Even through the dismay of their circumstances, Laurence cannot help but note the efficiency of the construction occurring throughout Paris while they approach the Tuileries Gardens. The shadows of dragons flicker by overhead, snatches of rumbling conversations hanging in the air. Temeraire sways his head from side to side, half-interested and anxious all at once. He makes an odd sight walking through the widened streets and following behind De Guignes.
“You will like the Gardens,” says the ambassador, as though they are on a tour of some sort. “They are the pride of Paris.”
It is never less than a marvel that such indulgences flourish even in times of war. The brick roads are wide enough even for Temeraire to be comfortable, and they meander around a bubbling fountain on the way to the Palace. De Guignes points out the mulberry trees planted by the gardeners of Henry the Fourth.
It is not any attempt at intimidation, and if an enticement it is an odd one. By the time they cross into the raised pavilion by the gardens Laurence is thoroughly distracted by this line of thinking, and then of course by the sight of Lien assessing them calmly; he is so taken aback that at first he misses the small and lone figure by her side.
Temeraire opens his mouth indignantly to address Lien. The plainly dressed man at her foot steps forward confidently to grip Laurence by the shoulders, kissing him firmly on both cheeks.
“Your Majesty,” says Laurence faintly – and this is when he recognizes Bonaparte.
Temeraire looks startled and lowers his head to peer at the general. Bonaparte shows no hint of fear. “You do not look like an emperor,” Temeraire says, plainly bemused. It is not a very auspicious start. At their side De Guignes is making his bow.
“And you do not look quite like heroes, perhaps; but all of France is in your debt,” Bonaparte declares. Temeraire's ruff flutters with pleasure. Laurence feels his heart sink.
They are traitors both – it is not something to be easily forgotten and Temeraire has seemed thus far to grasp the severity of the situation. Laurence would not wish him misery, but neither would he give him false hope or praise.
They do not deserve praise.
“We did nothing but what honor demanded of us; that merits no gratitude, and we do not ask for it,” Laurence says, hoping he sounds more gracious than he feels. “We ask only for leave to return to England, to find what fortune awaits us.”
“And you have it, you have it, of course. However - “ Bonaparte appraises him. “You left without orders, did you not?”
Temeraire's pleasure fades, his ruff lowering. “Only because the admirals were very horrible,” he says plaintively.
“Of that, great creature, I have no doubt. Now - I would speak with Captain Laurence alone,” Bonaparte says without fear. “ - With your permission.”
Temeraire ruffles his wings, eyeing the Emperor with distrust. “I do not see why I should give my permission for any such thing, when Laurence is English and you are not, and that seems to mean that you have a good reason to take him prisoner.”
“I owe your captain a great deal. I would not harm him. If it reassures you, we will speak in the southern end garden - “ Bonaparte gestures a distance away from the palace, and Laurence turns unwillingly to follow the gesture - “ - and if I do anything untoward, you are quite welcome to come and bite off my head.”
Temeraire seems appeased by this promise. Bonaparte's guards seem more disgruntled, but they settle at a sharp look from their General. The Corsican sets off with a quick military stride. Laurence quickly matches his pace.
He realizes belatedly that he is keeping a half-step behind the man out of habit and rapidly moves ahead. No Frenchman is his superior.
If the self-proclaimed Emperor notices his lapse, he makes no mention of it. They halt in the middle of a flowering field that seems trimmed and green – strangely healthy, and Laurence is sharply thrown by its contrast to the dreary sickness of Dover covert.
For a long while Napoléon stares up at the palace – at the distant and strangely dissimilar forms of Temeraire and Lien – and says nothing. It is a clear tactic. It is also effective.
“You will not get me to stay,” says Laurence, rudely abrupt. He is tired, and he does not care to parry words with this foreigner – the man half of Europe wants dead, and the other half celebrates as a savior. “I have said that already to De Guignes, and I mean it.”
“I know you do,” says Bonaparte. “And I respect that – respect it more than you know. I have surrounded myself with clever men, Captain Laurence, with men of ambition and knowledge and power – but few, so few of them have honor.”
Laurence shrugs. He cannot resist the easy barb. “You are in France.”
Bonaparte snorts. “So easily you malign my country! Perhaps that is more reason to conquer England, then.”
Laurence says nothing.
“That was ill of me,” says Bonaparte. “But I did have a reason to invite you here. You cannot return to England.”
Laurence stiffens his shoulders, drawing back. “I have been assured of my safe return - so you are a liar as well.”
“I am not,” Bonaparte denies. “And if you are truly determined to leave, in your foolishness, I meant what I said; I will not stop you. But it would mean more than just your life. You would hang... You have thought of this already?”
“I have, of course.”
“You have thought of what will happen to your dragon?”
Laurence is quiet. “He will resign himself to the fact when I am gone.”
“That I doubt. But again it is not the point. You are a man of honor but not, perhaps, completely a man of politics. Were you not adopted as the son of the Chinese Emperor?”
“I was, yes.”
“And do you think the Admiralty will kill a son of an Emperor?”
“...It was a formality only,” Laurence says slowly. “A farce, so I could keep Temeraire - “
“A formality, and yet it happened,” says Bonaparte sharply. “You cannot ignore what exists. I see two options, Captain. Your execution will be stayed, sentencing you to life-long imprisonment – therefore sentencing Temeraire to maddened misery at best and mutiny at worst as your admirals try to keep him from you, earning embarrassment all around; or, you are executed, and the Chinese either destroy relations with Britain or go to war.”
“War - “
“For a dead prince, and the partner of a Celestial? Possibly. And you are foolish if you think Temeraire would sit meekly and obey the crown while you are killed. It is not in a dragon's nature, much less his; I see that already.”
“To think that the Chinese would go to war,” Laurence says, and trails off.
He has an unsettling notion that the Chinese could easily win such a war. They find fighting barbaric, but their draconic forces far outstrip every other military power in the charted world. They disdain the English, making little secret of it even despite their recent alliance; would they truly not go to war over such a grave insult? It would be that at best.
“Does your honor demand that you kill yourself only to destroy your country?” Bonaparte coaxes. “You have a dragon devoted to you, a dragon who will follow your choice – will you lead him back to ruin so that you can plunge your country into needless conflict, split your nation, and all this for the sake of your honor?”
This picture seems horrifically vivid, even likely; therefore it only makes Laurence suspicious. “Why should you care if England is set to war with China? It would only benefit you.”
“I do not need the Chinese taking an interest here,” Bonaparte says, which seems somewhat reasonable. Still, Laurence is wary. “Or, perhaps I have honor of my own; unless you think I am entirely without conscience?”
This, despite himself, Laurence cannot credit. Bonaparte is well known as a man of his word, a man of honor despite his tyranny. Indecision tears him.
Bonaparte must see some portion of his thoughts on his face. He stops walking, forcing Laurence to come to a halt as well, and suddenly strides closer to grasp him by the shoulders. “Do not ask me to send you off to a wasted death, Captain.” he urges.
This is too much. Laurence pulls away. “Sir, I do not ask for your consideration. But your arguments – I cannot deny.” The words are ash on his tongue. “ - I will stay, then.”
He utters the decision – necessary, the only possible choice – and then lets the idea sink in. His legs shudder under his body. Bonaparte is beaming at him, the grip on his shoulders tightening like the stranglehold of a noose. “Excellent!” the Emperor cries. “Brave and also not a fool – I am glad to hear it, Captain.” Bonaparte abruptly starts walking again; Laurence stumbles to keep up. “Very glad. You will, of course, oblige me also by accepting an estate and a certain monetary award, as thanks - “
“I certainly will not,” says Laurence, quite taken aback.
“Pride in a man is something to be admired; ego is not. I understand if you refuse the funds. But the land and perhaps some herds I insist upon, if only so you will not be ravaging the countryside for Temeraire's sake.”
The thought of accepting anything sours him. It has the taste of bribery, of a somehow truer treason than the act which brought him here - something induced, selfish.
But they are rounding the gardens now and drawing near to the Pavilion. Laurence carefully does not let himself look over to where Temeraire – all 20 tons of him – is sitting.
“ - Very well.”
“I am glad,” repeats Bonaparte. “So very glad. You are a man of honor, Captain, though I understand your mixed sentiments. Only think what you have done for the dragons of France and elsewhere; history will remember you as a hero.”
“...I am no longer a captain,” Laurence responds lowly.
Bonaparte says nothing more.
They walk up the steps of the Pavilion where Temeraire is speaking quietly to Lien. His ruff is raised in a vast, threatening ring while Lien eyes him with cool disdain. De Guignes stands harried and hapless between them, a small and fragile defense.
At the sight of the pair, Temeraire looks up and raises his head with tentative curiosity.
A hero, Laurence thinks. But he wonders who will remain to write down the passing of this history.
The arrangements are made almost suspiciously swiftly. A young Chasseur Vocifere leads them to a small manor house situated in the countryside, already furnished. Inside there are discolored spots on the walls where portraits might rest, and a painting of a young and grave young women is found half-hidden behind a mirror in a backroom. Laurence wonders what political enemy has been displaced for their convenience.
Temeraire is tentatively relieved, and almost guiltily so. “It is a very nice place,” he says when the lightweight courier and his captain have left them alone. “There is no Pavilion, but these hills are very nice; and best of all there is no Government.”
“Except for the French government, you mean,” Laurence says. “We do not exist alone, my dear. Remember that as we sit here a war is being fought.”
“I cannot forget,” says Temeraire lowly. “But we could not fight in it, anyway, if we returned and you were hanged; so why do you talk like this?”
Laurence passes a hand over his face and closes his eyes.
“Maybe,” says Temeraire, suddenly more cheerful, “When the fighting is over we can go to China – you are a prince there. They will not kill you.”
“They will not welcome me, I think,” Laurence says. “But perhaps, when passage is secure. In the meantime I am damned if I will ask anymore favors of Bonaparte - “ he stops abruptly. “Forgive me.”
The dragon flicks his tail dismissively. “What do you suppose we shall do? If we are not fighting?”
Laurence considers this. “Raise cattle.”
“...Well,” says Temeraire doubtfully. “That shall be different.”
