League of Dragons


  And Laurence could not but regard Temeraire’s extravagant hoard with dismay, although the Russians had been more astonished by his being willing to return any part of the treasure than by his keeping it entirely for himself. Laurence had asked how and where they should surrender the pillaged goods; the other aviators had only stared uncomprehending, and asked how he had managed to persuade Temeraire to surrender even the Tsar’s paintings, which could not have had a plainer provenance. He knew perfectly well what his father would have thought of a fortune obtained with so little character of law to the process.

  But there was something too much like bitterness in that thought. Laurence made himself fold up the letter, and put it away in his pocket. He would not dwell upon what he could not repair. They were still at war; the French Emperor might have escaped, but the French army was yet strung out between Vilna and Berlin, what was left of it, and there would surely be more work to do soon enough.

  There were other letters; letters from Spain: one from Jane Roland and one from Granby, with an enclosure addressed to Temeraire directly. Laurence meant to open them, but Temeraire said tentatively, “Laurence, I suppose you must begin to dress: Hammond will be calling for you in a quarter of an hour. Roland,” he called, “will you pray bring out Laurence’s robes? Be sure you do not track them in the dirt.”

  Too late, Laurence recalled the conversation he had not attended; too late, protest sprang to his lips. Emily Roland was already with great ceremony and satisfaction unfolding the immense and heavily embroidered robes of silk which belonged to the son of the Emperor of China, and not to that of Lord Allendale.

  —

  When Laurence had gone, Temeraire brooded, watching the celebrations get under way. Even the magnificent display of fireworks which opened the evening did not please him: a stand of trees blocked a great deal of the covert’s view, which he felt might have been taken into account, and the faint drifting smoke only reminded him that he and every other dragon had eaten nothing but porridge and burnt horse for months.

  “And it is not as though they did not know any better, anymore,” Temeraire said resentfully. He had refrained from making any remarks, while Laurence might be distressed by them any further, but after he had left for the celebration, Temeraire could no longer restrain himself. “It is not as though they had not seen, for themselves, that dragons should like to eat well, or live in a more orderly fashion; they have seen the arrangements of the Chinese legions.”

  Churki, Hammond’s dragon—or rather, the Incan dragon who had decided, quite unaccountably in Temeraire’s opinion, to lay claim to him; Hammond by no means wished to be an aviator, nor even liked to fly—lifted her head out of her ruffled-up feathers; she had huddled down to await his return. “Why do you keep complaining we have not been invited to that ceremony? Plainly it is a gathering of men: how could any dragon come into that building where they are holding it?”

  “They might make buildings large enough for us to come into, as they do in China,” Temeraire said, but she only huffed in a dismissive way.

  “It is inconvenient for people to always be in buildings built to our size; it means they have too far to go to get from one thing to another,” Churki said, which had not occurred to Temeraire before. “Naturally they like to have places of their own; there is nothing wrong in that, nor that they should hold their own celebrations. And as far as I can tell, you are the senior dragon here; who else should be offering thanks for victory, and arranging the comforts of your troops, but you?”

  “Oh,” Temeraire said, abashed. “But how am I to arrange any comforts, when we are only thrown upon a miserable covert, and have nowhere else to go?”

  Churki shrugged. “This does seem a poor city,” she said, “and there are no large plazas of stone where dragons would ordinarily sleep or gather; but something may always be contrived! There is good enough timber in those woods there, and it would not be more than a few days to put down a floor of split logs, if you sent all those Russians to fetch a few dozen. Then you must pay men and women, if you have not enough in your own ayllu to carry out the work, to prepare ornaments and a feast. I do not see that there is any great puzzle about it,” she added, rather severely.

  “Well,” Temeraire said, and would have protested that the woods were certainly property belonging to someone or another, but he could not help feeling it would be really complaining, then; the sort of complaining that shirkers did, when they did not want to work. Laurence had a great disgust of shirkers. “Ferris,” he called instead. “Will you be so good as to go into town for me, and make some inquiries? And pray can you see where Grig has got to?”

