League of Dragons


  —

  “Well,” Hammond said, as they left the palace together, a little while after, “I suppose I will either be knighted, or sent to prison; I have left the Government very few alternatives.”

  Laurence regarded him with concern. “What have you promised the Russians?”

  “A million pounds,” Hammond said.

  “Good God!” Laurence said, appalled. “Hammond, what authority have you to offer a tenth such a sum?”

  “Oh—” Hammond gestured impatiently. “I am overstepping my orders, but the plain truth is, it cannot be done with less; likely it must be twice as much. Their finances are in the most monstrous wreck imaginable.”

  “That, I can well believe,” Laurence said. “Can it be done at all?”

  “I am not going to tempt fate by making any such prediction,” Hammond said. “Bonaparte has overturned too many thrones and armies. But I will say—if it is ever to be done, it must be done now. He has been pushed over the Niemen already; Wellington is ready to strike in Spain. We will not get a better chance. But if we are to get anywhere at all, we must bring the Prussians over; and to do that, we must empower the Russians to make a real showing. I will call it cheap at the price, if a million pounds should have that effect.”

  Hammond concluded almost defiantly, as if he were making an argument before the king’s ministers, rather than in a half-deserted street in Vilna, before a man nowhere in their good graces. Laurence shook his head.

  “Sir,” he said, “I think you have forgotten one critical point. Can you conceive that the King of Prussia should ever agree to join us in opposing Bonaparte while his son and heir remains hostage in Paris?”

  Hammond said, “His officers will force him to it. All of East Prussia longs to throw off Bonaparte’s yoke. A few Russian victories, and his own generals will be ready to mutiny to our side if he does not embrace the effort—”

  “And then what do you imagine will happen to the prince?” Laurence snapped; Hammond paused, as if so minor a consideration had not occurred to him.

  “Bonaparte cannot mean to offer any harm to the boy,” Hammond said, uneasily.

  “His father may be less willing to rely upon such a conviction,” Laurence said.

  TEMERAIRE COULD NOT HELP but enjoy Laurence and Hammond’s surprise, when they came back into the covert and found the work quite advanced: a central plaza already laid out, full of squares framed with logs. The Russian light-weights were filling these with stones and sand, which they were gathering from the riverbed and the hills near-by, using the water-troughs for shovel-scoops.

  “Yes,” Temeraire said, with what he felt was a deserved complacency, “we are further along than I should have expected. I did not imagine that the heavy-weights would make themselves any help at all, but once they understood that I meant to feast them, many of them became quite interested.”

  “But what have you done!” cried Hammond. “You must have torn up an entire stand of timber—”

  “We have,” Temeraire said, “but that is all right: I paid for it, and the owner told Ferris he did not mind at all, as long as we would not eat his cattle; and then I bought those, too, so he was perfectly satisfied.”

  The cows were already roasting upon spits over a roaring fire, under the interested supervision of Baggy. “Only, I thought it would be a shame to see such good beef go to waste, sir,” he said, looking at Laurence sidelong. “And Temeraire said he thought there wouldn’t be any harm this once—”

  “Yes, very well,” Laurence said, not entirely with approbation.

  Temeraire privately did not understand why Laurence considered cooking strictly the province of the ground crew, as it seemed to him quite one of the most important functions of his crew as a whole, but he knew that Laurence was strict with Baggy: the boy had been promoted from the ground crew, to try and fill the dearth of officers, and there seemed to be some need to keep him only at an officer’s tasks. “I hope you do not mind, Laurence,” Temeraire said apologetically, “as it is for the party, and not just ordinary eating: so it needs a close eye upon it. Yardley will let the meat overcook, and say that it is healthy, when it is only quite inedible.”

  “I am sorry that he has not learned better; I will contrive to hire a proper cook, if I can,” Laurence said.

  “That,” Temeraire said, “would be splendid. Oh! How lovely it is, Laurence, to be in funds again—although of course,” he added hastily, “ten thousand pounds’ worth of the treasure is properly yours, not mine: I have not forgotten my debt, in the least.”

  “I know of no debt whatsoever you owe me,” Laurence said, very nobly, although Temeraire knew that Laurence had lost all his money in a law-suit, which had been settled against him because everyone had thought him a traitor at the time. That hideous memory had long preyed on Temeraire’s spirits, and he could not help but rejoice that he had the power to restore Laurence’s fortunes at last; he did not at all mean to let Laurence refuse, out of generosity. But Temeraire was puzzled, a moment, to think how he might induce Laurence to take the gold; Laurence certainly could not have carried it himself, if Temeraire pressed it upon him.

  Inspiration struck. “Perhaps you would prefer if I should arrange repayment in some nicer form,” Temeraire said. “—I suppose there are jewelers, somewhere near?”

  “I do not suppose it,” Laurence said, very quickly. “Let us by all means put it into the Funds; I will see if I can find a banker, instead.”

  “That will suit me perfectly, if you prefer,” Temeraire said triumphantly, and then belatedly wondered if there had been something unpleasantly smacking of artifice, in this maneuver; if it were the sort of thing that Lien might have done. He almost asked Laurence, but realized that he could not do so without undermining the good effects, so instead he excused himself privately that no-one could really complain of being given ten thousand pounds.

