League of Dragons


  “They said,” Cavendish said, “they said someone had fought a fatal duel, somewhere outside the city,” Temeraire felt the world drag to a halt, suspended, “and they said—they said it was Von Karlow’s own fault, seconding a coward, because—because his man fired ahead of the signal.”

  “He is dead, then,” Churki said. “And without even a single child! I am so very sorry, Temeraire.”

  “No,” Temeraire said, “no; he is not dead,” blindly, and Dyhern came panting up the hill, shouting, “He is not dead! He is not dead, thank the good God.”

  “He is not?” Temeraire said, thrusting his head down low to the ground, the world lurching back into motion.

  Dyhern caught Cavendish by the ear and shook him. “What do you mean by repeating nonsense like that, you young sow’s head? Keep your mouth shut, next time. He is not dead,” he repeated, and had to let go the wincing Cavendish to bend himself double, hands braced on his knees, to get back his air: Dyhern was a big man, and though he had lost a great deal of flesh to grief and to winter, his wind was not so remarkable that he could cheerfully run up the steep hillside to the entry gates.

  “Then what has happened?” Temeraire cried.

  “The other man,” Dyhern said, “is dead.”

  “Oh! That is just as well,” Temeraire said, immensely relieved. “If he were not, I should certainly have killed him; but I am glad Laurence has already done so. Why has he not come back?”

  “He did not kill his man,” Dyhern said. “Hammond did.”

  “What?” Churki said, sitting up sharply. “What has Hammond to do with killing anyone? He is not a soldier!”

  Dyhern did not say anything more, waving away the questions as he heaved for breath; then he went to his tent and came out with his harness. “I will tell you all, once we are in the air,” he said. “We are flying west. Von Karlow has given me their direction. Here, be useful now,” he added, to Cavendish, “and get aboard. We may need hands. You there, O’Dea, you will tell the officers where we have gone. Give me your paper, I will write the direction.”

  Temeraire did not argue, because he agreed with Dyhern: Laurence was alive, and all further intelligence might be deferred in the interest of going to him at once. He waited impatiently for Dyhern to finish scribbling his note, and then held out his claw for him and for Cavendish, to put them up more quickly on his back. “Well?” he said. “Have you latched on?” and hearing the carabiner-clicks did not wait for an answer, but launched himself into the air.

  —

  Laurence woke in the night coughing, a sharp pain in his side, and found Dyhern bending over him and the household in weeping terror. “Take him, take him!” the goodwife was saying in rough German, making pushing gestures at Laurence with her hands. “Give the dragon!”

  Dyhern calmed her with a stern speech in that language, too quick for Laurence to follow, and turning back said, “Rest, Captain, I will tell Temeraire you cannot be moved,” and then was gone again. Laurence fell back into fitful and uneasy sleep and woke again with the household in fresh dismay, shrieks rousing him: it was daylight outside, and Temeraire had put his enormous eye up to the window to peer in at him.

  “Temeraire,” Laurence tried to say, and then he was dreaming again, of beef: fresh hot roast beef, the juices running red and rare, until these became rivulets of blood dripping from Dobrozhnov, a dead groaning corpse who came close and closer and put out clammy hands to grasp Laurence’s arms; he woke with a jerk in an unpleasant but welcome sweat, too warm: his fever had broken. There was a pot of beef broth cooking over the fire.

  He drank nearly all of it, and then realized that the groaning soul in the cot across the room from him was Dobrozhnov: still alive, despite a bullet gone through his chest. “Good God, why is he here?” Laurence said to Hammond.

  “I am very sorry for the circumstances, Captain; he could not be moved, and indeed, we hardly foresaw any reason to do so,” Hammond said uneasily, looking towards the cot. “The doctor was quite sure of his being dead before now. But I am very glad to see you so improved: will you eat a little more?”

  “With pleasure,” Laurence said, “when I have spoken to Temeraire.”

  This required the support of Dyhern’s strong shoulders, and the use of the household’s only bed and its meager supply of pillows; limping across the chamber was even so a remarkably painful process of transfer, and when Laurence at last was lying upon the bed, he was forced to accept another swallow of laudanum from Hammond, and catch his breath for some twenty minutes before he could again speak to let them know they might open the door.

