League of Dragons
Every man in ear-shot shouted with joy, as tired as they all were, and the news spread outward in ripples that eddied back and demanded still more huzzahs; it was some time before Laurence could open his letter, and read, with inexpressible satisfaction:
I think he is nearly done in Spain, and if I say so myself, we have done a neat enough job of the thing. We will be over the Pyrenees soon: Wellington would like to cross as soon as we have mopped up Pamplona and San Sebastian, and I have my eye on that breeding ground east of the Nive. I would not say no to a few dozen French eggs, still soft in the shell, and neither would the Spanish, I am sure. Would the Austrians like a few? If it would help to tempt them in, by all means make them any promises you like.
You may tell Emily that Demane came through without incident. Kulingile got boarded halfway through, but Demane restrained himself properly, I am glad to say, and let his topmen do their work; they pushed the boarders off again after only a little squabbling, and his first lieutenant took a nicely heroic scratch, which should let me promote the fellow, and has made them something like a happy crew.
“Where is Hammond?” Laurence said aloud. “He must know of this, at once,” and took a hasty leave of Temeraire; but he met Hammond hurrying out of the courier-clearing, with so delighted an expression that at first Laurence thought he must have heard the news already, by some other avenue.
“He has agreed to a cease-fire,” Hammond cried, beaming as he seized Laurence’s hand, before Laurence could say a word. “The courier came not an hour ago: Metternich has persuaded Bonaparte to listen to mediation. A week, Admiral, he will give us a week!”
It was difficult to say which of them pleased the other better, by their exchange of intelligence; Laurence took Hammond back to the small cabin set aside for him, where Dyhern and Granby shortly joined them in equal transports of delight, and with several bottles of a handsome port that had been unearthed somewhere by one of Granby’s runners. They toasted Victoria, Wellington, Roland, Emperor Francis, and Metternich all in turn, rejoicing. That Napoleon should allow them even a week’s respite, on the cusp of the Austrian border, with all the slow-moving advantages of supply and fresh troops creeping towards their side out of Russia, was as nearly inconceivable as it was desirable.
“Bonaparte is hoping to keep the Austrians from throwing in with us, of course,” Hammond said, expansive with his happiness. “Metternich has done it as prettily as can be imagined! The Austrians cannot be ready to march for another month in any case; we will not be worse off by a moment for the lack of their aid.”
“But can we be sure they won’t throw in with him, while they are talking?” Granby said, a little dubious. “I should not give much for our chances if they do.”
Hammond only snorted. “If he offers them half of Italy, accepts the natural borders of France, and agrees to hand over three-quarters of those eggs he has been at so much trouble to breed up, Metternich may find it hard to call him unreasonable, but I dare say something might yet be contrived. I cannot think it very likely the count will be put to the trouble. No, Captain: I am quite certain—quite certain—that Austria is of a mind with us; we all know very well that Bonaparte is the one insurmountable obstacle to any lasting peace.”
Laurence could not wholly admire a stratagem which bought military advantage with something so much like deceit, but he consoled himself that the power to make acceptable terms, to make a real peace, nevertheless remained in Napoleon’s hands. If his enemies expected him to prefer improving them through the hazards of battle, that was scarcely unreasonable, as he had always before now done so.
So he raised his glass to Metternich again willingly, when Hammond proposed another toast to that gentleman’s diplomatic skill; and afterwards to the King, and then in justice to the Tsar, and even to Bautzen—officially recorded according to the day’s dispatches, which Hammond had brought them, as a victory, although this was stretching the fabric of truth to the point of transparency—until at last they saluted one another in turn as well, still rejoicing.
The night ended in a thick fog; but by the morning Laurence was on his feet, only a little cloudy, and ready to work with a will. He well understood that the commanders of their force wished mainly to make use of his reputation and Temeraire’s, and by that expedient recruit sufficient numbers of ferals to their cause, or disaffect enough of Napoleon’s allies, to shift the balance of aerial power in their favor. Well enough: but given this priceless week, he meant to exercise his new authority further than those who had given it to him had perhaps intended.
There were guns strung out along all the roads from Russia, making a dawdling progress westward, and in a week Laurence thought they might gather up as many as three hundred of them, if the Prussian beasts were sent to carry them. Dyhern did not resist the order, beyond sighs, now that Laurence had the authority to give it.
The Russian greys he decided, not without some trepidation, to put to the task of supply. They were so ideally fitted-out for the task in every respect but their own unmanageable hunger: they could pick up languages with almost as much facility as Temeraire himself, could outcarry beasts nearly twice their size; besides this, they were not of much use on the battlefield, being neither particularly swift, nor maneuverable, and inclined to timidity whenever they felt themselves unobserved. Laurence had every expectation of their being far more valuable as a kind of replacement for the supply-dragons of the Chinese legions—so long as they did not go flying off madly with the supply to gorge themselves and hoard the excess in some concealed place.
“Oh?” Temeraire said, when Laurence had made the proposal, with a look so doubtful it nearly dissuaded him.
“We will make a single trial, at least,” Laurence said.
