League of Dragons


  Laurence stopped and turned to face him. “And what would these considerations be, Mr. Hammond, which have induced you and the ministers of four nations to jointly publish a fabricated report of the battle?—And moreover, to have made the French an offer of terms which I should have been astonished to hear London approve under these circumstances: the Emperor our prisoner, the war certainly ended, and yet you hand the throne on to his son—”

  He broke off even as Hammond raised an anxious hand to try to halt him. Too late: Laurence had understood at last. He saw before him suddenly the inexplicable flight of Napoleon’s escort—the vivid colors of the Incan dragons fleeing in a pack, the handful of Grand Chevaliers and the other French dragons swept up in their midst.

  “Or I should say, to his wife,” he finished, after a moment, with a sour taste of disgust in the back of his throat. “Tell me, Hammond, how long have Talleyrand and the Empress conspired with you, to deliver the Emperor into our hands?”

  “Admiral—” Then Hammond flung up his hands in frustration, letting them fall limp, and said bluntly, “Laurence, what would you have had us do?”

  He turned and walked away, his shoulders bowed, back to the sedan-chair. Laurence stood alone in the field, the cottage in the distance small and dark against the brilliancy of the blue summer sky, and the shadow of a man standing solitary by the window.

  THE EMPRESS, STANDING AT the head of the stairs of the palace, kept one hand lightly resting in the crook of the Tsar’s elbow as though she were fatigued by the effort of maintaining her position, and required his support to welcome the guests ascending to the Tuileries. For his part, he gave that support with a regal, cool expression, and if he felt any concern regarding the slate of highly anxious Incan dragons, all ruffled up into enormous size and peering over at the proceedings from the square, he did not show it, though more than one guest threw alarmed looks in their direction. She let go his arm for a moment, however, to welcome the King of Prussia with an embrace, and beckoning to reunite him with his son, standing beside her.

  “I regret that I never met his mother,” she said, “but I have tried to offer him a little of that comfort which I might wish my own son to find if he were ever a guest in your own court, and I hope he one day shall be, now that our nations stand once more as dear friends.”

  Her voice was clear, and projected well; Laurence overheard it where he stood waiting his own turn on the stairs, and the low approving murmurs which followed. “They say she protected the prince, even after we came into the war,” he overheard one Prussian officer saying to another. “Who knows what would have become of him, otherwise, in Napoleon’s power!”

  The celebration was very little to Laurence’s taste. He had not yet learned to reconcile himself to the betrayal of which he had been made an instrument, and he had no pleasure in being presented to the Empress and being obliged to receive her hand. He said as little as possible, but he suspected his looks spoke for him, and said more than they should; the Empress looked at him with a certain thoughtfulness when he straightened.

  He knew it for certain, later that evening, when little Winters came tapping on his door all yawns and a rumpled nightshirt, roused from her bed to find Laurence: an escort of French Guardsmen had come to take him to the Empress. His former gaoler Aurigny was at their head, bowing, and Laurence did not feel he could refuse the summons, as little as he wished to speak with Anahuarque again.

  Laurence silently followed his escort through the hallways to the Empress’s sitting room, a small snug chamber with a balcony overlooking the garden where Maila Yupanqui slept with a slitted eye trained upon her lit window. Music still drifted over the trees from the distant ballroom, but the Empress had taken off her elaborate gown, and sat now in a brightly woven dress in the Incan style, loose and comfortable, which nearly disguised her growing belly. “Come and sit with me, Admiral,” she said, and nodded a dismissal to the guards, who glanced to one another in some concern for a moment before they reluctantly withdrew.

  “I hope Your Majesty is well,” Laurence said, remote, and only bowed rather than taking the seat she had offered him; he preferred to preserve all the distance which the intimacy she offered would have closed, and he was resolved to behave only with formal courtesy.

  But she said, “I am as well as can be hoped,” as though lamenting the loss of the husband she had so neatly disposed of, and Laurence could not suppress a tightening of his jaw. She smiled a little, as though she had seen what she expected. “But I think few of the Emperor’s friends regret him as much as do you, his enemy.”