Laurence wakes very suddenly the next day. Pale light shines through the ruddy curtains of his newly-appropriated room, and he wonders what has wakened him. He stands to look outside, but Temeraire is sleeping quietly not far from the manor-house and the skies are clear.
Downstairs there are quiet, muffled voices.
Slowly Laurence rises. His sword, returned to him the previous night, is lying carelessly on his bedside table; he takes it up and creeps to the door, barefoot, trying to recall the layout of the house as he goes.
The house is bright and open. The voices are louder when he descends the stairs. Complaints drift up in scattered French, the speakers unconcerned:
“Here, here, I think I found it - “
“Nothing is organized properly - “
“Bachelors and old servants, what do you want? Give me that tray, there - “
Peering over the railing of the stairs to the milling group below, Laurence lowers his sword, baffled. He clears his throat. “Excuse me,” he says politely, and then recalls that this is, technically, now his house; half a dozen wide-eyed workers freeze and turn to stare at him, which is when Laurence realizes that they are all neatly dressed in plain but similar fashions. A sinking feeling enters his gut.
“Captain Laurence,” says the eldest man. He has a touch of gray at the temples. The man steps in the direction of the stairs and bows. “I am Mathys Gardinier. We have been sent to work as your servants.”
“All of you?” Laurence asks in dismay. He wonders how to explain this misunderstanding.
“Oh, no,” Gardinier at the front assures. Laurence is relieved; however awkward this might be, it will be easier to dismiss one or two servants than a horde. “There are also men in the back, to tend to the cattle, my lord.”
Laurence stares blankly
He wonders briefly if this is some ploy of Bonaparte's – if these men are spies, soldiers. Not assassins – if Bonaparte wanted him dead he need only have let Laurence leave - but it should not surprise him to be watched. What secrets might he not reveal in confidence while thinking himself alone with Temeraire?
Then Gardinier adds, “His majesty assures that our wages are paid for by the crown; and would like to say again that France is in your debt, my lord.”
Laurence is quiet for a moment as he hears and absorbs these words. When he speaks, his voice is low:
“I am in this country due to an act – a most horrendous and shameful act – for which rightfully I should be tried and convicted by the courts of England.” The servants exchange glances doubtfully, baffled. “Likely, I should be hanged. I am not here to play lordling; I am not here to live in some house of luxury while there is a war. If you would do me a service you may return to your former homes and masters, and pray forget you ever came here.”
Uncertain looks. A pair of woman sidle along the side of the wall and one reaches down hesitantly to pick up a cloth, dropping it quickly as Laurence looks at her. No one seems certain what to do. Finally, Gardinier steps forward toward a door on side of the room.
“Captain – if I may have a word?”
Laurence cannot refuse this, and the room seems to breathe a notable sigh of relief as he descends the stairs and exits.
The door shuts behind them. “You cannot dismiss us,” Gardinier tells him mildly.
Laurence flushes at the temerity of this remark. “I see what it means to you, Sir, to pledge your service to someone; and I would remind you that I am no longer a captain.” Here on special orders after all, then; but he does not say this.
“Captain, you will not dismiss us because you need us,” Gardinier continues, implacable.
This is one concern Laurence can address. “I am one man, and I do not mean to set myself up for luxury. Indeed we are in exile, or should be, and should perforce live apart from society if I have any say in the matter. Many fine men and women live everyday without assistance; I have done so in the past; Temeraire and I shall manage quite well -
“One man does not need servants,” Gardinier says severely. “However, you are one man with a dragon, who needs a great herd of cattle; and that herd of cattle needs a team of workers to support them; and that team needs managing staff; so, you see, you cannot live alone. And you wish to live apart, you say - do you think you can subsist on beef and beef, and never go to the city for necessities? Will you live bare-naked and die of scurvy? It cannot be done.”
Laurence is abruptly recalled to a memory of his childhood house-steward, one Mr. Key, who had sternly lecture he and his brother George on the running of a household. There were always a thousand and one details to be managed; but surely not for a man who lived to wish alone, and live only for himself.
Except Laurence has Temeraire.
“So you will allow us to stay,” Gardinier barrels along -
“No,” Laurence interrupts suddenly. Gardinier looks taken aback, but by god, Laurence has had enough. “It cannot be allowed; it cannot be permitted. For Temeraire, herdsmen; very well. The rest will go. They must go. And if I die of my own neglect and ill-management, may it be no less than I deserve; bid them all leave at once.”
Gardinier peers at him a moment; perhaps that last was a bit much. At last he nods. “As you like – and I will explain to your beast,” he adds, “Why everyone is leaving – he was quite pleased with the company.”
Laurence watches the man stonily until he turns away.
The house is large and quiet.. Loud whispers come through from the foyer as the servants hear the news and protest. Their voices dim and fall away as Laurence walks deeper into the unfamiliar house, trying to reconcile himself with the idea of living here.
The floorboards groan in a sad and creaking way under his feet. The place is relatively small – two floors, with an attic-space, and there is a small and very similar house standing a dozen meters distant outside. Laurence suspects that there was a case, early on in the history of the place, of a less than loving marriage, though such a thing is impossible to confirm and not his business anyway.
One of the doors opens to a small sitting-room-cum-library which suffices for his needs. He begins to look for a likely book for Temeraire – something which his haphazard French will not blunder too badly – and listens closely as the footsteps and voices in the other room slowly diminish.
But when finally he returns to the foyer he does not find it empty. There is one man waiting for him silently and expectantly. Gardinier, it seems, did not include himself in the execution of Laurence's instructions. But Laurence does not bid him to leave, and neither does he have any instructions. Fatigue drags at his limbs. He should go out to speak to Temeraire, explore the property, or even examine the cattle. Meet the herdsmen that Gardinier says are somewhere about, perhaps. He does none of these things. Instead he turns around, heads up the stairs, and ignoring the noon-day sunlight heads right back to bed.
“Captain – captain, please. He is quite distressed.”
Laurence stares blankly at the ceiling, then scrubs at his face and sits up to peer at Gardinier, who is standing stiff and anxious at the foot of his bed. “If you have a message, pray let me make myself presentable,” he says wearily. “ - Even here, surely, some decency is not uncommon.”
“Sir, it is your dragon – he thinks something has happened to you because you have not visited – please - “
Laurence looks the man up and down. Outside he can hear distant roaring and echoes of Temeraire's accusatory tones, now that he thinks to listen; “I do not at all believe you. You are all trespassers, and you will stay right here until Laurence comes and sees you - “
Laurence rises without hurrying and nods at Gardinier. “I will be a moment,” he says.
The old servant stares at him, face turning puce with indignation. Then, wordlessly, he turns and quits the room.
Minutes later Temeraire looks up from where he's menacing three trembling men behind the house. “Laurence! Oh, I am glad you are well – are these truly our servants, or are they servants of the Emperor? Should I kill them?” He raises a talon inquiringly and the men stumble back with panicked cries.
“No, dear, though I daresay most Frenchman are servants of the Emperor. I am told they were sent to us – though I know not under whose orders. Certainly not mine,” Laurence adds. He directs his words to a rotund man who looks least likely to faint from Temeraire's attentions: “If it is your intention to work here, I should inform you that your occupation cannot in any sense be considered good or honorable by the standards of your kinsmen.”
Temeraire mutters, “If working with us is not honorable, then they need new standards, is all.”
The captive herdsman looks frightened, but he manages to say, “Work is work, Sir,” and at last Laurence gives up.
He bids Temeraire to let them leave and the men flee at once. He is surprised, when he makes to approach Temeraire and console the disgruntled dragon, to be halted by a voice from behind.
“I must protest – I must protest most strenuously, Captain. Do you not understand the honor granted to you by France?”
Laurence can feel a headache building at his temples. “I would prefer the lowest honor from England than the highest from France,” he addresses Gardinier, turning; the man is standing right behind him. “But I fear they will scorn my name forevermore, and rightfully so.”
Persisting, Gardinier tells him, “You do a disservice to the Empire, and to the history of this venerable place – you do a disservice to yourself by making such remarks. Many people would be honored to live on these lands - “
“Then they may have them, if only Temeraire and I could live somewhere quietly, peacefully, where humans do not venture and we will not offend anyone; but somehow that is too much to ask,” Laurence says. “So it seems we will continue to offend you, Mr. Gardinier, as well as your property.”
“Your property, Sir.”
“The Emperor's, technically,” Laurence says absently.
“No, Captain. The deed is in your name.”
Laurence flinches. “ I – surely not,” he says, shocked. “He is allowing us to live here – it is not ours.”
“The deed should be in your room, Captain. You have been granted the title of Baron; I presumed you knew.”
“I do not want it.”
“The Château d'Hérouville is a perfectly respectable property,” says Gardinier stiffly.
Laurence looks at the man blankly. “Good god, is that where we are?”
The servant breathes out a slow, careful exhale. “...I will have dinner ready when the sun sets,” he says, and turns to march into the direction of the house.
“Is that not excellent?” asks Temeraire very hesitantly. Laurence has quite forgotten he was there – quite a feat, as Temeraire is now curving his massive head to peer down at Laurence from above, and therefore casting a shadow over his body. “The title, I mean. I do not understand the use of titles, exactly, but everyone always seems very impressed by them and seem to think people with longer titles need to be listened to; surely, because you are now a baron and a prince, no one can tell us what to do now?”
Laurence closes his eyes briefly. “A man who gives a title can easily take it away; and this is as hollow a gesture as being named prince, Temeraire. I do not know what Bonaparte means by it, except possibly to mock me.”
“I will have no advantages for being a baron; but when the admiralty in England hear of that title, it will only be one more reason for them to think that we are well-paid traitors.” Not, Laurence thinks grimly, that they do not have reason enough to think so.
But this is something Temeraire can understand. “Oh! So he is tricky, then. You know, I thought Bonaparte seemed sensible, Laurence, or at least not so bad as everyone makes him sound; but now I am not so sure. Why can no one ever just be honest with us?”
“I suspect everyone has their own motivations; but perhaps we will find a simpler place one day, dear. Somewhere without any of these complications or troubles, and no one plotting or warring or being unpleasant at all.”