  Temeraire put his head up to it, anxious, deeply distressed. “Anyone might have guessed,” he said with immense reproach, “that the sort of person who would insult the Emperor would cheat, and here you are wounded!”

  “I assure you I feel very much better,” Laurence said, although he was indeed in severe pain, which the laudanum only served to cloud and not remove. He heard and understood only distantly: his attention was fixed on his own words, struggling to keep in mind that he must say nothing of Dobrozhnov, still lying helpless in the room behind him. Temeraire could not know him still alive.

  “I have been speaking with Dyhern a great deal on the subject of dueling,” Temeraire said, “and it seems plain to me that something must be done. You must give me your word, Laurence, that if anyone ever should insult you again, they must be told at once that I will insist on being your second myself. I am very much indebted to Mr. Hammond for having killed that wretched fellow, but in future, if anyone likes to prove they are not a coward by insulting you, they may fight me, and then they cannot complain of not having had satisfaction: I am sure everyone will agree they were brave, once they are dead. Pray promise me, and then you must go have some more beef broth,” he insisted.

  Laurence said vaguely, “As you wish,” having become unable to follow the conversation, and was grateful to be carried back to the fire, still in the bed, and to eat a little more broth. This the daughter of the house brought him, and sat by him for a while frowning, and then in a little awkward German spoke to him, asking quite seriously if the dragon obeyed him because he was a devil. This notion she proposed with an air of interest more than horror, and seemed reluctant to accept Laurence’s denial. When he awoke from a long drowse, he did so finding her carefully putting his hand onto the family crucifix, and in some exasperation he took hold of it, showed her he had not the least hesitation in doing so, and kissed it: a Popish gesture, but convincing. She seemed however disappointed, and demanded to know how he did control the dragon.

  “Ask Hammond,” Laurence said, too weary to struggle on in German, of which he had very little even under better circumstances. “He has a dragon also.”

  Hammond was meeting with very little success in controlling his dragon in any manner, however: Churki was in a mood of great severity, which had been not at all improved by learning the details of Hammond’s behavior in the duel, which she loudly characterized as ridiculous and inappropriately dangerous. The next day Laurence felt improved enough to be carried out of doors for a brief airing; he was glad to escape the cottage briefly despite the cold, as Dobrozhnov persisted in not dying and had begun to moan almost incessantly from pain. By then he found a serious quarrel brewing between the beasts: Churki was inclined to blame him for having dragged Hammond into the affair, and Temeraire was inclined to blame Hammond for the reverse, and an atmosphere of resentment had settled between them.

  “A pretty thing to be accusing you of,” Temeraire said, snorting with sufficient force to blow the snow before him into a cloud, “when you are so badly wounded you groan day and night,” and then he paused with a sudden puzzled expression and looked over at the cottage, from which had just issued one of these groaning noises.

  “I do not cry out, I assure you,” Laurence said hastily, hoping to divert Temeraire’s attention: Temeraire would certainly kill Dobrozhnov at once if he learned of the man’s survival, and very like
ly have the house in ruins on all its occupants besides. “—I am not uncomfortable.”

  “Still, you are the one who has been shot,” Temeraire said, not mollified, and it was of no use to point out that Hammond had stood the same hazard; indeed Laurence found it best not to discuss the particulars of the duel at all.

  The remainder of his crew had arrived the previous day, driving the wagon-load of gold and treasure—much to Temeraire’s relief—and Laurence could not help but be aware that his officers were very shocked; their disapproval was a palpable thing. Of Jane Roland’s reaction he was left in no doubt, from Emily’s furious looks, and he was uncomfortably certain that the absent Granby, too, would have upbraided him in the strongest terms. The ground crew, who did not themselves suffer from the prohibition against dueling, were more tolerant, and indeed rather more pleased than not to have a captain who would fight a duel in the teeth of prohibition; they considered his ferocity as reflecting well upon them. But Laurence did not care to have an act of unpleasant necessity be approved as barbarism, so this was not much consolation.