  In the face of this provocation, Laurence could not restrain himself. “That some, on whose love he ought to have been able to depend, do not regret him, is certain.”

  “And you think me among that number,” she said bluntly. “You are wrong.” She paused a moment, regarding him with her steady, dark eyes. “I would like you to understand me, Admiral; I should be sorry that you thought such evil of me.”

  And would be sorrier, Laurence thought, if he spread a story that did her so little credit. Few others had the power to do so, and he the only one who did not have good cause to conceal it. “Your Majesty scarcely owes me any explanations, nor can I invite your confidence.”

  “I do not seek your silence, beyond what your judgment should consider best,” she said. “It grieves me that you should imagine me happy in the present circumstances. If I could have my husband here at my side, triumphant, once more the conqueror of Europe, only then could I call myself a happy woman.”

  “You might have had him here as the Emperor of France,” Laurence said. “Would that not have been enough?”

  “But I could not,” she said. “You know that I could not. You know my husband, Admiral.”

  This silenced him. Anahuarque added, after a pause, “You may more justly say, I should have been content to go into exile along with him; to take him away to Pusantinsuyo. But it was my husband’s duty to hazard everything for victory—mine, to rescue our empire from defeat.”

  Unwillingly, Laurence did begin to understand her a little more, and that peculiar retreat of her dragons in the final instants: she had offered only to let Napoleon fall into their hands, if he had already been defeated in battle—and thus to end a war swiftly that had almost certainly been lost, but which his gifts and determination could have long prolonged.

  “Tell me, if the choice had been put to him, do you think he would have preferred to flee with me to my country, or to keep his son upon the throne he won?” Anahuarque asked, watching his face. “Do you still accuse me of disloyalty?”

  There was much to be admired, in the strategic sense, in a plan which had permitted the Empress to enjoy the chance of complete victory, while hazarding very few of the risks of defeat. Laurence could only despise it a little less, for being a more limited conspiracy. But he remembered too clearly the father running through flames at Fontainebleau to save his son, heedless of his own risk; the swiftness with which Napoleon had signed the documents to accept his own exile, in exchange for handing on his throne.

  “You have chosen, Your Majesty, as he would have chosen,” Laurence said briefly. That, he could not deny.

  He did not think she would ask him to say more, and indeed she nodded his dismissal, satisfied. He left angry, because she was right to be satisfied; she had indeed silenced him as thoroughly as she might have wished. He would have liked to spread the infamy of the conspiracy widely, and to heave away the credit he had not earned; he would have liked to expose her and those who had abetted the betrayal of which he had been made an instrument. But he could not, without serving a worse blow to the man who had been their victim. That she would keep Napoleon’s son upon his throne, Laurence could not doubt, nor that Napoleon would have preferred that outcome to any other form of defeat.

  —

  “But Laurence, surely we have been trying to see Napoleon defeated, all these years,” Temeraire said, a little perplexed. “Do you mean that you a
re sorry, now, that he has lost?”

  “No,” Laurence said. “No, I would not see him restored if it were in my power, only—” He halted and shook his head, as though he could not put his feelings easily into words.

  “Well, Napoleon has never seemed to me such a very bad fellow, but I am not in the least sorry that Lien has lost,” Temeraire said. “And this exile is by no means less than she deserves after the very underhanded way in which she behaved about the egg. I only wish they planned to put more guns on the shore, at that island, and they ought to station four heavy-weight dragons there at least. I do not think they properly respect what she is capable of doing.” He sighed a little.

  Laurence shook his head in silence. He had given his opinions briefly, and advised how best to safeguard against Lien’s sinking the ships, but he thought she could not be held captive long by guns or guards, however numerous. A single accomplice ship equipped with pontoons, somewhere off the shore, would make escape possible. Napoleon’s true gaoler would be his own son. The ministers had bribed him so, to keep to his island, and so long as they left the boy on the throne, Napoleon would keep the bargain.