“It seems that we are always waiting for 'one day'. Instead of having just one good day, I would rather not have any bad days, Laurence. We seem to have a great many of them.”
“That we do,” Laurence agrees wearily. “ - I am sorry about that.”
Temeraire is silent for a moment. “So am I,” he says. “Laurence.”
They sit together as the sun sinks in the sky, and Laurence thinks that, in the distance, he sees the silhouette of a small pale dragon framed against the clouds.
Temeraire seems curious about the property. It is not like what Laurence had once imagined buying for him with his own capital, a distant dream for when the war finished and duty might permit such frivolities. He has pictured something with more picturesque, perhaps – a house of his own choosing, with a pavilion on a hill and the English coast visible in the distance for easy fishing. It does not surprise him that Temeraire should be glad for property of their own. It is a place where no admiral or lordling can shunt them aside, and Temeraire never needs to wait for permission to pluck a cow from the pens. But Temeraire seems curiously restless now that this ideal is realized, and Laurence wonders if their reservations are in any way similar. If they take to wing they can see the glittering silver curve of the English channel from the wrong angle; Laurence is sure he only imagines, though, that the very grounds and grass seem foreign.
A few days into their new life Temeraire is finishing off the bloody remnants of a uncooked cow – his third since that morning, and he is going to get fat at this rate – and tells Laurence, “I think that is a courier, is it not? They are even smaller here than back home.”
In Laurence's defense, the Plein-vite tears through the sky at such a speed that even Temeraire pulls back his ruff, impressed. Laurence sees soon that these theatrics do not stem from urgency but the extreme youth of both the captain and dragon; they come into the grounds twirling around Temeraire's massive body in a dizzying flourish before landing in front of Laurence.
Laurence feels that there is something particularly cowardly in sending a child to give him what is undoubtedly unpleasant news, but he strides forward with seeming assurance as the boy hops off his dragons. The Plein-Vite tears away to chatter at Temeraire in French too rapid for Laurence to understand, and they start to head toward the pond.
“What is the news?” Laurence asks the boy stiffly, resolving not to blame the messenger.
But the young officer, who has been watching the two dragons depart, startles at being addressed. “News?” he echoes. “Oh – a message from the Emperor,” he says in heavily accented English.
He waits like he expects some sort of reaction from Laurence. When this does not seem forthcoming the child shuffles his feet, looking as awkward as Temeraire's runners when they are scolded for neglecting their schoolwork. He adds, “He invites you to dine with him next week, at the Tuileries Palace. Will you come?”
This seems to be the actual message. Laurence takes a moment to tug his shirt into some semblance of propriety, smoothing down his neckcloth. Then he looks the young captain square in the face and says: “No.”
The boy looks dumbstruck. “...No?” he repeats, as though he might be misunderstanding the English use of the word.
“No,” agrees Laurence with forced cheer. He gives the boy a pleasant, polite smile; it must look somewhat manic because the captain only looks unnerved. “If you will excuse me; Temeraire enjoys bathing after he eats.”
He turns to walk away. After a moment the boy scrambles to catch up. “Sir!” the child cries. “You cannot refuse the Emperor!”
“Was it not a request?” Laurence asks, feigning surprise.
The boy stutters.
“Do – may I ask your excuse, Captain?”
“I have apparently been made a Baron. I would be quite negligent if I did not spend time getting to know my estate and my tenants.”
“...You have no tenants, my lord.”
“On the contrary, one Mathys Gardinier has most insistently come into my service at the bidding of the crown. Quite against my own design. And as I have been reliably informed that one man requires a great deal of looking-after, I suppose it is reasonable that I should spend a week or two dedicated to understanding him. You may tell that to your Emperor verbatim if you wish.”
The look on the courier's face makes it plain he will do no such thing.
“...You cannot be persuaded otherwise?” asks the boy miserably.
“I am sure I could not be expected to neglect my duties.”
The boy sighs. “Coruscus,” he calls. The flighty dragon comes springing back, clearly oblivious to his captain's mood. “Good-day, my lord,” he begrudges.
“Fair skies,” says Laurence.
He waits until they leave and are a speck on the horizon before going to Temeraire. “That was nice,” says the dragon, seeing nothing amiss. “I am glad we still have visitors. Is something wrong, Laurence?”
“No, dear. For once, nothing at all.”
Working with cattle is not particularly exciting work. It is tiresome and long, but that is all. Telling himself that farmwork is perfectly respectable as an occupation does nothing to quell Laurence's sense that he should be doing more. He is a naval-man, an aviator, and here is a young dragon by his side. To sit idling their days away seems maddening.
But of course they are not always alone, and not always idle. There are still dragons.
The Defendeur-Brave comes less than a week after the courier. They spot him in the distance far before his arrival – a heavyweight is unmistakeable – but Laurence is surprised when the dragon clearly heads for him and Temeraire. Temeraire raises his ruff in warning, curling one hand around Laurence and taking to the sky.
It makes Laurence uneasy because there is no better sign that Temeraire does not trust their visitor, or their position in France. Fortunately their visitor does not seem offended. The two dragons circle back down lazily, and if Temeraire keeps his tail around Laurence during the ensuing conversation, well, that is nothing too unusual.
“Hope you don't mind us stopping by,” says the French aviator, who introduces himself irreverently as Kelsey Dennel. “Defaeco was a bit tired, though, and we thought you might not mind the company.”
Defaeco does not look tired in the least, peering at Temeraire with keen interest. The grayish dragon puffs out his chest subtly, swinging his hooked tail in tiny flicks, and Temeraire suddenly straightens.
“Oh, stop that.” Dennel reaches back and whacks Dedaeco on the talon. The dragon probably hardly feels it, but he acts wounded nevertheless. “You overgrown child – anyway, Captain. I wanted to thank you personally. Defaeco had the illness himself, you know. And I hear the heavyweights go first.”
Temeraire perks up. “Oh, they do – it's dreadful. You do not look ill; I am glad you are not dead,” he tells the other dragon sincerely. Though, he is eyeing the bulkier dragon's frame like he would still like him to be a ton or two smaller.
It is true that Defeaco does not look ill in the least. Laurence thinks of Maximus and the other Regal Coppers back in England; Berkley's dragon was the first to get the cure to the illness that swept across the British forces, but even he is still a few ton underweight. Laurence cannot regret saving the lives of so many innocent creatures, but for far from the first time he wanders what his actions will mean for England.
He realizes that Dennel is waiting for some sort of response. “You owe me no gratitude,” he says. “I have seen the hands of the illness first-hand; I would prevent it from spreading at all costs.”
“Are many dead?”
Temeraire looks about to answer; Laurence interrupts flatly, “Some. It is fortunate the cure was found in such unlikely circumstances.
“Oh, yes,” Temeraire says, distracted. “I found the cure. Though, it was an accident. I did not much like the cold, but I did not even realize it was anything more at first, until we had reports that other dragons were so very sick.”
“That must have been difficult,” Dennel acknowledges. “Fearing for your friends and comrades.”
“Yes,” says Laurence. “It is.”
The Frenchman flushes. “...I will be glad when the wars are over, and there is peace,” he says. “That is all anyone wants.
Laurence bows his head stiffly. “As you say, Captain.”
“Other aviators would be glad to thank you as well,” Dennel ploughs on, his face reddening steadily. “Would you welcome them?”
Laurence glances at Temeraire.
“Oh, please tell them to come,” says the Celestial. “I miss having company; tell me, do you have any aviators here who speak Chinese?”
The dragons begin to flock to the château – first individually, then in groups of two or three. Laurence feels sick in his heart to see three Flammes-de-Gloire playing idly with Temeraire above the pond, but he cannot deny that it makes his dear friend happier.
During the evenings, Laurence will stay outside with a French book from the house's inherited library and read. Most of the books are novels, and not like what Temeraire is accustomed to reading. “Oh, but why would anyone let the girl's uncle lock her away?” he will ask. “That is a dreadful thing to imagine, and not realistic at all, I hope. If someone did that to one of my friends I would surely hurt him very badly. I cannot believe no one would help her.”
“Of course you want to help her – that is why there is a book on the girl, dearest."
By rebuffing the other captains and focusing on Temeraire it is easy to pretend that the world is limited to the chateau – to the cattle and the clumsy French books with their mysterious, second-hand stains.
Of course, it is not.
It is the same young courier-captain with the Plein Vite, who gives his name as Joffrey Jacques, that nervously idles near Temeraire while Laurence reads Paul et Virginie aloud. Temeraire likes the romance but is dubious of any mention of god, a personal resistance which Laurence despairs of changing. Jacques stands around shuffling his feet, quite near Laurence but looking determinedly at a point around Temeraire's talon as he waits to be acknowledged. Laurence keeps reading. Jacques' dragon Coruscus finally solves the awkwardness by flying up to perch on Temeraire's long neck.
“That is a very dull story. I hear much better ones every day,” he says.
“Oh, but could you tell them yourself? Or write them down?” Temeraire protests, ruffled.
“I could, because I see many interesting things,” Coruscus asserts. “My stories would be much more interesting than some romance. Do you never read about battles?”
“We have read books about strategy before - “
“There will be much fighting soon, I think,” Coruscus says. “That will be very interesting. Perhaps I will tell you about it when the fighting is over since you cannot be there yourself.”
“Be where myself?”
“There will be fighting in England?”
“There have been no official orders, but there is always talk, and preparations are being made for something.”
Temeraire shifts his wings. “...Well,” he says stiffly. “You are very small anyway; it is not like you will do any proper fighting.”
Coruscus huffs, offended. “You do not have to be impolite,” he says, and Temeraire has the grace to be abashed.
Laurence is very still. “Temeraire, I believe we are done reading for today,” he says suddenly. “ - Shall we go for a flight?”
“Perhaps we can join you,” suggests Coruscus.
“No, I think we should like to be alone,” Laurence says lowly.
Temeraire looks down at him and nods. Jacques doesn't protest – doesn't say a word, in fact. He waits until Coruscus jumps down and strokes his dragon's side, pale-faced, not looking at Laurence.
Laurence and Temeraire are in the air moments later, and the house quickly fades from sight. “Laurence,” says the Celestial, craning his head around slowly. “ - Napoléon has many dragons, doesn't he?”