“Perhaps it may be a small trial?” Temeraire said, with an anxious look over at the porridge-pits.
Laurence gathered the greys together, and with Temeraire and Grig as interpreters laid his intentions out for them. “You shall be responsible not merely for carrying the army’s supply, but for knowing its state,” he added, “and in particular its state after you yourselves have eaten; you must deduct your own share and eat first, to save the cost of carrying your own day’s food.” He emphasized this point with some calculation: he knew very well it would recommend the duty to all of the greys, irregularly fed as they were.
“And you must all keep in mind,” Temeraire added, with a far more narrow and stern look from his lowered head, swept in a suspicious circle across the assembled dragons, who shrank away a little, “that anyone who should steal food will of course never again be trusted with so important a task. We have made these special sashes to mark those dragons allowed to receive supply,” here he nosed at a heap of rather ragged strips of fabric, each embroidered with something approximating the shape of a number, which had been hastily produced by the hands of many ground crewmen, “and anyone who steals will have their number revoked at once.”
The greys asked many skeptical and repetitive questions—“We may eat every day? Even if we do not fight? We may eat first? Truly, every day?”—which illustrated so well their miserable state, and how little expectation they had of anything better, that Laurence had an effort not to upbraid Ilchenko, when he muttered none too quietly that the food would be thrown away.
Ten beasts were chosen for the first run, and returned the next morning full-bellied and heavily laden with sacks full of wheat and pendulous nets of stupefied pigs, much to the envy of their fellows. A second trial sent twenty along with the first ten; the third day saw sixty more gone, and by the fourth day all of the greys had been spread out across the Continent, bringing in supply on so steady a pace that the aerial forces for the first time exceeded their own requirements, and Laurence’s supply-officer Lieutenant Doone was jubilantly reporting himself able to offer grain to the infantry, instead of enduring the scowls and mutters of their quartermasters for begging it of them.
Laurence received the news in his cabin with grim satisfa
“Forty comfortably, sir, I should say,” Doone answered.
Laurence nodded. He had not dared to ask the legions to send him any troops, when he could not supply them; now the time was short, but he thought not insurmountably so. He had to write at once, but Temeraire was their drillmaster now, and Laurence did not mean to distract him for even a moment from that task. Every fighting dragon of their force, and all the ferals who now steadily came in to join them, had been delivered to his rather ungentle care, and no small effort was required to bring them into any kind of unified order.
“Send me Midwingman Roland, if you please,” he said, and sent Winters to find him a narrow paintbrush, and paper large enough to support a letter to a dragon.
Roland knew more of writing Chinese than any of his other men, and together they made an attempt. The result, Laurence had to admit, was not very graceful. “We might ask Ning if she can make it out,” Roland suggested doubtfully, when they had finished.
Requiescat had flatly refused to carry Ning any further, after the battle of Dresden; he had been responsible for carrying two long guns, the whole day, as well as a great number of infantrymen. But she had only said, “I can fly for myself now, I expect, and I will catch you up if I must fall behind.”
“And why haven’t you been doing it before now, I would like to know,” Requiescat said indignantly.
Ning had indeed managed to mostly keep pace with the company throughout their retreats, appearing perhaps a few hours after they made camp. She had established herself on a smallish outcrop on the heights, adorned by a delicate waterfall trickling over mossy rocks and exceptionally difficult to reach on foot, which gave her an excellent view of the maneuvers of the beasts under Temeraire’s tutelage.
After Laurence ordered some flags waved in her direction, she flew down. “How energetic they all seem!” she remarked, landing. “I must congratulate Temeraire on his efforts. I wonder if he has noticed that those large and quarrelsome dragons from Russia are flying in an awkward way?”
Laurence laid the letter before her, and Ning regarded it as sorrowfully as a master gardener presented with a scraggly and unwatered seedling. “It is decipherable,” she said, in tones of enormous generosity, “but perhaps you might wish to fix that character, in the second row: I do not believe you mean to say that you will attack the legions’ supply.” She drew the corrected version in the dirt, which omitted one careless streak of ink.
“It is indeed to be hoped that some part of the legions will arrive in time,” Ning added thoughtfully, as she watched Emily repair the letter. “I have noted the increase of your ranks, and the improvement in your supply, but from what I have seen of Napoleon’s forces, I still fear he must defeat you in battle, if you do not have any of the legions. Do you suppose they will come?”
“I cannot allow your conclusion,” Laurence said, although he felt a disquieting pang at Ning’s certainty: their position would indeed be markedly more vulnerable, without the legions, although he did not subscribe to such a degree of pessimism. “But I think there is every likelihood of their arriving in time.”
He climbed the heights after to observe their forces at drill. They were certainly improved already; Laurence could give himself the pleasure of believing that much. But he saw, also, what had inspired Ning’s certainty: their forces were heavily slanted towards the separate ends of draconic size, light-weights and heavy-weights; looking upon them he could almost see the hollow space which that trained core of middle-weight beasts would neatly fill.