  —

  “I should like to express my gratitude,” Temeraire said a little uncertainly: he had come to the clearing where the Tswana dragons had made their camp with only the best intentions, and they had received him, but none of them had returned his introductions, and they would all stare so unblinkingly, as though they expected him to do something alarming; it gave him the uneasy feeling they might be right. “—mine, and of course Admiral Laurence’s as well; and I dare say everybody else is grateful also, even if they have not shown it as they ought, yet. But I believe Mr. Hammond means to speak to your prince, when the opportunity arises, and discuss perhaps reopening some of your ports, at the Cape or—”

  “He may save the trouble,” one of the Tswana dragons, a large fellow in orange and green, interrupted rudely. “You do not suppose we are ever going to let any of you slavers back in our territory?”

  “Oh!” Temeraire said, a little indignantly; he was not a slaver. “I am sure I have no idea why you wanted to be helpful, then, if you choose to lump us all together.”

  Another dragon snorted. “Why should we have helped any of you? We didn’t want this Napoleon running things, and he would have, with a few thousand dragons under his hand. Now the rest of you can squabble it out among yourselves, and leave us alone.”

  “And I had meant to be so gracious,” Temeraire said to Lily afterwards, when he had flown back to their own covert: which was not at all like a British covert, but a handsome ring of pavilions, each large enough to comfortably house a dozen heavy-weights, or more if they did not mind leaving a tail or a leg poking outside, and piling in. They were situated atop a high hill overlooking Rochefort harbor, presently a very picturesque scene with three dragon transports and a second-rate in harbor, and a flotilla of frigates and ships’ boats scattered around them. In addition, the pavilion floors were raised from the ground with room to put coals beneath, in the best design; the weather was not so unpleasant that they were needed today, but thought had been given to the matter. It was rather an unhappy reminder of the conditions which did not await them in Britain, when at last they boarded those waiting transports and sailed back up the coast. “I had even meant to make them a present.”

  “What sort of present?” Lily asked interestedly. She and all the old formation had been gratifyingly pleased for his good fortune, and had come from the Peninsula with their own to report: King Joseph had attempted to flee Spain with tremendous heaps of treasure, and they had captured a caravan with no less than six wagons of silver plate, the prize-money for which had made them all respectably rich, even divided up.

  “A golden chain,” Temeraire said, “with some very handsome emeralds: that Incan dragon gave it to me, when she so wanted to keep Challoner.” He sighed a little; but as the Copacati had professed herself perfectly willing to go into the Aerial Corps, it meant Challoner should make captain straightaway, and Laurence had persuaded Temeraire that they could not stand in her way. Temeraire could not really like it, but the necklace had been a handsome consolation. “I am sure it could not fail to please, but of course I am not going to give it to them now, when they have been so churlish.”

  “You might give it to me instead,” Ning said; she had been apparently sleeping in a comfortable curled place upon the stones in the sun, but she lifted her head as though she had been listening, all the time.

  “Whyever would I?” Temeraire said warily.

  “As a gift for the Emperor,” Ning said, “a gesture of respect and gratitude, and of congratulations on his ascension. I would be delighted to present it to him on behalf of yourself and Admiral Laurence.”

  Temeraire flattened his ruff. “So you are going to China, after all, and want to make a handsome appearance when you get there; I see.”

  “Yes, I think it the best course of action at present,” Ning said calmly, ignoring his remarks. “I cannot find that the new Emperor of France will even be able to talk for two years, much less go flying, and in any case one should like his situation to be of somewhat longer standing. In a few years, it may be time for me to pay a visit, and see how matters are progressing, but for the moment certainly I ought to be in China.”

  “I do not know why you mean to come back to visit, then; you cannot have both of them,” Temeraire said.