  “And,” he added thoughtfully, “I do not suppose, Laurence, that you might put us in the way of some fireworks of our own? I should like to have them set off from that mountain-ridge, up there, so we can see them very clearly from this plaza; and also, if it might be arranged, some musicians.”

  —

  Laurence by no means begrudged Temeraire or the dragons a share in the feasting; and indeed he could scarcely wish Temeraire to spend the pillaged treasure of Russia better, than to feed her army’s dragons. He only chafed to be arranging entertainments rather than engagements; but the latter could not be had merely for the asking. There was no supply for heavy-weights ahead of them, nor likely to be, unless Hammond’s outrageous promise were fulfilled.

  In the meantime, they should have to sit in Vilna and watch Napoleon’s army fleeing westward, knowing that the disordered companies and solitary officers who this day escaped would be marching back to meet them in springtime: their ranks fleshed out, their equipment restored, once again the instruments of their master’s limitless ambition. Laurence thought again of the Grand Chevalier, panting out her life in slow gasps on the frozen ground; the corpses in their dotted lines running all the way from Moscow. Pale faces stared from the corners of his mind, and he could not help seeing among them his own father’s face, equally pale and still, lying blind in the chapel at Wollaton Hall. A sense of futility dragged upon his spirits as he walked from the covert the next morning, to be thrown off only with an effort; Laurence thought perhaps he ought be glad for any employment.

  He presented himself to the colonel of the foot artillery regiment stationed nearest the covert: the soldiers had been among those who had been borne dragon-back during the escape from Moscow, and had lost some of their fear of dragons. “Your Highness,” the colonel said, bowing deeply, when Laurence had been shown in; Laurence sighed inwardly, and accepted the greeting as well as the far more welcome offer of a cup of tea—strong and flavorful, although the Russians did not know anything of introducing the beverage to milk.

  “I should be grateful for the loan of your regimental band,” Laure
nce said, after the niceties were observed, “if they should not object to coming into the covert this evening. The men should not need to remain the night,” he added, “—only until we have drunk the Tsar’s health: in vodka, of course.” He was well aware of the power of this inducement to obtain the cooperation of many a reluctant soldier.

  The colonel looked rather relieved than otherwise, and far from objecting, expressed his gratitude at their having been singled out for such an honor. He could not have meant this with any sincerity; likely the man had been expecting some far more egregious demand, presented on the grounds of his supposed rank.

  Whatever the cause, however, Laurence could only be pleased by the extraordinarily stirring marches that evening, which accompanied the fireworks from the heights. Any remaining hesitation he might have felt at what seemed frivolity was overcome by the fixed and rapt expressions upon the faces of all the Russian dragons, while they stared skywards and their tails beat upon the ground in an unconscious accompaniment to the martial music.

  This was succeeded by dinner: roast cattle, each stuffed and laid upon a bed of boiled potatoes and turnips, sufficient to sate even the hungriest beast. It had proven impossible to find even one dragon-sized vessel of brass, much less anything like an elegant service, but Temeraire’s ingenuity had contrived a solution: the bed of a wagon had been taken off its frame, painted gaily and festooned with tinsel, and this was loaded up and ceremonially presented to each dragon in turn, while Grig, at Temeraire’s side, described the military achievements of that beast in glowing terms. The dragons swelled visibly with both dinner and pride, and those still anticipating their turn were loudest in applause.

  Not all the dragons had come, at first; some were restrained by their own disdain, and some by their officers. But the noise and the aroma drew the laggards in by degrees, and not only them; some of the Cossack dragons looked in, and after this even some wholly unharnessed dragons whom Laurence supposed must be the local ferals. These were not the half-starved Russian beasts escaped from their breeding grounds, but small wild dragons, green and sparrow-brown, with narrow heads and large bony crests atop them in stripes of oranges and yellows.

  They were wary, but full of yearning, and Temeraire was quick to welcome them: he nudged the other beasts to make room and called them in; they were invited to gnaw upon the roasted carcasses. By way of making thanks for this hospitality, the ferals made a great deal of approving noise after every speech Temeraire made describing the work of the fighting-dragons; so there were no objections to their presence.

  When at last every beast of three dozen had been fed, and they lay sprawled out and nearly somnolent upon the floor, Temeraire straightened up and cleared his throat, and made them all a long speech in the Russian dialect of the dragon-language. Laurence could not follow this very well, but it was certainly well-received; the dragons snorting approval, and sometimes even rousing up enough to roar. And then, at its conclusion, Emily Roland and Baggy came solemnly forward and presented each military beast with a chain of polished brass, upon which hung a placard carved—a little crudely, but legibly—with the dragon’s name.

