Home > League of Dragons (Temeraire #9)(10)

League of Dragons (Temeraire #9)(10)
Naomi Novik

“And now Napoleon is perfectly comfortable at home again,” Temeraire said, “having tea with Lien, no doubt; I am sure she has not spent the winter half-frozen: I dare say she has been sleeping in a dozen different pavilions, and eating feasts. And we are still here.”

“Still here?” Hammond cried. “Good Heavens, we took Vilna not three days ago; you cannot consider our residence here of long duration.”

But Temeraire personally did not make much difference between Vilna and Kaluga; yes, he could see perfectly well that upon the map there were five hundred miles between them, and it was just as well to have crossed them, and anyone might say that they were in Lithuania instead of Russia; but he found little altered, and nothing to be very glad of, in their present surroundings. The coverts, on the very fringes of the city, were unimproved; the ground frozen ever as hard as in Russia proper, and though there was more food to be had, it remained unappetizing: dead horses, only ever dead horses. Laurence had arranged for a bed to be made up for him of straw and rags, which daily the ground crew built up a little more, but this was a very meager sort of comfort when Temeraire might look down the hill at the palace in the city’s heart lit up with celebrations from which dragons were entirely excluded, although the victory could not possibly have been won without them.

“Indeed I am almost glad,” Temeraire said, “that the jalan had to return to China; I should not know what to say to them if they had met with such incivility; not to speak of ill-use. It is one thing to endure any number of discomforts in the field, on campaign; one must expect these things, and I am sure no-one would say we were unwilling to share in the general privation. It is quite another to be left sitting in mud, in frozen mud, and offered half-thawed dead horsemeat, while the Tsar is feasting everyone else who has done anything of note, and yet he never thinks of asking any of us.”

“But he has,” Hammond said earnestly. “Indeed, Captain,” he added, turning towards Laurence, “I am here to request your attendance: it is the Tsar’s birthday to-day, and it is of course of all things desirable that you should attend as a representative not only of His Majesty’s Government—” Temeraire flattened his ruff at the mention of that body of so-called gentlemen, but Hammond threw an anxious look at him and hurried on. “—but of our friendship, indeed our intimate ties, with China; I wondered if perhaps you might be prevailed upon to wear the Imperial robes of state, which the Emperor has been so kind as to bestow upon you—”

Despite a strong sense of indignation at being himself neglected in the invitation, Temeraire could not help but approve this idea, wishing to see Laurence, at least, recognized as he deserved. But Laurence had a horror, a very peculiar horror, of putting himself forward. He would at once refuse, Temeraire was sure; he always required the most inordinate persuasion to display himself even in honors which he had properly earned—

“As you wish,” Laurence said, without lifting his head from his letters; his voice sounded distant and a little strange.

Hammond blinked, as though he himself had not expected to meet with so quick a success, and then he hastily rose to his feet. “Splendid!” he said. “I must do something about my own clothes as well; I will call for you in an hour, then, if that will do. I hope you will pardon me until then.”

“Yes,” Laurence said, still remote, and Hammond bowed deeply and took himself out of the clearing nearly at a trot. Temeraire peered down at Laurence in some surprise, and then in dismay said, “Laurence—Laurence, are you quite well? Are you ill?”

“No,” Laurence said. “No, I am well. I beg your pardon. I am afraid I have received some unhappy news from England.” He paused a long moment still bent over the letter, while Temeraire held himself anxious and stiff, waiting: what had happened? Then Laurence said, “My father is dead.”

Lord Allendale had been a stern and distant parent, not an affectionate one, but Laurence was conscious that he had always had the satisfaction of being able to respect his father. While not always agreeing with his judgment, Laurence had never blushed for his father’s honor, both in private and in public life unstained by any reproach; and in this moment, Laurence was bitterly conscious that his father could not have said the same of his youngest son. His treason had broken his father’s health, had certainly hastened this final event.

Laurence did not know if his father could ever have been brought to understand or to approve the choice which he had made. He had reconciled himself to his own crime only with difficulty, and he had before him every day all the proofs which any man could require, of the sentience and soul of dragons. He had seen those dragons dying hideously, worn away by the slow coughing degrees of the plague; he had with his own eyes witnessed their agony and seen the carrion-mounds of a hundred beasts raised outside Dover. He had known what the Ministry did, in deliberately infecting the dragons of Europe with that disease: a wholesale murder of allies and innocents as much as of their enemies.

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