  —

  The crush of the ballroom would have been sufficient to stifle a man wearing something other than heavy silk robes. Laurence endured grimly both the heat and the attentions of the company. The robes were meant for a man presumed by their makers to be the natural center of any gathering he attended, and in this setting they had the happy power of ensuring him that position; he certainly outshone every man present, and most of the women. Hammond was aglow with delight, presenting him without hesitation to men of the highest rank as their social equal, and presuming upon the association to address himself to them. Laurence could not even check him, in public as they were, when Hammond was the King’s representative.

  And the solitary one here, even though he was not even properly an envoy to Russia at all, but to China—but no other British diplomat had managed to keep up with the Tsar during the tumult of both retreat and pursuit. Lord Cathcart had been forced to flee St. Petersburg early on when Napoleon’s army had seized it; the ambassador in Moscow had decamped that city shortly before its fall, and Laurence had no idea what had become of the man. Only Hammond, with the benefit of a dragon as traveling-companion, had been able to stay with headquarters all the long dusty way.

  “I am entirely reconciled to Churki’s company—entirely; I cannot overstate the benefits of having made myself so familiar, to the Tsar and his staff,” Hammond said, in low voice but with a naked delight that Laurence could not help but regard askance. “And, quite frankly, they think all the better of me, for being as they suppose her master; they value nothing so much as courage, and I assure you, Captain, that whenever we have caught them up, and I have been seen dismounting her back, and instructing her to go to her rest, without benefit of bit or harness, I have been received with a most gratifying amazement. I have arranged to have it happen in sight of the Tsar three times.”

  Laurence could not openly say what he felt about such machinations, or about Hammond saying, “My dear Countess Lieven, pray permit me to make you known to His Imperial Highness.” He could only do his best to escape. A storm of cheering offered him an opportunity at last: the Tsar making his entrance to the pomp of a military band, and soldiers strewing the path that cleared for him with prizes: French standards, many torn and bloodstained, symbols of victory. Laurence managed to slip Hammond’s traces and take himself out onto a balcony. The night air, still bitterly cold, was for once welcome. He would have been glad to leave entirely.

  “Ha, what a get-up,” General Kutuzov said, coming onto the balcony with him, surveying Laurence’s robes.

  “Sir,” Laurence said, with a bow, sorry he could not defend himself against any such remark.

  “Well, I hear you can afford them,” Kutuzov said, only heaping up the coals. “I have not heard so much gnashing of teeth in my life as when you brought that wagon-load of gold into camp, and all the rest of those big beasts nursing along scraps of silver, over which they nearly quarreled themselves to pieces. Tell me, do you think we could buy off these ferals with trinkets?”

  “Not while they are starving,” Laurence said.

  Kutuzov nodded with a small sigh, as if this was no more than he expected. There was a bench set upon the balcony. The old man sat down and brought his pipe out; he tamped down tobacco and lit it, puffing away clouds into the cold. They remained in silence. The revelry behind them wa
s only increasing in volume. Outside on the street, on the other side of the back wall around the governor’s palace, a single shambling figure limped alone through a small pool of yellow lamp-light, leaving a trail dragged through the snow behind him: a French soldier draped in rags, occasionally stopping to emit a dry, hacking cough; dying of typhus. He continued his slow progress and disappeared back into the dark.

  “So Napoleon has got away,” Kutuzov said.

  “For the moment,” Laurence said. “I believe, sir, that the Tsar is determined on pursuit?”

  Kutuzov sighed deeply from his belly, around the stem of the pipe. “Well, we’ll see,” he said. “It’s good to have your own house in order before you start arranging someone else’s. There are a thousand wild dragons on the loose between St. Petersburg and Minsk, and they aren’t going to pen themselves up.”

  “I had hoped, sir, that you had thought better of that practice,” Laurence said.

  “Half my officers are of the opinion we should bait them with poison and hunt them all down. Well, what do you expect, when they are flying around eating everything in sight, and sometimes people? But cooler heads know we can’t afford it! If it weren’t for you and those Chinese beasts, Napoleon would have had us outside Moscow last summer, and we wouldn’t be here to chat about it.” Kutuzov shook his head. “But one way or another, something must be done about them. We can’t rebuild the army when our supply-lines are being raided every day. You’ll forgive me for being a blunt old man, Captain,” he added, “but while I can see why you British would like us to finish beating Napoleon to pieces, I don’t see much good in it for Mother Russia at present.”