“And many friends in other countries.”
“ - Yes,” says Laurence wretchedly.
“Lily and Maximus and the others are in danger, are they not?”
“A great deal, dear. But England has always managed to repel his attacks in the past.”
“But sometimes they only managed because of us, and now we are gone,” says Temeraire.
At this, Laurence musters a weak smile. “That is rather arrogant of you, dear. You are the most wonderful dragon in the world – but surely we are not quite that important. They will manage, somehow, of that I am sure. Pray do not worry too long.”
“Oh, but, what can we do but worry?”
And that, Laurence thinks, is an excellent question.
Suddenly there is an odd scarcity of visitors, and Laurence greets this fact not with surprise but weariness. He is tired of games, and he is unsurprised when a new, older courier with quick eyes alights in front of Temeraire just days after the Plein-Vite has left.
The man makes his introductions, and says he has “A message to you from His Majesty the Emperor, Captain Laurence,” but seems in no haste to have it delivered. He sighs and stretches and pats his beast. “We have been flying all over the country, making preparations.”
“I have rumors that there will be an attack on England.”
“I have heard these rumors,” says the courier. He pauses and strokes his dragons nose; she nuzzles against him and hums cheerfully. “Our covert has been making many preparations which suggest we are to travel soon, but only our superior officers would know more. I have not been privy to the details of any plans.”
The Chasseur Vocifere side-eyes her captain and shifts noticeably. Laurence wonders if the French courier breeds are as prone to gossip as the English Winchesters. Couriers fly all over the country, and usually have all the latest news. He exhales slowly.
“You said that there was a message?”
“Oh, yes,” says the courier, as though he had somehow forgotten. “From the Emperor. His Majesty has requested your presence in three days, at the Château d'Écouen. It is located north of Paris. If you agree I will return to lead your dragon at that time.”
“I suppose it would be rude of me to refuse,” says Laurence.
The messenger flashes a smile that is all teeth. “I suppose it would.”
The Château d'Écouen is a grand place. The lands are not nearly as spacious as the Château d'Hérouville, but there is plenty of room for Temeraire to stretch himself out in the courtyard. The courier leaves Laurence at the steps, and the area seems very quiet. He wonders if he and the Emperor will be speaking alone; the majesty of the building seems ludicrous when served for such a purpose.
And yet somehow the Emperor fills the vast halls around him with no more than his own presence. “William! It is good of you to join me,” Bonaparte greets warmly, as though they are old friends. He steps and kisses Laurence's cheeks again, both of them – and though this is something which is supposedly common in France Laurence has never experienced the disconcerting custom with anyone else.
It does not catch him off guard quite as much as their first meeting, however, and he keeps his voice level. “Your Majesty.”
The Emperor of France keeps a light hand on his arm, guiding him with a gentle but inexorable force down the silent halls. “We shall be having lunch in half-an-hour,” he says. “You arrived early, and the servants are setting it up still.”
“Does anyone... reside here?” asks Laurence delicately.
Bonaparte actually laughs at that. The halls are half-full of dust, and others stripped with newly-lain flooring. Laurence glances into an open room as they walk by and sees a brilliantly furnished area with low tables and soft chairs, all clean and clearly new.
“The château is under construction. I asked you to come here because I was already in the area, you see, checking its progress.” The Emperor raises his arm with a flourish. “It is to be a school. Within a year these halls will be full of students – young women. Is that not a fine thing? I hope to make similar institutions all over the nation.”
“It is a noble goal,” Laurence begrudges.
“Of course it is. I hated my school-years, you know; education is very important. Now, here; this room is comfortable enough. Tell me, Captain, have you been settling in well?”
They sit down on plush armchairs, one facing another in a small room.
“The lands and herds are more than generosity would have imagined,” Laurence says slowly. “I thank you; it eases my mind to know that Temeraire will be well cared-for. However, I must say that the provision of servants somewhat exceeds both our needs and any perceived debt.”
“Nonsense,” is the brisk reply. “France can never repay her debt to you; a hundred estates could not do you justice. Make any request, Captain, and it is yours.”
At last Laurence stops. “Then will you explain the purpose of this?” he asks tiredly. “All of this?”
“The war?” asks Bonaparte.
This is not what Laurence meant at all, and of course the Emperor knows it. But curiosity makes Laurence pause. “ - Yes, then,” he says. “The war. Explain to me your purposes behind the war.”
“I have been asked that question a thousand times, you know; my advisors always want justifications, reasons, and not just reasons but ones which they accept. And that is the thing about politics, dear William; everyone has different motivations.”
“Yet you are the Emperor of France,” Laurence counters. “I should think that yours are the only ones we are talking about.”
Bonaparte smiles thinly. “France is my motivation,” he says. “France has always been my motivation – to make her respected and unrivaled, and a place of liberty for the common man. And to do this fully, our people must be bold; our people must be secure; we must have no enemies left to oppose us.”
“Yet you continue to make enemies, Your Majesty, when half the world is desperate to ask you for peace. And I am surprised to hear you talk of the common man.”
“Is that so?” Bonaparte's smile widens.
“You did not seem to care about the lives of your people at Acre, when you killed your own soldiers.”
“I would hope you could at least be original when pointing out my faults, Captain. Acre is a favorite story of my enemies; it is also a personal favorite, when I must counsel my own Marshals and men. Yes, I ordered my men killed. I do not regret it. Such are the perils of war.”
“A man might be cut down by his enemies, but to be murdered for contracting an illness, by his own commander - “
“I could neither save them nor let the plague spread. What should I have done? Choices must be made for the benefit of the whole – you are a military man, and should understand that.”
“There are those who would say you are only interested in the benefit of yourself.”
“Because I was raised a poor-man? I would not expect you to be so prejudiced. It is hard to change fate and fortunes without attaining personal power, and I do not regret that. I will not apologize for bettering my own lot; whatever can be said of me, I have not been a harsh ruler to my people.”
Finally Laurence is silent, because this is an argument he cannot counter. Indeed, Bonaparte understates the matter; he is acclaimed as a national hero and is beloved by France. But the Emperor does not press his point. He turns instead to face a window.
“Our meal should be prepared,” he says suddenly. “Shall we go?”
The meal is sumptuous and half-recognizable. There seems to be wine with and in everything. Laurence spoons a meaty broth into his mouth and hides a grimace when a burst of fruity flavor tingles against his tongue.
Laurence asks what Bonaparte thinks about the construction efforts in the château so far, and Bonaparte proclaims himself satisfied. Niceties out of the way, he persists, “I confess to being surprised you have time for such personal excursions.”
“There is no job too small for the head of the state – when I want something done right, I will see it done myself.”
“Nevertheless, the constraints of time mean that a person must prioritize.”
“Of course,” Bonaparte acknowledges.
Laurence is blunt. “There have been rumors that you mean to attack England.”
Now the Emperor feigns surprise: “I am surprised you have engaged in such idle gossip.”
“We have little else to do; Temeraire grows weary, being so confined.”
“Have I given you that impression? That you are confined? Fly all over France, if you like, or farther; you are not prisoners. Only I must remind you that the people of France are busy, and a thoughtful man would not interrupt the war-efforts of his neighbors.” Bonaparte smiles, but this time the words are a bit sharp.
“ - I understand perfectly, Your Majesty.”
The ease is back. “Very good.”
“...I have been looking toward England,” Bonaparte says abruptly. “This should not surprise you, of course.”
“No. No, it does not.”
“I am still discussing the details with my advisors – most regrettably, you are not among their number.”
Laurence absently rips apart a piece of bread. Pieces flake away and crumble under his fingers.
“If there is any news, you will of course learn with the rest of France – and I will keep you as up-to-date as is possible,” Bonaparte says. “Now. Shall we go join the dragons in the courtyard? They should be done eating by now.”
Alarmed, Laurence asks, “Dragons?”
Lien is in the courtyard with Temeraire. Laurence's heart constricts with horror at the sight of her wide, pale face. She swings around her neck to look at him, blinking her scarlet eyes – and then sniffs, unimpressed, and turns toward a bubbling vat being put into place by uneasy servants.
As soon as Temeraire spots Laurence coming out of the château he reaches out and grabs him, quickly pulling Laurence against his own body. His ruff is wide and trembling. A queer sound keeps rumbling from his throat, but for the moment he is watching Lien warily; she ignores him. “Laurence,” Temeraire whispers. “I do not think this is a good place to fight; the whole building will surely fall apart.”
Lien snorts ungracefully. “We are not fighting; we are finished eating, and now we will drink tea. You are obsessed with bloodshed, and your upbringing has made you savage.”
Temeraire narrows his eyes, but Laurence just sighs. “Dearest, please put me down. I hardly think they have invited us here to kill you.”
“Indeed not,” says Bonaparte. He walks up to Lien with perfect ease, and his eyes are laughing at the scene.
“Oh, but she will do something.”
“Of course I will,” says the great white dragon. “I will rout England and kill your friends; I have been planning it for months, and here you are chained like a wingless hatchling without the power to stop me. That will be quite a satisfying, I think. So, you see, I do not need to kill you at all.”
Temeraire does not move.
“Though of course,” says Laurence desperately, trying to forestall a disaster, “She would not, Temeraire, go against the honorable rules of war – even in battle we do not kill indiscriminately but take prisoners when possible - “
“Why should we, when your horrible fire-breather and all your other dragons have been destroying our ships all over the coast?” Lien demands.
“Oh!” says Temeraire, his ruff rising. “That is only Iskierka and a few ferals acting like many dragons, they are really the only ones still healthy, and they are not impressive at all! They are scrawny and rude and only go after ships for capital - !”
“Temeraire!” Laurence roars.
Lien has drawn back. She taps her claw against her vat of tea with something like pleasure, and gestures at her servants to move it away. “I think I will withdraw,” she says airily, and arching her neck rises to stretch.
Bonaparte watches Laurence carefully. “I did not come here for information, you know,” he says, in an odd tone of regret.
Laurence purses his lips tightly. “ - I know,” he agrees, and wonders if he believes it.