  The officers of course could not express their feelings through any open reproach, but they were worsening the quarrel by ranging with Churki in blaming him. Temeraire was now torn between his own anger with Laurence and his unwillingness to cede ground to Churki, and Laurence was very dismayed to find the quarrel migrate onto the person of Miss Merkelyte. Hammond had introduced this young lady to Churki, by way of answering her questions and, he hoped, reconciling the family to the continuing presence of two large dragons in their acreage. Churki found much to approve in the girl’s youth and beauty—too much to approve; she informed Temeraire, in haughty tones, that she would accept the young lady, on Hammond’s behalf, as a kind of apology.

  “Well, I am not going to make her an apology,” Temeraire said, indignant on very wrong grounds. “I do not see why Hammond should have her at all. She is very beautiful, at least all the crew tell me so. She may marry Ferris.”

  Laurence would have upbraided both beasts for their scheming, as an insult to the already-unwilling hospitality of their hosts, but when he had marshaled Dyhern and Mrs. Pemberton to make apologies to Mrs. Merkelyte and ask her to keep her daughter in-doors, that lady held a conference with her daughter, and then demanded instead to know the situations of both gentlemen, and the particulars of bride-price and settlements. They were serfs, despite their relative prosperity, and had much to be wary of in seeing their nation absorbed by Russia, where their caste was notoriously oppressed. It was perhaps not surprising that Mrs. Merkelyte was ready to seize an opportunity of lofting her child to the security of a far higher sphere of society, even at the cost of losing her.

  The proposed grooms were more hesitant. Ferris, while by no means indifferent to Miss Merkelyte’s charms, had sufficiently disappointed his family, through no fault of his own, to wish to further provoke them by presenting them with a wife of whose birth and education they would have strongly disapproved; meanwhile Hammond had vague but firmly held plans to ally himself with a woman of wealth and influential family, when he should have achieved sufficient success to recommend himself to such a lady. Laurence could not blame them, but the natural consequence of their failing to come up to the mark was to permit every other man of their company, of remotely marriageable age, to imagine himself as the lady’s partner instead.

  Forthing, whom Laurence was sorry to learn a widower, hinted himself willing to pay his addresses, while Ferris reddened with indignation; Cavendish quarreled with Baggy though they had not half a beard between them. Even O’Dea made it his business to sit by Laurence’s bedside and recite poetry, casting soulful looks across the room while struggling to contrive rhymes for Gabija.

  No young lady who had been so thoroughly sheltered could be blamed for enjoying such attentions; meanwhile her mother kept a hawk’s eye on the proceedings, but did not demur so long as her sense of propriety was not crossed. Temeraire hurled fuel upon the fire by regularly ordering some item of his treasure brought out from under the tarpaulins, to be polished and displayed in the thin wintry sunlight. Churki grew incensed with the competition offered to her own ambitions and began to hold long insistent conversations with Hammond, from which he escaped with an expression so mortified that Laurence could not imagine what had been said.

  “What has not been said?” Hammond paced the room, pale with red spots. “I will not forbear to say, Captain, that the morals of dragons are very sadly flexible,” and Laurence realized appalled that Churki was proposing that Hammond take the girl into his keeping, if he did not wish to marry her.

  “Well, of course there is no reason for her to go into Hammond’s keeping,” Temeraire said, “but she might go into yours. Indeed, that seems to me an excellent solution: we can pay bride-price now, and she may choose which of my crew she likes when she is ready. Or perhaps she might marry someone else,” he added, struck as though by a remarkable inspiration, “and then they should join my crew also: I have thought, Laurence, that we might do well to have a few more officers.”

  After this conversation, Laurence said to Hammond, “For God’s sake, send for that doctor and ask if I am not well enough to be moved before we have more to reproach ourselves with than we already do; I am sure neither of these wretched beasts would scruple to make themselves procurers, only to win their point.”