  Laurence had already heard this sentiment murmured among some of the Russian soldiers; he was all the more sorry to hear it espoused by Kutuzov himself, the garlanded general of the hour. “You cannot suppose, sir, that Napoleon will be quieted for long, even by this disaster.”

  “He may have enough else to occupy him,” Kutuzov said. “There was a coup attempt in Paris, you know.”

  “I had not heard it,” Laurence said, taken aback.

  “Oh, yes,” Kutuzov said. “Two weeks ago. That is why his Incan beasts went racing off home—back to that Empress of theirs. She seems to have managed everything neatly enough: all the men involved were rounded up and shot before the week was out. But Bonaparte is going to be busy enough at home for some time, I expect. Anyway, as long as he doesn’t come back to Russia, I don’t see that it’s our business to worry about him. If the Prussians and Austrians don’t like their neighbor, let them do something about him.”

  At this juncture, Hammond appeared to retrieve Laurence and draw him back into the ballroom; he was worried and yet unsurprised when Laurence related the substance of the conversation to him. “I am afraid far too many of the Russian generals are of like mind,” Hammond said. “But thank Heaven! The Tsar, at least, is not so shortsighted; you may imagine, Captain, how profoundly he has been affected by the misery and suffering which Bonaparte has inflicted upon his nation. Indeed he would like a word with you, Captain, if you will come this way—”

  Laurence submitted to his doom, and permitted Hammond to usher him up to the dais where the Tsar now sat in state; but when they had approached the Tsar rose and came down the steps, much to Laurence’s dismay, and kissed him on both cheeks. “Your Highness,” the Tsar said, “I am delighted to see you look so well. Come, let us step outside a moment.”

  This was too much; Laurence opened his mouth to protest that he was by no means to be treated as royalty; but Hammond cleared his throat with great vigor to prevent him, and the Tsar was already leading the way into an antechamber, advisors trailing him like satellites after their Jovian master. “Clear the hallway outside, Piotr,” the Tsar said to a tall young equerry, as they came into the smaller room. “Your Highness—”

  “Your Majesty,” Laurence broke in, unable to bear it, despite Hammond’s looks, “I beg your pardon. I am foremost a British serving-officer, and a captain of the Aerial Corps; I am far from meriting that address.”

  But Alexander did not bend. “You may not desire the burden which it represents, but you must endure it. The Tsar of Russia cannot be so uncouth as to insult the emperor who chose to bestow that honor upon you.” Nor, Laurence unwillingly recognized, be so unwise as to insult an emperor who could send three hundred dragons to Moscow; he bowed in acknowledgment and was silent.

  “We will take a little air together,” Alexander said. “You know Count Nesselrode, I think, Mr. Hammond?”

  Hammond stammered agreement, even as he cast an anxious sideways glance at that gentleman, who certainly meant to begin issuing demands as soon as his Imperial master was out of ear-shot of haggling: demands for money, which Hammond was far from being authorized to meet on Britain’s behalf. But Laurence could do nothing to relieve his discomfiture. He followed the Tsar out upon the balcony.

  A greater contrast with the scene which he had overlooked, from the other side of the palace, could scarcely be envisioned: the streets before the palace gates were thronged with celebrating Russian soldiers, shouting, screams of laughter, a blaze of lanterns, and even the occasional squib of makeshift fireworks contrived from gunpowder. Alexander looked with pardonable satisfaction upon his troops, who had pursued Napoleon across five hundred barren miles in winter, and yet remained in fighting order.

  “I trust you were not put to excessive trouble to return the portraits, Your Highness,” the Tsar said. “I was given to understand it quite impossible to extract prizes from the beasts, once taken.”