Well, the message had gone, and there was nothing more that could be done to bring them. He went down from the heights, and refused to permit himself dismay. Two days remained.
And yet they disappeared all too quickly. “I would be glad of another two weeks,” Temeraire said, yawning extremely wide, exposing all his teeth and a considerable stretch of gullet traveling back into a darkness which had lately enveloped many gallons of porridge and a haunch of venison besides, “but I think we will really do quite well, most of us. There is no teaching the Russian heavy-weights anything; that is the only point on which I cannot call myself satisfied. They are all delighted with the notion of prize-money, but they will not pay attention to signals at all. They will only go straight in and start fighting. Do you suppose there is any chance of armoring them better? I would just as soon load them with spikes and mail, so they cannot be either boarded or brought down, and then we may send them in whenever we should need some very hard fighting. One must do them justice; they are very good at fighting, if not at listening.”
“I will see what can be done,” Laurence said. “We may be able to shift something from the Prussians. I am inclined, if you think we can spare them, to place their heavy-weights entirely at the service of the artillery, even on the field. Napoleon will still have us outgunned, but if we can swiftly bring more metal to bear where it is most needed, we may overcome his advantage.”
Temeraire murmured his agreement, but he was already falling asleep. Laurence rested his hand on the breathing muzzle a little longer, and sighed; he would have given much for two more weeks as well. But the armistice was over. No treaty had emerged from Dresden, where Metternich had reportedly spent the entire week closeted with the Emperor. Napoleon would be on the move at first light, and peace would be won only on the battlefield.
Laurence walked back to his cabin by way of the courier-clearing—a route which took him nearly half a mile out of his way and wasted precious sleep; but he could not help making one final visit. By his best estimate, the answer from the legions might have come yesterday, ought to have come to-day, and could yet come tomorrow without disaster. After that, hope would have failed: they would face Napoleon again before even a small part of the Chinese legions might join their force.
Word would be sent to his quarters at once, if a Jade Dragon landed; Laurence knew it very well. Nevertheless, his feet took him past the courier-clearing, and as he drew near, he heard the leathery flap of wings aloft, a dragon coming down, and saw the two blue flares and one green, which were the safe-passage signal for their camp. His steps quickened to an undignified pace, and he nearly ran up onto Hammond’s heels: that gentleman was standing at the edge of the clearing, his hands clasped anxiously, and staring up into the dark.
“I beg your pardon, Mr. Hammond,” Laurence said, extremely surprised to find him there.
“Oh—! Admiral!” Hammond cried aloud: equally surprised, with less right to be so, and a look of anxiety Laurence could not understand.
The dragon came down. She was an unfamiliar beast, a heavy courier in Austrian colors, wearing a white flag of parley. She was carrying passengers: gentlemen passengers, swathed thickly in furred oilskins for the journey, who climbed down with the awkwardness of men not used to go aloft very often.
One of them had especial difficulty, and required the support of a gold-handled cane when he reached the ground; Laurence appalled realized it was none other than Monsieur de Talleyrand himself, whom report had restored to Napoleon’s service—as though Hammond had chosen to invite a pair of the Emperor’s eyes to come and wander about their covert, and look in on all the latest arrangements of their aerial forces.
That Hammond was responsible was plain: he had already gone forward to his guests, greeting the second passenger as Count Metternich. He had surely united the ministers here for some secret final attempt at negotiation. Laurence was sorry to learn of anything so plainly not meant for his own eyes, but any sense of intrusion he might have felt was under the circumstances exploded by Hammond’s indiscretion, which he now evidently meant to crown by leading Napoleon’s minister along the main track which led down into the field-covert
“Mr. Hammond, sir, forgive me, you have been turned around; I think you must mean to take this path,” Laurence said loudly, and catching Hammond by the arm drew him to the slighter track at the opposite end of the clearing, which swung out wide around the covert to reach the headquarters, and was used by those nervous of coming too near the dragons. “Sir,” he said, low but sharply, “if you have not before considered the material value to Napoleon of any intelligence about the disposition of our aerial forces, I must ask you do so now. Keep Monsieur de Talleyrand from sight of the clearings, and do not bring him back here. I will send the beast on to headquarters to wait for you.”
Hammond colored and stammered an apology at once. “Very sorry—I assure you there was no—all my apologies, Admiral, you are right, of course,” and after a moment’s hesitation added, “We will be on the west slope, at the green farmhouse—I did not like to trouble you for a passage—”
“Then I will have one of our couriers escort the Austrian courier there,” Laurence said, not much appeased; Hammond ought not have put such a peculiar value on asking for the small inconvenience of an escort for his courier at the cost of exposing them all to the bright, curious looks of Talleyrand, who even now observed their whispered conversation placidly, and without any evident qualms at overhearing whatever he might. The only comfort was the lateness of the hour, which should have bleached away the colors of the dragons and sent most of them to sleep; Talleyrand could have got no very exact count from aloft.
By the time Laurence had made the arrangements and seen the ministers off to their negotiations without further harm to secrecy, an hour had been consumed, and the full dark had descended. No other couriers had come.