“But neither can I ignore information when I possess it.” Bonaparte hesitates, then offers a half bow and moves to join Lien. “Perhaps I should - “
“I look forward to another conversation,” the man adds. Laurence cannot believe his impertinence.
“Oh, I am sure you do.”
“Temeraire,” acknowledges the Emperor; he is mounted, and he and Lien depart.
Temeraire has gone very still. “Laurence,” he says quietly. “I am sorry. It was not my intention - “
“Hang it all,” Laurence says. “We are traitors.”
And, finally, he puts his head in his hands and weeps.
The atmosphere at the Château d'Hérouville is gloomy for awhile. Temeraire is caught by Laurence's mood and ignores their still-frequent visitors in favor of sitting with his tail curled around Laurence while Laurence reads to him in quiet, careful French. Other dragons continue to visit and loiter around now and again as though the estate is a resting-spot or small covert, apparently unfazed by the despondency of their hosts.
The atmosphere is broken rather abruptly, in the middle of the evening, when no less than six light-weights swarm into the open air heading for the house. At first Laurence does not quite trust his eyes; not until he hears Temeraire's delighted, more trusting voice, saying, “Laurence, Laurence! That is Arkady, is it not? And, look, he is carrying Tharkay!”
The grayish dragon comes in at the head of the flock, doing pleased zigzags through the air as he sees his destination so near at hand. Laurence feels nothing but compassion for Tharkay, who is, thankfully, a composed flier. The pair land in front of Temeraire, but two of Arkady's followers launch straight for the Celestial's back, stretching themselves out with pleased murmurs while the others sprawl around his huge legs.
Arkady hisses reproachfully at Temeraire, shifting his feet and rambling in the draconic Durzagh. Laurence has quite failed to learn any of the language and so he ignores the dragon, instead walking forward to meet Tharkay as the latter jumps to the ground.
“I did not expect your arrival,” Laurence starts. “Though I am glad to see you well. If you would pray come inside, and perhaps - “
“Of course you did not expect me,” Tharkay interrupts. “Laurence, what the devil have you done? All of England is in an uproar; and the rest of the world will follow soon, if you forgive my dramatics. Yes, yes, show me the house; I want tea if I am going to yell at you.”
“Laurence has done nothing to warrant that,” Temeraire begins, turning from Arkady to peer down at Tharkay.
The foreigner gestures brusquely at the dragon. “I will have words with you later,” he says, and Temeraire winces. “Come then,” he tells Laurence, and leads the way himself into the house.
This callous treatment is, at least, no more than Laurence deserves; he offers no defense of his actions as he follows Tharkay. Bitterly, he reflects that it is easy to forget the true depravities of his sins in this languid place, but he should well expect civilized men to scorn him for his betrayal. It does not surprise him that even Tharkay, who is no great friend to England, should judge his actions. So he only enters the château and takes a seat, waiting for the censure that will come.
“By god, Laurence – did you not trust me at all?”
Laurence starts. “What?”
“Had you but said the word I could have stolen the cure discreetly, and had it here without anyone the wiser – or at least without waking half the countryside,” Tharkay says. “Did it even occur to you to ask for help?”
“I would not ask another to become a traitor if I would not do it myself.”
“I am hardly doubting your willingness!” Tharkay gestures at him with disgust. “Clearly, you are willing. But I would not have called myself a traitor at all – and I would not have stood to lose anything, by being more hated than before, if I stole from England. I do not fault your principles but your means; you have left a mess of things.”
Laurence struggles. His curiosity is great; he cannot imagine why Tharkay has come here at all, but it is unthinkable to ask. At last he inquires, “What happened after we left?”
“I had a letter for you, from Roland; but of course we were interrogated when we crossed the Channel, and I did not know what she wrote, so I stuck it in the goat they gave to Arkady. He ate it.”
“...Well,” says Laurence. “I understand.”
“In any case,” Tharkay continues briskly, “You are not popular in England, and you would be wise not to return; I cannot say what precisely is being said in those private meetings of government, but if it much the usual rot, they are asking for your head; and all the papers are crying for your blood. Staying here was perhaps the smartest move you might have made.”
“Though hardly a noble one,” says Laurence. He does not want to outline his reasons for staying, which sound so much like excuses even to his own ears. He has remained; he has forfeited his honor; he will reap the consequences of that act, including the subsequent judgment of others.
Given his reluctance to press Tharkay, he is glad when the man volunteers, “Your Aerial Corps would have had me desert you for Turkestan to fetch more beasts, if you like; as though I had not come with you in the first place; I said I would not, and they kicked up a fuss; and I left. So that is that.”
“So you have deserted England, instead, when she most has need of you - “
But Tharkay is looking at him evenly, not saying a word. The anger drains away.
“ - I apologize,” says Laurence quietly. “I have no right - “
“No, you do not. I daresay it is much what everyone else will say, however, so you might as well do the same.” Tharkay leans back in his chair, apparently unbothered. “Admiral Roland gave me my fees - thanked me, cursed me, and said she could not blame me for leaving, at that. They have a few there who can speak Durzagh well enough to manage the beasts left behind; but you should know Arkady insisted on coming with me, and when the other beasts at the covert were whispering that Napoléon should like as not win; and so of course half his flock had to follow.”
Laurence raises a hand to cover his face, mortified. “Tell me they are not in Bonaparte's service?” he demands.
“Not yet. One more reason we have prevailed upon your hospitality, and your herds, I confess. They are out back, and doubtlessly frustrating Temeraire already.”
“If it will keep them from working against England, frustrate him all you like,” Laurence says. “ - and I confess, I am glad you have you here.”
Tharkay offers him a rare smile.
The air has become crisp and cold with the start of December, and Temeraire and the ferals have dug into the ground to make colossal burrows and preserve their heat against the earth. Laurence is idly planning the construction of a pavilion with some of the property's trees – it will be a long effort alone, but there is little else to do with his time – when, one day, the French dragons are abruptly nowhere to be seen.
Two days pass – three, four, five. No visitors. Tharkay vanishes on day six, and when he returns, his expression is grim. “The streets are quiet – and the barracks near empty,” he says. “The coverts are all but abandoned. It is done, Laurence. They have invaded England.”
There is little word yet on the success of this invasion. Temeraire, for his part, suddenly finds that insouciance is not quite so easy when one's friends are fighting and dying back home. “Perhaps we could go back,” he suggests several times. “Maybe the admirals will have forgiven us by now; they are forgetful, are they not? You always complain about how forgetful admirals are, Laurence. And surely they need us in England.”
“I do not think they would want our help, Temeraire. They would like as not think we meant to fight for Bonaparte, and shoot us down.”
“We would not help Bonaparte – although if we should, at least then we would be fighting and properly doing something, so I don't see why anyone could criticize us - “
“Inaction is better than an evil action, Temeraire,” Laurence reprimands sharply. Temeraire looks bewildered, and he slumps, sighing. “ - I, also, tire of our present state of affairs.”
“It is not that I would really want to fight for Bonaparte,” Temeraire says, though with a wistful glance at the air. “Only, I wish we were doing something. I should not care what, so much, so long as it were more exciting than eating cows and sleeping all day.”
“When you says as much aloud, that seems as though it should not be hard to resolve,” Laurence says. “But sometimes it seems we are still little more than prisoners. Perhaps one day we shall find something more fulfilling, Temeraire. In the meantime, the property is not small; you can still fly.”
Temeraire grumbles darkly. Then he alights to do just this. Laurence lays back against the grass and watches him become a speck in the distance – a tiny speck that circles around, and around, and around...
After several days even this activity bores him. “Now there is nothing to do, and also no one to talk with,” Temeraire complains. “Laurence, the Emperor said we may fly at will, did he not? I have not seen much of France, and I was so very tired when we came in with the cure. Let us view the country.”
“We have our liberty, as a technicality; but I fear we will cause panic if we appear above the cities and countryside,” Laurence cautions. “Especially with the bulk of Napoléon's own dragons in England. His people may fear they are under attack.”
“Well, that is silly; and anyway people always seem to think they are under attack when I fly over cities, but I never do anything to them, so no harm is done,” which of course is not quite the point. But he concedes at last. A heavy-weight cannot be contained forever, and indeed Laurence grows uneasy at the thought of what may happen if Temeraire is restrained long enough to make him truly restless. Admittedly it is a relief to see his muscles straining, familiar lands falling away behind them. Laurence measures their speed at 22 knots, and he does nothing to reproach the Celestial or urge him to a more sedate measure. Let Temeraire have his fun.
If anyone in France takes alarm at their passing, Laurence and Temeraire do not take note of it, and no dragons rise to challenge them. They fly inland, moving further east to avoid the line of the coast, and after half an hour when no issues have arisen Laurence allows himself to relax and enjoy the feel of the wind whipping against his face.
They are just short of Reims and Laurence is considering the reluctant idea of returning when Temeraire says, “Oh, look, Laurence, there has been fighting. Do you suppose those people are hurt?”
Laurence peers down. A great blast has scattered both trees and men; a blackened piece of wood lies upturned and flung over a great distance, and his eyes, poorer than Temeraire's, can make out a haphazard sprawl of bodies. Fire pricks along the cold winter grass, thankfully low, and a badly wounded horse is kicking and thrashing in the dirt. The charred remains of another horse is crumpled on the path.
“If there is fighting, we had best not be involved,” he says reluctantly. Laurence sees no other force, but that means little. The blast-site looks unusual. “We are not our own agents, Temeraire.”
“Oh! But who cares? Laurence, even if we were fighting, we would not let wounded men die. We would help them at once, or take them prisoner; so why should we leave them now?”
One of the tiny bodies is squirming like an ant. He tries to rise and falls instead, rolling toward the fire, before leaping away from it and twisting about frantically to quench the flames. “You shame me,” Laurence says. “Yes; you are right; we shall go at once.”
Temeraire needs no further prompting. He tilts his wings and descends into a steep spiraling dive. If the men see him, they are too stupefied by damage to flee. Laurence unclasps his harness from Temeraire's platinum breastplate and slides down to the ground.
Temeraire delicately picks up the splintered remains of the wagon. “Oh, hello,” he says as someone lets out a squalling cry. “Laurence, he does not seem very well, this one.”