  “By no means, Your Majesty,” Laurence said. “I must assure you that dragons, while having no more natural understanding of property rights than would a wholly uneducated man, may be brought to an equal comprehension; Temeraire was entirely willing,” this a slight exaggeration, “to restore all the stolen property to its rightful owners, if only provenance might be established.” Laurence paused; he disliked very much making use of an advantage he had not earned, but the opportunity of putting a word into so important an ear could not be given up. “It is a question of education and of management, if you will pardon my saying so. If a dragon is taught to value nothing but gold, and to think of its own worth as equal to that of its hoard, it will naturally disdain both discipline and law in the pursuit of treasure.”

  But Alexander only nodded abstractly, without paying him much attention. “I believe you were speaking with good Prince Kutuzov, earlier this evening,” he said, surprising Laurence; he wondered how the Tsar should already have intelligence of an idle conversation, held not an hour since, in the midst of his ball. “I am sorry to have dragged him so far from his warm hearth. His old age deserved a better rest than his country—and Bonaparte!—have given him.”

  Laurence spoke cautiously, feeling himself on the treacherous grounds of politics; did Alexander mean to criticize the old general’s views? “He has always seemed to me a great deal of a pragmatist, Your Majesty.”

  “He is a wise old warrior,” Alexander said. “I have not many such men. And yet sometimes the wiser course requires such pains as may make even a wise man shrink from them. You, I am sure, understand that Bonaparte’s appetite is insatiable. He may lick his wounds awhile; but who that has seen the wreck of Moscow could imagine that the man who went on from that disaster to continue a futile pursuit will long be dismayed?”

  The pursuit had not seemed nearly so futile at the time, to one among the prey. If Napoleon had been able to feed the Russian ferals for another week, if the Chinese legions had reached the end of their own supply a week earlier; on so narrow a thread had the outcome turned. But Laurence did not need to be persuaded of Napoleon’s recklessness. “No,” he said. “He will not stop.” Then slowly, he added, “He cannot stop. If his ambition was of a kind which could be checked by any form of caution, he would never have achieved his high seat. He does not know fear, I think; even when he should.”

  Alexander turned to him, his face suddenly aligh
t and intent. “Exactly so!” he cried. “You have described him exactly. A man who does not know fear—even of God. Once even I permitted myself to be lost in admiration of his genius; I will not deny it, though I have learned to be ashamed of it. And yet at that time, it seemed to me such courage, such daring, demanded respect. But now we have seen him for what he is; in the ruin of his army he has been revealed: a fiend who gorges on human blood and misery! If only we had captured him!”

  “I am very sorry he should have escaped,” Laurence said, low.

  He had tried to comfort himself, after the first bitter disappointment, with common sense: Bonaparte would surely not have left himself exposed in any way that might have rendered him vulnerable to capture. He had undoubtedly crossed with a strong company, in good order, and remained always in the very heart of his Old Guard. There had not been any real chance. But common sense was insufficient relief; Laurence feared Alexander was too right, when he said that Napoleon would not be checked for long. He would raise a fresh army, the drum-beat would begin again. The Russian Army and the Russian winter had won them not a year’s reprieve.

  “I am determined it will not be so,” Alexander said. “He may have slipped away; but we will not allow him to escape justice forever. God has granted us victory, and more than that, has left our enemy weakened. We must seize this opportunity of destroying his power. It is our duty to liberate not only Russia but all Europe from this scourge of mankind. I will pursue him; I will see him brought down! When my soldiers stand in Paris, as his trampled into Petersburg and Moscow, then I will be satisfied to go home again; not before!”

  Alexander’s face was flushed with vehemence. Laurence regarded the Tsar soberly. It was impossible to doubt the sincerity of his inspired wrath. But the Tsar spoke not of forcing Napoleon to sue for peace, or make concessions of territory; he spoke of driving Napoleon from his throne. To take Paris—the very idea was fantastical. All of Prussia yet lay under the yoke of France; Austria was docile and shrinking before him; and Napoleon would surely defend the heartland of France desperately, with every resource in his power—which, Laurence well knew, included a vast and devoted army of dragons. And behind them, the greatest cities of Russia lay in rubble and in ruin; feral dragons roamed the countryside pillaging at will. Kutuzov’s might be the loudest voice, but it would not be the only one advising Alexander to go home and put his own house in order.

 
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