  A more thunderstruck company, Laurence had never seen. The Russian heavy-weights had been used to spend their many hours of leisure squabbling ferociously, and even skirmishing with one another; the light-weight beasts had to devote their energies to stealing scraps for their dinners. They had never been taught anything of generosity or of fellowship, and before now they had been too resentful of being pushed aside to learn anything from the practices of the Chinese legions, except to envy them their more regular supplies of food. But even the most disdainful beast was overcome by this display; they presented their heads low in orderly turn to receive their decorations, and as they departed to their several clearings, each almost humbly thanked Temeraire for his hospitality, while their officers stared in amazement. The success of the evening was complete.

  —

  “I do think it came off well, Laurence, do you not agree?” Temeraire said, in a victorious mood. He was settling at last to sleep upon the floor, with the pleasant company of four or five small ferals huddled around him, their bodies warming him. The remnants of the feast were being cleared away: the bones, picked clean, had been heaped up onto the wagon and driven away to be put into the porridge-pot for tomorrow. “Even if it cannot compare to the dinners which we have enjoyed in China,” he added.

  “Your company was entirely satisfied, which must be the aim of any host,” Laurence said. “I cannot think they found anything wanting.”

  “That is true,” Temeraire said, “even if it is because they do not know any better; but I am too pleased to be unhappy tonight, Laurence, and that dinner has set me up entirely. Do you suppose we will be sent forward to rejoin the pursuit tomorrow? Surely Napoleon is getting even further away while we are waiting here.”

  But Laurence said, “My dear, I am afraid there can be no question of that.”

  Temeraire had been drifting to sleep even as he spoke, but this unwelcome news woke him quite. He listened in dismay as Laurence explained: more supply was needed, and more money, and the Prussians should have to throw in with them, and it seemed the Austrians were wanted, too, and any number of conditions.

  “But Napoleon and his army are running away now,” Temeraire said in protest. “You and Hammond were saying only yesterday that we cannot afford to let them escape, if we are to defeat him in the spring.”

  “It will certainly make the task more difficult,” Laurence said. “But we cannot defeat him in the spring in any case, unless we have the Prussians; if they will not join us, the Russians cannot risk pressing on.”

  “I do not see why the Prussians should be so necessary to us,” Temeraire said. “Napoleon beat them quite handily at Jena, after all; he rolled up all the country in a month’s time. If they would like another chance to show what they can do, of course they might have it, but as for waiting for them—!”

  However, there was nothing to be done without supply. That much, Temeraire understood reluctantly. He had not liked to say so to Laurence, but he had really not felt like himself, those last few weeks of the campaign, when it had been so cold, and with not nearly enough food. There had been no use complaining—one could only keep flying, and hope that sooner or later one came to something to eat. But the gnawing in his belly had been extremely distracting, and he had often felt a strange distance from himself; once to his horror he had even found himself looking at a dead soldier down in the snow thinking that the fellow might go into the porridge, with no harm done anyone.

  Temeraire shuddered from the memory. “If the Russians will not send forward the supply, we can do nothing,” he said, “I do see that much: so how are they to be worked upon? When will the Prussians come in?”

  But this was evidently to be left to diplomats. As Temeraire had very little confidence in those gentlemen accomplishing this or any task in any reasonable time, he was by no means satisfied, and when Laurence had gone to sleep, he yet lay wakeful and brooding into the night, despite his comfortably full belly and warm sides.

  “Pray will you stop shifting?” one of the little ferals said drowsily: they spoke a dialect not far at all from Durzagh, the dragon-tongue, although flavored with a variety of words borrowed from Russian and German and French. “No disrespect,” she added, “only it is hard to get warm if you are always moving.”

  Temeraire hastily stilled his claws: he often could not help furrowing the earth when he was distracted, even though he was ashamed to have so fidgety a habit, and this time he was still more annoyed to see he had accidentally torn up some of the handsome new flooring. “I beg your pardon,” he said, and then he asked, “Tell me, do any of you fly over Prussia, now and then? It starts two rivers over from here, I think. Have you seen any Prussian fighting-dragons, in the breeding grounds there? Or perhaps further west? I suppose Napoleon would not have kept them close to their officers.”

  The ferals conferred amo
ng one another: they had not, as their own territory stopped at the Niemen. “But I am sure we can pass the word, if there is someone you would like to send a message to,” one of them said.

  “That,” Temeraire said, “would be very kind of you; I should be very grateful for any news of a dragon named Eroica, in particular.”

  “One of the dragons who live near Danzig might know something,” the first feral said. “They take a lot of fish there, so a few of them like to change places now and then with one of their neighbors, and they get the news there. We will have a wander over to their territory in the morning, if,” she added, a bit craftily, “we don’t have to spend too much time looking for breakfast.”

  —

  “Not as much as would fill a cup of tea!” the quartermaster said belligerently, when Temeraire would have let the ferals take a share of the porridge, the next morning.

  Temeraire flattened down his ruff. That Russian officer had spent all the day before scowling at the preparations for the feast, as though he did not like them doing anything to feed themselves. Temeraire had very little use for him anyway; in his opinion, the man might at least have improved on horsemeat by now if he had only made a push to be useful. The quartermaster added something in Russian, which Temeraire recognized as impolite, and put his boot on top of the large lid.

 
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