Home > League of Dragons (Temeraire #9)(2)

League of Dragons (Temeraire #9)(2)
Naomi Novik

“I am so very sorry Shen Shi and the others had to go back to China,” Temeraire said finally, in an echo of Laurence’s thoughts. “If we were only traveling in company, perhaps…”

He trailed off. Even the most relentless optimism could not have imagined a rescue for the poor Chevalier: three heavy-weights together would have had difficulty in carrying her. “At least we might have given her some hot porridge,” Temeraire said.

“If it is any consolation to you,” Laurence said, “remember she came into this country as a conqueror, and willingly.”

“Oh! What would the dragons of France not do for Napoleon?” Temeraire said. “When you know how much he has given them, and how he has changed their lot: built them pavilions and roads through all Europe, and given them their rights? You cannot blame her, Laurence; you cannot blame any of them.”

“Then at least you may blame him,” Laurence said, “for trading so far on that loyalty to bring her and her fellows into this country in a vain and unjustified attempt at conquest. It was never in your power to prevent her coming, or to rescue her. Only her master might have done so.”

“I do,” Temeraire said. “I do blame him, and Laurence, it would be beyond everything, if he should escape us now.” He heaved a deep breath, and raised his head again. “I am ready to go.”

The men were already aboard; Temeraire lifted Laurence to his place at the base of his neck, and with a spring not as energetic as Laurence would have liked, they were aloft again. Beneath them, the stoat crept out of its hiding-place and went back to its feasting.

The ferocious wind managed to come as a surprise again, even after so short a break in their flying. The last warmth of autumn had lingered late into November, but the Russian winter had come with a true vengeance now, more than justifying all the dire warnings which Laurence had heard before its advent, and to-day the temperature had fallen further still. He was used to biting cold upon the deck of a racing frigate or aloft upon a dragon’s back in winter, but no experience had prepared him to endure this chill. Leather and wool and fur could not keep it out. Frost gathered thickly on his eyelashes and brows before he could even put his flying-goggles back on; when at last he secured them, the ice melted and ran down the insides of the green glass, leaving trails across his sight like rain.

The ground crew traveling in the belly-netting, shielded better from the wind, might huddle together and make a shared warmth; he had given his scant handful of officers permission to sit together in twos and threes. He could permit himself no such comfort. Tharkay had left them two weeks before, on his way to answer an urgent call to Istanbul; there was no-one else whom Laurence might sit with, without awkwardness—Ferris could not be asked without reflection on Forthing, and equally the reverse; and he could not ask them both, when they might at any moment be attacked. They had to be spread wider than that across Temeraire’s back.

He endured the cold as best he could beneath wrappings of oilcloth and a patchwork fur made of rabbit- and weasel-skins, keeping his fingers tucked beneath his arm-pits and his legs folded. Still the chill crept inexorably throughout his limbs, and when his fingers reached a dangerous numbness and ceased to give him pain, he forced himself to stand up in his straps. He carefully unlatched one carabiner, working slowly with thick gloves and numbed hands, and hooked it to a further ring; he then undid the second, and made his way along the harness hand-over-hand to the limits of the first strap before latching back on.

The natural hazards of such an operation, with half-frozen hands and feet and on a dragon’s back made more slippery than usual with patches of ice, were outweighed by the certain evil of staying still for too long in such cold: he had to stir his blood. At least the instinctive fear of the plummeting ground below was in this case his ally, rather than an enemy; his heart jerked and pounded furiously when his feet slipped and he crashed full on his side, clinging to the harness with one hand and one strap, trees rushing by in a dark-green blur below.

Emily Roland detached herself from a nearby knot of huddled officers, and clambering with far more skill came to his side—she had been dragon-back upon her mother’s beast nearly since her birth and was as much at home aloft as on the ground; she expertly caught his loose strap as the carabiner came banging against Temeraire’s side, and latched it to another ring. Laurence nodded his thanks, and managed to regain his footing; but he was flushed and panting when he regained his place at last.

Temeraire himself kept low to the ground, his eyes slitted almost shut against the glare and the breath from his nostrils that came streaming back along his neck: it made clouds filled with needles of ice that stung Laurence’s face. Grig flew behind, making as much use as he could of the air churned up by Temeraire’s wings. Below them rolled the endless snow and the black bare trees frosted with ice, the fields empty and glittering and hard. If they passed so much as a hut, it remained invisible to them. The peasants had taken to covering their houses in snow up to the eaves, to conceal them from the sight of the marauding feral dragons: they ate their potatoes raw, rather than light a fire whose smoke might betray them.

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