Laurence checks this spot first and finds the ruined body of a man, so covered with blood it takes his eyes a moment to understand the injuries he's seeing. Wild eyes stare at him under gore-sodden hair. Rapidly he takes off his own jacket, ducks down and commandeers the injured man's knife, beginning to cut up long strips of cloth. Then he rummages for a piece of wood from the wreckage that suits his needs.
A gleam of white bone can be seen among the mass of blood; the remnant of the Frenchman's elbow. When Laurence starts wrapping a tourniquet the stranger looks down and finally seems to register his own wound, and his lost arm. He makes a horrible noise in his throat and thrashes his legs weakly.
“Quiet, damn you.” But the unfortunate man is already slumping over, unconscious.
There is more that could be done to keep this man from bleeding out, but there's no time. Temeraire is anxiously pushing a frightened civilian back towards the wreckage, coaxing, “No, no, you must help too, why are you running? Do stop yelling - “
Laurence finds another person unconscious, his head split and spilling blood; another body just feet away is crumpled and ominously still. A third corpse lay smoldering quietly, giving the air a familiar smell like burnt pork and leather.
One body, still breathing, has splinters of wood all along his torso. Some of them are an inch wide and the skin tugs and tears when Laurence tries to remove them. At last he pulls away and insists, “Temeraire, you must go for help; go to the city, find a doctor willing to come. Drag one kicking and screaming, if you must,” though doubtlessly this last part would be done without any explicit order.
“But what if there is another attack?” asks Temeraire, hovering over the ground anxiously.
“This was no attack; these men were carting a supply of gun-powder to the city, and it exploded. Go, quickly.”
Temeraire is off like a shot.
Laurence is covered with blood up to his shoulders soon enough. The dazed man from before, a soldier who was probably escorting the transport and fled from Temeraire previously, has come back and is helping him sort the wounded. Laurence turns to this man and asks, “Is there anything metal – anything sizeable we can burn? That man over there, we need to cauterize his arm.”
The soldier jerks his head, staring at him. “Es-tu Anglais?” he exclaims, and Laurence realizes that he has forgotten to speak in French.
Laurence's expression damns him. The soldier lets out an oath and fumbles for his sword. Laurence backs away quickly, looking around for something he can use to defend himself; his own sword is back at the château. The soldier is just raising his arm when a furious roar splits the air.
Temeraire flies in with half a dozen very pale soldiers tucked in makeshift rig over his back; he lands heavily and snarls at the man on the ground, thrusting a leg between him and Laurence. In French he says, “That is very fine, making threats when we are only trying to help; if you hurt Laurence we will kill you all anyway, and it will be very easy. And no one should miss you, when you are nearly blowing yourselves up already,” he adds.
Meekly, the soldiers gather the wounded civilians under Temeraire's critical eyes. Laurence finds a smoldering fire and manages to cauterize the stump of the near-dead man by the remnants of the cart.
There are not very many thanks, when those who can be moved are loaded into rigging and flown carefully to Reims. The city-people watch Laurence like they expect him, too, to sprout claws and wings and attack them. But he is quite past the point of worrying over the perceptions of others. When everyone is quite accounted for he and Temeraire go aloft, beginning the long, weary flight back to the château.
Tharkay reacts to their disheveled appearances with a sort of wry exasperation which indicates he has expected nothing less than for Temeraire and Laurence to stumble into some sort of fuss, and states that he is only glad they haven't been arrested again. Gardinier stutters and huffs and finally wrestles Laurence's coat from him in self-defense, deciding to fall back on his duties in lieu of any other option. Arkady sulkily hisses at Temeraire.
“No, you may not fight anyone; you should have stayed in England if you wanted to capture prizes,” Temeraire rebukes. “It is your own fault for not thinking ahead, and I will not take the blame if you are bored, and also do nothing splendid or impressive at all. I expect when you go back to your mountains you will not have any good stories, except of how you ate many cows, because you have been here hiding from all the fighting like a coward.”
Arkady snarls and practically twists himself in knots screeching a rebuke to this insult; finally he flings himself back among his flock, bullying among them and grumbling. Reasserting his ego, no doubt.
Laurence cleans himself of the grime from their excursion as best he can and determines to bring his sword if ever he goes flying beyond the estate again. “Laurence,” Temeraire asks when this is done. “We did do well, did we not? Only, I do not understand why that man attacked you when we meant to help.”
“He did not understand; he knew only that I was English, and that there is a war. I suppose he thought I was an enemy soldier, or a spy.” A few months prior the assumption would have been apt.
“Whether a soldier or not, that does not seem a good reason to stab someone who is being perfectly civil, and even helpful; and it is not as though you were playing a trick, clearly, or it would have been a very poor one.”
This aside, the incident fades quickly from memory, though it seems to temporarily sate Temoraire's need for excitement. Just a few days later, however, Laurence is sitting with the Celestial when they are interrupted by Tharkay. The foreigner seems oddly tense.
“I believe you have a visitor,” he says. “Excuse me – I am sure I am needed anywhere but here.”
“On the contrary,” Laurence says viciously, “I believe that is Ambassador De Guignes, and I would be most pleased to introduce you.” Tharkay glares at Laurence, but reluctantly follows him around to the front of the manor to meet De Guignes and his servant.
The ambassador eyes Tharkay warily, then greets Laurence. “I am glad to see you well, Captain. And how is Temeraire?”
Laurence wishes someone would listen to his ongoing protests that he is, in fact, no longer a captain. “Very well, thank you. He is out flying. I would introduce you to Tenzing Tharkay - “
“Yes, we have met,” De Guignes says, quirking a brow significantly. “ - Briefly. Your ferals caused quite a ruckus flying over the Channel, Mr. Tharkay.”
“I would hardly call them mine,” Tharkay says dryly.
“They are the same ones that have been capturing our ships along the border this past year, are they not?” De Guignes persists.
Uncomfortable with this line of inquiry, Laurence interrupts, “Perhaps we should withdraw inside?”
“I am late for a business transaction – as I mentioned earlier, Laurence.” Tharkay says. This is a blatant lie, but one Laurence cannot mention in front of De Guignes, so he merely purses his lips stiffly as Tharkay nods his head to the ambassador and makes his retreat.
Tea is prepared in the château, and De Guignes is blunt. “Captain, I have received word of your actions in Reims four days ago; I have come to thank you, again, for your service to the people of France. I do hope you continue to feel free to take your liberty of the skies. You have no obligation to us and it seems we owe you our gratitude yet again. ”
“You do not, Sir,” Laurence says. “The constraints of conscience could hardly have let myself, or Temeraire, pass by a group of injured men without stopping to lend aid.”
“So you say, but many would have done so in your position,” De Guignes tells him. “You will be glad to hear that only one man among the injured was lost; I refer to those not killed in the initial accident, of course. It is due to your promptness that most of those men are still with us. Mr. Savatier, who was among the group, is my distant relation; I'm sure he would be well-honored if you would deign to dine with us in Paris in the future.”
Under the circumstances Laurence could not deny this without unbearable rudeness. “It would be my honor, Sir; I am glad to hear he is well.”
This seems to satisfy De Guignes; Laurence hopes there is nothing else he wishes to discuss. Normally the ambassador is pleasant company, but he finds he cannot be quite at ease with the man while at the mercy of French generosity. Instead of exchanging final pleasantries, however, De Guignes hesitates and asks, “About that man earlier – Mr. Tharkay?”
“He is not loyal to England? - I ask because this was my impression, of course, by his act of bringing ferals over the Channel.”
“He is loyal only to himself, I have always believed. But certainly not to England, and he would not be offended to hear me say so.”
De Guignes seems satisfied by this, but still curious; “Then why is he here?”
“I confess that Mr. Tharkay's motives are often mysterious to me.”
This appears to have some meaning for the ambassador. Later, when Tharkay returns he excuses himself and they speak outside for several minutes; when they return together to finish taking tea Tharkay's face is inscrutable, but De Guignes eyes Laurence consideringly and asks no more probing questions.
With De Guignes' tacit approval Laurence no longer tries to restrain Temeraire, and the two indulge in long roaming flights over France. They try to avoid landing except where the countryside is especially barren. Even so Laurence cannot help but note the widened streets and signs of hasty construction in towns and cities. No one hides when Temeraire's shadow falls overhead, either; it apparently does not take so long for people to adjust to dragons.
Christmas is approaching, and it startles Laurence to realize that Temeraire does not know much about the holiday. They pass over winking candlelights and people standing in the crisp night air to hack down fir trees - more of a German tradition than a French one, he always thought. Nativity scenes are displayed outside churches and theatre-halls, and Temeraire asks, in puzzled tones, if it is traditional for “small human eggs to be fed meat when they are hatched, like dragons; for why else would anyone want to hatch with smelly goats and sheep?”
One day when they have been flying for just over an hour they pass over the city of Melun. This time Laurence is the one to notice the trouble. “Temeraire, drop down swiftly; the bridge is broken.” There is an isle – really just a small bump of land – on the river Seine just South of Melun, its sides running parallel to the shore. Small wooden bridges connect it to the land on either side, and one end has collapsed with an injured man beneath it.
There is a woman trying and failing to heave the wooden beams away; she makes a strangled noise when Temeraire lands neatly on the shore. Laurence calms her, though – and remembers to speak in French this time. “Your friend, Miss – is he hurt?”
“My husband, yes – his leg is caught – there is blood - “
Laurence inspects the breakage. “Temeraire,” he waves. Miraculously, the pinned man is shielded from most of the debris by a tented formation of wood that has folded over him without putting pressure against his body. “You must be careful – he will be crushed if you are not careful.”
“I am always careful,” Temeraire says, which is not reassuring in the slightest.
Nevertheless, his delicate claws pry apart the battered bridge with great caution. This does nothing to quell the pained gasps of the poor man under the debris. His wife sits weeping in the dirt, waves reaching up the shore to lap at her shoes. They are fortunate, Laurence thinks, that they were not over the water when the bridge fell.
“I am sure he will be quite well,” Laurence comforts, which is a lie; the man is growing rapidly pale. “Pray help me with this wood, here; and what are your names?”