  The doctor came and pronounced Laurence on the mend, but not well enough to be allowed a flight in cold air; after this disappointment he inspected Dobrozhnov, and further complicated the situation by announcing that the gentleman evidently meant to live after all.

  Dobrozhnov still moaned incessantly that night, but by the following morning, he began to be well enough to sit up and make an even worse nuisance of himself. Most unfortunately, he spoke Lithuanian. Nor felt, so far as Laurence could tell, any compunction about abusing the hospitality he had received: indeed he was no sooner well enough to speak, than he began to make clear by his behavior that he considered Miss Merkelyte fair game, and himself entitled to enjoy her favors, if only he should conquer her resistance ahead of his competitors. Laurence did not understand the words with which he addressed her, but the tone was so familiar it might have been better suited to a bawdy-house, and covered her with confusion.

  Laurence had been determined to say nothing to the man; indeed, to ignore his presence insofar as possible: the situation was impossible otherwise. But he could hardly sit by and watch the progress of the seduction of an innocent girl, whose character was so alarmingly threatened, and not least through the actions of his own crew. “Hammond,” Laurence said, “he must be induced to leave that girl alone. Can you get rid of him?”

  “I hardly know how,” Hammond said dubiously. “We can scarcely get him out of the house without the dragons seeing him: they are watching the door every minute to see who is coming in or out to speak with Miss Merkelyte.”

  Just when he would have preferred to be ill for longer, Laurence found his own recovery speeding; he was well enough to stand up by himself the next day, and when he went slowly and haltingly outside, on Ferris’s arm, the cold did not bite with more than its usual ferocity. But he could not avoid knowing that their own departure would now leave the girl unprotected. Dobrozhnov had spent an hour in close conversation with the mother that very morning, and Laurence had seen gold change hands—ostensibly in thanks for the house’s hospitality. The coins were a trifle to a man as wealthy as Dobrozhnov, but to the household they meant ten years’ work and good fortune, and Mrs. Merkelyte plainly did not conceive that such a sum had been pressed upon her by a man with anything other than serious intentions; nor did Dobrozhnov have any hesitation letting her imagine he meant to offer her daughter a respectable marriage, rather than an arrangement as dishonorable as it was likely to be of short duration.

  “Forthing,” Laurence said at last, grimly settling on the least of the many evils from which he had to make his choice, “will you marry her?”

  “If?
??if she likes,” Forthing said, a little uncertainly; he had not received much encouragement. He was not rich and had never been handsome, even before the fresh scar which marred his face, nor were his manners of a sort that could impress a young woman, and he was besides this a little too practical to be entirely in love himself. “Only, I don’t know what I’m to do with her. I could send her to my sister. I suppose she’d learn English quick enough?”

  “Whatever use is that?” Temeraire said, objecting immediately. “Why should she go away? I wish her to remain with us.”

  “We cannot be taking her to war,” Laurence said.

  “Why not?” Temeraire asked. “Roland comes to war, and so does Mrs. Pemberton. And Laurence,” he lowered his head, if not much his voice, “must it really be Forthing? I am sure she is too beautiful for him: only look at his coat!”

  “Pray come and speak with her mother,” Laurence said to Forthing, deferring this argument; he felt not a little guilty at Forthing’s doubtful expression, but under the circumstances he could see no better solution.

  However, Mrs. Merkelyte was grown particular: not entirely remarkable, when she had a wealthy Russian baron sleeping on her floor making a pretense of courtship, and two dragons busily trying to offer her the choice of a British diplomat and a younger son of the nobility, however unwilling these latter two might be. Dyhern awkwardly demurred from serving as go-between, for which Laurence could hardly blame the man, so Hammond had to be recruited to the task. He tried to persuade her through the barrier of German, but he was nervous lest he make a remark too easily misconstrued to commit him as the bridegroom, rather than Forthing. The discussion continued for only a little while; mother and daughter exchanged a glance; the girl looked away—the mother shook her head. Meanwhile Dobrozhnov watched all the proceedings sidelong from his own cot, with an amused and half-incredulous expression, as though he thought the offer absurd; Laurence was conscious of a strong desire to knock him down again.

 
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