town she must have meant Dresden; any Western city would bear a peculiarly shrunken character to a Chinese dragon, who expected to find in these places thoroughfares and pavilions suitable for draconic inhabitants and not merely humans—which meant, in turn, that she had flown some one hundred miles in an hour, a remarkable achievement even for one of the Jade Dragons. Her chest was indeed heaving rapidly, and her wings trembling. She extended one limb towards him, the golden mesh upon it carrying a letter.

  “I was honored to meet there with your advisor Mr. Hammond,” she said, “who has entrusted me with this letter and begs you consider it as soon as you think wise.”

  Laurence took the letter—a note, not even enclosed, and scrawled in an irregular and hasty version of Hammond’s usually tidy hand, at least large enough to be easily legible. A moment was enough to read it; he handed it on to Dyhern and turned to Yu Li. “Did you see the French advance, yourself?”

  “Yes, august one, and in hopes of offering you further intelligence, I crossed their body from aloft,” she said: Jade Dragons flew at a far higher altitude than most dragons, and with her small size, she would certainly have been taken for a bird, even if anyone had glimpsed her. “Their beasts are not very orderly, so it is difficult to properly tally their numbers, but there were in excess of five hundred assembled. Their carrying-harnesses held perhaps a hundred men, for each dragon, and the larger carried guns, as well.”

  “My God!” Dyhern said. “He will smash them to pieces. There are not twenty beasts at Dresden, and those convalescent.” He turned to explain the situation to Admiral Ilchenko, who had come out of the tent at the commotion; Laurence had seized
pen and paper from his runner and was hastily scrawling a reply. “Yu Li,” he said, “will you take this back to Mr. Hammond at once, if you please?” She accepted the note with another bow, and as soon as it was stowed away she gathered herself, leapt, and was gone.

  “What is to be done?” Dyhern said.

  “Gentlemen,” Laurence said, “I am taking every beast that can travel at speed—every one that can sustain sixteen knots or better. Les Cossacks, il faut que je les emmener avec moi,” he added to Ilchenko, who was nodding intently. “Dyhern, you must take my heavy-weights, and your own, to our depot at Leipzig. Stupefy every pig and sheep in the place with opium and bring them, with all the grain you can carry. The Russian heavy-weights must remain with Field Marshal Blücher here. We must take it as a certainty that the rest of the French infantry is coming up on our rear. Napoleon plainly intends to cut our lines of communication and supply—perhaps even capture the Tsar—and then smash us between the two wings of his force. We must try and hold him at Dresden long enough for you to come up behind him, instead. Do you agree?”

  There was so little room to dispute the plan that Laurence had not hesitated to send to tell Hammond that he was coming: his force was the only one substantially composed of dragons who could manage the speed necessary to catch the French; certainly neither Eroica nor Ilchenko’s dragon Sorokshest could do so. They shook hands in agreement, and Dyhern took Hammond’s letter. “I will go and speak with Marshal Blücher,” he said. “Begin your preparations! I will send as soon as he has confirmed the order of battle.”

  ISKIERKA DID NOT HIDE her delight that Requiescat had to be left behind, to go with the Prussians; although her pleasure was a little dimmed by Laurence’s saying to him, “You may be sure that the rôle of providing supply to our forces is no less urgent, and will merit no less recognition, than direct engagement with the enemy—if we cannot eat, after the battle, then hunger will rout us as thoroughly in victory as any defeat Napoleon might inflict.”

 
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