They are Annika and Quintin Alger, and going to town to stay with relatives; which, Annika says hysterically, they will never, ever do again if Quintin lives through this.
And by the end of things he does seem quite likely to live. Quintin regains his strength – though his leg gushes blood – and the two agree to go aboard Temeraire's broad back with only minimum unease.
“You are the Englishman, are you not? You gave the Armée d'Le Aire the cure,” Annika says suddenly as this arrangement is being made.
“Oh – yes, that is so,” Laurence says, and wonders uneasily how far this knowledge has spread.
“That is very well, but why are you helping us?”
“Well; of course it is Christmas,” he justifies weakly. And she laughs.
“A very good time,” she agrees, and thankfully does not press him further.
The pair are deposited in the city – suspiciously empty of people, except a grizzled and exasperated old man who grumbles that, yes, he will find a doctor. Laurence and Temeraire depart presently as this is accomplished.
“I think I like this, says Temeraire as they exit the city.
The air is very cold; Laurence has just been thinking longingly of warmer climes. “What is that, dear?”
“Helping people, instead of destroying,” he clarifies. “Of course, I should like to fight every now and then, I think, because it is very exciting. But it is very nice that we do not need to do it, and no one is being horrible to us.”
“Yes,” Laurence says. “I suppose there is something to that.”
Two days later, the pair espy a pair of children wandering around in the Rhône-Alps, apparently lost. They seem grateful to get off the mountains and not at all perturbed to ride dragon-back, though both are a bit disappointed when Laurence shakes his head to Temeraire's hopeful question of, “Oh, but can we not keep them? They are very small, and I am sure no one would notice.”
The next day, they stop what seems to be a very one-sided brawl, muskets included, between a group of bandits and what seems to be a number of refugees. This time they stop to chat, and the leader, a woman, tells Laurence they are are heading to Paris. “We come out of Prussia,” she says, in heavily accented, hesitant French. “The war... bad. Better, here. Best in Paris, yes? Yes?”
Laurence leaves feeling troubled, watching the group walk away with a hopeful air toward the distant, gleaming idea of Paris. He and Temeraire stay at the château and read for four days.
On the fifth day, they fly out and see a boat sinking in the river Seine. Temeraire drops down to pick it up and put it onto dry land; the owners shout their thanks.
It is about three weeks after the incident with the bridge – when Temeraire is helpfully assisting a beleaguered farmer knock down some trees, for lack of anything better to do – that he turns his neck around to speak to Laurence. “Oh, I am glad that we are doing something useful now, and not just sitting around. Even if we are helping the French and not the English, I suppose no one can argue that it is our fault, since we must be here; and anyway that goat looks very nice,” he adds happily, as the grateful farmer willingly offers a goat from his herd as thanks for their service. Temeraire has grown tired of cattle very quickly.
Laurence is stricken for a moment. He looks around at the scattered trees and the happy farmer; the man's wife comes out and speaks to him in a rapid scattering of French, which suddenly seems perfectly alien to his ears. But, of course, he understands the words quite fluently. He has ceased to even notice the language now; he has ceased to find anything strange about this country or its people, even the idea that they should seek aid from an Englishman flying over their heads. Aid which he has willingly offered. “Good god,” he comprehends. “What have we done?”
Laurence makes excuses for the next week, but finally he has to say it. “I am sorry, Temeraire,” he says. “But I think it is clear that we must stop all flights beyond the range of this estate; we should never have gone beyond this area at all.”
“But why?” asks the Celestial, dismayed. “Oh, Laurence, it is so very dull here, and think of how many people we have been helping - “
“That is precisely the problem. We should not be helping the French; we are becoming collaborators of the worst sort, in a way that is not excusable as our first offense was.”
“The French have been very kind to us, so I hardly see why we should not be kind back.”
“If one needs receive only a little kindness to turn traitor, then loyalty would mean nothing at all. No; it cannot be borne; we must have some dignity.”
“Dignity does not seem to do anyone any good,” says Temeraire sadly; but he only sighs, and goes away to eat another cow.
Laurence walks into the house and is grateful when he sees no sign of Gardinier. He sits down in the first chair he sees, by a small table in the sitting-room, and remains cradling his head for a long moment.
At some point, he looks up and finds that Tharkay has taken the chair opposite him. The man watches him silently, and Laurence is unable to muster any indignation.
“A bad day, then?” asks Tharkay needlessly.
“We are traitors.”
“I would have thought you had realized that by now.”
“Our first act was justified – was justifiable, by any right standards of humanity. Such considerations must sometimes come before the obligations even toward king and country. But this – we have been giving comfort to the enemy. There is no justification for that, Tenzing. I decided when we accepted Bonaparte's offer that we would not be put to any use beneficial to the French; and here we are helping them anyway.” Laurence is silent for a moment. “These flights must stop at once – it was foolish of us to ever have anything to do with a single soul outside this château.”
“Do you blame the laymen for the war, then? Do you think Quintin Alger, who you rescued from under a broken bridge last week, is responsible for this war? Should he have died for it, Laurence?”
“...No, of course not.”
“Then I do not know what you would mean to accomplish with inaction, except to show everyone that you are sulking. Very well; I have seen it; I am not impressed. Do not punish the commoners for this war between tyrants. They have suffered enough, I think, without your censure.”
Laurence is silent for a moment. Then he says, “He is not a tyrant.”
“The king. The king of England – he is not a tyrant.”
“Is he not, then? I must relearn my definitions – I thought that a man who sent out ships and fleets, who established colonies against the wills of native peoples, and who made slaves of his enemies could only be called a tyrant. I must be mistaken.”
“You have fought for England.”
“I have fought for you, Laurence, and for coin,” says Tharkay tiredly. “And sometimes I doubt both.”
Laurence does not know where Tharkay goes when he vanishes from the property – and sometimes he is gone for days at a time. Once he returns looking very ragged indeed, with his clothes charred and blackened. After the first two weeks he obtains a small sparrowhawk which often flutters freely about the property, much to Temeraire's fascination.
About two weeks after his self-imposed isolation has begun Tharkay glances at Laurence dubiously before taking out a small scroll of paper. “A note from the Emperor, care of the ambassador De Guignes. You would seem to be popular, Will.”
Laurence jolts. “From the Emperor?” he asks, dismayed. Then, more hopeful; “Is he in the country?”
It occurs to him to wonder why Tharkay is receiving messages from De Guignes, and he hesitates as he reaches for the note, not quite wishing to presume on their friendship and ask. “I suggest your read the note and find out,” Tharkay says. Laurence meets his eyes and waits, giving Tharkay a chance to elaborate. The other man simply holds his gaze evenly and says nothing.
Laurence opens the note.
My dear Laurence,
As I am certain I would have heard Otherwise, I am certain you are well. The fighting in England continues, but I have returned to Paris for the week to oversee affairs. I expect your presence at 5:00pm, Saturday, January 10th at Tuileries. Temeraire is, of course, most welcome to visit Lien.
I have thought frequently of you during the Campaign, and would appreciate your thoughts on the ongoing Effort to attain unity with Britain. Your Arrival is anticipated.
Laurence pauses for a moment solely to stare at the supposed 'signature'.
“ - Well?” prompts Tharkay impatiently.
“ - It is – an invitation to dine with him. In Paris.” Laurence chooses not to mention the odd phrasing of the letter.
“When will you go?”
This assumption angers him.
“You may tell the Emperor that if he wishes to come here - “ Laurence sweeps his hand around to indicate the dubious manor - “ - he is welcome to it. Temeraire and I are not subjects of France, whatever his whim; we shall do no such thing.”
“I am not your messenger,” Tharkay reproves. “Whatever is between you and the Emperor, I shall not have a part in it. Though, while I am hardly the one to say so Will, you could be more gracious; more careful, at least. You may not be a Frenchman but you are very much here at the generosity of Bonaparte.”
“And such generosity it is, to invade England with one hand and make me entreaties with the other. No; he can hardly be mistaken for thinking me a traitor, perhaps, but I will not prove myself more of one.”
“I do not think anyone who has met you for more than ten minutes could truly think you a traitor,” Tharkay observes. “I daresay that is not the crux of it. But when dealing with a politician you must be cautious; I would not think you of all people would have an issue with social niceties.”
“Perhaps I have acquired some different modes of thought, from isolation and being accustomed to informal company,” Laurence concedes.
“You mean that the aviators are ill-mannered cads, and it rubs off,” is the scoffed reply. “ - Well, I suppose I am not much prettier in speech. But you had best be careful with a man who can put your neck in a noose, if you truly mean to stay anywhere near him; that is all I am saying.”
“I shall never say less than what I mean.”
Tharkay sighs. “No; no, of course not. Very well. I will take your message. I suppose you know well the consequences. But do not act dismayed, then, if one day this Emperor stops acting quite so grateful to you, and starts to wonder what else a heavy-weight Celestial might be doing for France.”
“Are you certain,” asks Temeraire again, circling around mid-air to head back to the house, “That we cannot fly a little further? Or do anything useful at all?”
“We could work on your pavilion,” Laurence suggests, referring to the sad wooden structure that continues to collapse on them.
“Oh; but it is not quite the same,” the Celestial mourns.
Temeraire has not responded well to their restricted flights. “Come; I am sorry, but you understand the necessity,” Laurence consoles.
“No, I do not,” Temeraire says. “Laurence, Arkady has been telling me all about how he won so many prizes in England; and I am very sorry that you are here, doing such boring things, and now instead of letting yourself be properly respected you keep insisting on being shut-up in the estate. Though you are a Bishop, now, which is very nice I suppose. But I have made things so dull for you. It is not...” He squirms his large neck around. “You are not staying away from people because you are embarrassed, are you? Only, your coat is very bad, but I am sure you look quite fine anyway.”
Laurence is surprised. “Have you held these worries before? Temeraire, pray forget them entirely. My decision to come to France was my own; on that matter I have no regrets, none, and we did a just act in bringing over the cure. As for my coat...” He plucks at it ruefully. “It has seen better days; but in my state of disgrace I expect nothing better, and I care little what the French think of me, anyway.”