  “I do not see any reason against it,” Ning said. “They are both excellently placed, strategically, for the coming century, and one ought to plan ahead. It would not do to close any doors unnecessarily. Which is why you ought to give me the necklace,” she added, “and preserve those ties which the present victory must render much less politically useful. After all, the need for an excuse to make alliance is past, and with the death of the Jiaqing Emperor, the adoption of your admiral must have considerably less personal force. You would be well-advised to strengthen bonds with the new Emperor now, while the satisfaction of a joint victory warms his feelings towards you. It cannot but serve you well in future to have the relationship recognized. After all, I cannot find that Admiral Laurence will even have a post, when you have gone back to Britain, and he does not seem a particular favorite with your rulers.”

  This last understated the case, and Temeraire had not really considered that of course, now that the allied armies were disbanding, Laurence was no longer in command of anyone. He realized uncomfortably he did not really know if Laurence was even still an admiral at all.

  “Oh, on that you may be easy,” Excidium said, when Temeraire had roused him for a consultation, “for my Jane was still an admiral even when those croakers in the Admiralty had stripped her of her post, back before Napoleon invaded us. But they may send you to the north of Scotland to fly patrols, or some other make-work. Anyway, Ning ain’t wrong that it is always good to have more influence. Jane has said to me that she would collect a year’s worth of letter-writing in influence by taking her coronet to some hostess’s rout for a night, even if she would as lief be hanged as go to a ball. So it is well-worth preserving the connection, if you have it.”

  “And which I am sure Ning likes preserved for her own sake,” Temeraire muttered afterwards, “perhaps so she has an excuse to come visiting.” But that did not mean she was not right; however, perhaps Laurence would not like to send such a gift, after all.

  “Certainly I should not like to be encroaching,” Laurence said, however, “but I can hardly say he has not acknowledged the relationship, in a manner which permits me to ignore it. Aside from all the very real service Mianning has done our nation, his personal kindness to us more than merits the greatest warmth and respect, and it must be for him to first grow cold, before we can consider ourselves to be pursuing an unwanted connection. Perhaps you might consult with Gong Su, as to whether the gift would be suitable; some gesture at least, I think must be desirable.”

  And naturally Gong Su was of the opinion that an elegant gold
en chain sized for a dragon, of the finest Incan craftsmanship, adorned with a dozen beautiful and valuable jewels, would be an eminently pleasing gift: who would not be pleased, Temeraire would have liked to know. So there was no help for it, and Temeraire disconsolately saw it laid into a handsome wooden box, with much padding of soft wool, and delivered to Ning just before her departure: the legions had already nearly all flown back, leaving only an honor-guard of forty dragons to accompany her home.

  “Well, old fellow, at least you didn’t have to buy it,” Maximus said, nudging his shoulder by way of consolation as the box flew away; which was some comfort, except if one considered the lovely alteration the chain would have made to his bank-book, if it had been sold instead, and viewed its departure as the loss of that amount.

  —

  “Fare thee well, and I hope we have seen the last of him,” Jane said, joining Laurence on the dragondeck of the Vindication. The Bellerophon was visible out on the horizon, with Lien a little awkwardly disposed on the deck, a heavy band of chain marring the clean white line of her neck. They were making sail. Jane shook her head. “I shan’t give ha’pence for the chance, though. I dare say that beast could make shore from St. Helena in a day and a night if she put herself to the trouble, and it is sure enough he will find some excuse to be off, after he gets tired of the place; and there ain’t any cause not to grow tired of it, either. Perhaps his wife will have him poisoned, and save us the excitement, though.”

  “I dare say your hopes may be answered,” Laurence said.

  “Very good,” Jane said approvingly. “That was almost uncharitable: we will make a cynic of you yet. You are for Dover in the morning, and London?”

  “I am,” Laurence said, and heaved a breath. “I will see you there, I think?”

  “Yes, though the Lord knows they are running out of honors to heap on my shoulders, and Wellington is in even worse case: I think they will have to make him a new order of knighthood. You are getting off lightly by comparison, with your mere baronetcy. But I have come to drop a word in your ear: I have been invited four times in letters this last month to say something about the need for a strengthened presence in Halifax. Will you go if you are ordered there?”

 
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