“But that is just what I mean. You are so very much more impressive than everyone, and do not even try to show it anymore like you did before. And although I understood being filthy when we were working, because we ended up tired anyway, I do not understand why we have stopped. Surely there are people out there we could be helping, Laurence.”
“Likely so. But they are Frenchman.”
“You always say this,” says Temeraire, exasperated. “But when there is a Yellow Reaper in trouble, I help them, though they are not a Celestial and often smell a bit too; so why do we not help the French?”
“We are at war, you know this.”
“I am sure we are not personally fighting everyone in France, Laurence. It is a very large country.”
“Only think, Temeraire, that we might save a man from dying, and then that man might become a soldier in the French army and fight against England. How would you feel if a man we saved should go on to kill Englishmen? Perhaps even our friends?”
“Surely they would not do anything so dreadful.”
“We cannot be certain of that.”
“Then perhaps,” says Temeraire, inspired, “We can make it a condition of our aid that people not join the French army – then would it be alright to help, Laurence?”
“No, I think not. It must be decided if our actions stem from generosity or self-interest. It cannot go both ways, and I do not think the French government would permit it anyway.”
“I do not see why self-interest hurts when other people benefit too,” Temeraire says. “You speak of self-interest sometimes as a bad thing, and then all the time you speak of the necessities of the economy, which is all about self-interest; it is very confusing.”
“Now you are touching on communist thoughts, which is another matter entirely; no, no, we will not talk about that, for I am sure you will like the idea far too much,” and Laurence sighs.
Billows of clouds move among them, buffeted back by the laborious beating of Temeraire's wings. He seems to sink gradually lower through the air, and turns without being directed when they come upon an imaginary boundary - the end of the property line, Laurence notes. It is a large property, granted, but a confining space nevertheless to a creature accustomed to bounding across continents. Temeraire seems to fall a dozen meters without trying, as though some great burden is sinking him inexorably towards the ground.
“...Perhaps,” Laurence says softly, “We may fly about, beyond the estate, if we do not generally interfere with what we see – if we vow to interfere only in situations of extremis, where lives are certain to be loss, and the mandate of God is such that no-one with good conscience could sit silent. Whatever our place in the war, or on earth, no one could slander us for showing basic humanity.”
“I am sure they could not,” says Temeraire, brightening immediately. He does not even protest the term 'humanity'. “Oh; I am so happy, Laurence.”
“Note that we shall not look for such cases, Temeraire. Our purpose should be only to fly for pleasure.”
“Oh, yes, of course,” Temeraire dismisses.
Tharkay voices neither approval nor censure when he hears of Laurence's latest decision, but he watches with a wry expression as Temeraire leaps into the air the next day in the vague direction of Chartres. They are caught by a westerly wind and Temeraire indulges for awhile by following this instead, his wings caught like some great, preposterous bird.
The Celestial's head seems to bob up and down strangely even during his conversations with Laurence; so it does not surprise the Englishman overmuch when his dragon suddenly says, “Oh! They are in trouble,” and descends into a steep and sudden dive.
There is a girl wailing in a field next to a very still man, slumped insensate; the man is her father, probably, or a brother. This is a mundane incident at least; a placid horse nearby startles away when Temeraire lands, and when Laurence goes to the man he finds his ribs broken, his head bruised.
“He will live,” he tells the wide-eyed girl sternly. “Now, quit that sound; where is your mother?”
She confesses to not know, and seems like to start crying. It is fortunate the woman herself, thin but stony-eyed, comes wandering out, takes one look at the situation, and comes over to help Laurence haul the man into a distant farmhouse to be treated. She doesn't seem to flinch at Temeraire; or, perhaps, to notice him. Laurence eventually realizes that her eyes are a little unfocused and she may have a hard time seeing.
After wrapping the man's ribs and assuring that he will be quite well with rest, he goes back outside.
“He will be quite well, Miss, have no fear, and should wake up at any – Temeraire?”
Temeraire freezes guiltily in the act of tearing a tree out of the earth. The farm-girl who had been directing him looks at Laurence accusingly, then waves Temeraire on. “Oh, but Laurence,” Temeraire says, switching to English. “Really, it is no trouble, and, look, she is so small. It is cruel to make the family do this when it takes me but a moment.”
“They have axes, I am sure, and horses around somewhere. We are not here to do farmwork for every Frenchman.”
“I hardly see why not, when we can, and it only takes an instant; to not help seems like the sort of thing scrubs like Arkady do who lay about all day.”
“Arkady should be in England,” Laurence says, unable to bear this. “ - He would be helping in the war with the other ferals, if not for Tharkay's loyalty and our own treachery.”
Temeraire raises his ruff. “We are not treacherous, at all, and I do not know why you keep saying it is treachery to only do what is right and not be sneaking and trying to kill dragons without even fighting them. That seems like treachery to me, and a kind made by the English government; so rather, it is like they were treacherous to us, first.”
“It is - “ Laurence fumbles. “There are certain loyalties – oaths, and an obligation of duty - “
“But of course you must agree with me,” Temeraire says. “That is why you are here, is it not? And if you had an obligation to government, they had an obligation to you, too, to not give bad orders. And they give very bad orders all the time, so I do not see why anyone should want to keep following them if they should not be better.”
“It is not that simple,” says Laurence helplessly. “If everyone should ignore loyalty merely when they dislike an order, there would be no hierarchy – there would be anarchy - “
“That is not what I said at all,” Temeraire tells him. “They have extremely bad orders, and no good ones, it seems to me; not only a few blunders, which might be made only because bad choices happen. Even I am not always right,” he adds, with a raised chin that says this is a grand concession, “Though I usually am, because I am a Celestial and a very good fighter. But when one is always wrong, it seems that there is something about it that is more than coincidence, and people should notice.”
Laurence is quiet for a moment. “The king must work for the good of all,” he says at last. “Not the good of you, Temeraire.”
“But I must surely work for the good of myself, among others,” Temeraire says. “And if this king does not seem to me to be the best, why should I not like others king better? And I am not saying that this Emperor is nicer than that English government, Laurence; only, it is so nice for dragons, here, and no one has given us any bad orders.”
Sadly this is true; Laurence can easily see how Bonaparte has won the favor of the growing legions of dragons under his command if Lien has had any influence on his methods. On their flights he and Temeraire have continued to see not only widened roads but rare pavilions, and sometimes scattered marks by farmsteads, like dragon-signatures for cows.
He becomes aware that this conversation is taking place in front of the confused farmgirl, but consoles himself with the thought that she doubtlessly knows little English.
“Your loyalties must be your own,” he says at last. “But I would ask you, nevertheless, to return us to the château.”
Temeraire looks longingly at the trees. For a moment, Laurence is certain that he will refuse and continue to clear the rest of the copse anyway; Laurence would have no choice but to wait for him to finish. But finally he steps away. Laurence pulls himself up Temeraire's flank and latches himself to his breast-plate, and they fly the long, silent way back to the château.
The only thing to surprise Laurence about the courier is that any dragon at all has been spared from the war in England; and, furthermore, that he recognizes both the dragon and captain.
The nervous Chasseur-Vocifere, and her same exasperating captain, land right in front of Laurence without ceremony. “Thank you, Eximia,” says the man casually as he dismounts. The dragon hopskips over to coil up on one of Temeraire's feet, watching her captain and Laurence both with wide eyes.
“A message from the Emperor,” says Captain Blanc.
“I expected,” Laurence deadpans.
This doesn't seem to faze the man. “He invites you to join him for dinner at Tuileries, as his guest of honor, where the Marshals will be celebrating the successful occupation of London.”
He tries to envision what this devastating loss might have entailed – the fleet in ruins, troops captured, the sick dragons lost or slain? Whole coverts, captured? He has dozens of old correspondents in the navy to which he can no longer write; comrades among the aviators, once only so far as the quick pace of a Winchester, now out of reach. His childhood home of Nottinhamshire could very well be occupied by now, too, if London has been taken; it is a queer and distant thought.
And it is a fear he has no practical or ready means of assuaging. Tharkay has been stopping by the towns nearby, but any information on the war will trickle over slowly, as half-heard rumors; the prime information will be held for the commanders and generals, and thus kept close. Bonaparte, of course, will know everything. Even what has not yet come to pass.
There is only one answer.
“ - Tell His Majesty I would be honored,” Laurence says stiffly. “ - And Temeraire, of course, shall be glad to join Lien.”
Temeraire jolts his body upright, sending poor Eximia tumbling away. “I most certainly shall not - “
But Blanc is already smiling an unpleasant smile. “Thank you, Sir. He will be glad to hear it, I am sure.”
Laurence is dumbfounded as they approach the Tuileries. Not because of its beauty – which if anything seems more diminished now that they have been more exposed to the landscape of France – but because of the Poux-de-Ciel and Flame-De-Geur lounging in the great garden with Lien as servants rush around them with giant gobbets of meat and vats of tea.
He cannot understand how two such beasts have been spared from the front, and wonders for an absurd moment if they are meant to subdue Temeraire – but for what eventuality? The Celestial, for his part, views this company with satisfaction. “Oh, good; so it will not be just us; I do not care who those dragons are, they cannot be as bad as Lien,” he declares.
They land in front of the palace and the guards do not even twitch. Laurence makes for the ground. For the occasion Gardinier has presented to him a handsome coat and breeches cut in the French style; in other circumstances he might have protested, but his other clothes are so wholly unrecognizable by now that he must quite concede the point. He pats down his silken neckcloth with some irritation.
Laurence expects to be ushered in at once by servants; to be, of course, formally presented to the Emperor; but Bonaparte does not stand on much courtesy, and somehow he is already unsurprised to see the doors of the palace come bursting open, with hapless guards and more serene men behind – clear soldiers themselves just by their bearings, even were they not wearing coats with brilliant gold fleur-de-lis trimming, and the seven-star insignia of the Marshals of France upon their shoulders.
“William,” says Bonaparte pleasantly, and at once firmly reaches out to grasp him around the shoulders and kiss his cheeks. Laurence is, at least, more prepared for it this time. “You will meet my Marshals; they have heard much of you. And my lovely sister, of course – it is a shame that Joachim could not be here, but of course there is a war.”
The reminder is hardly necessary, but if it lacks tact the other Marshals are accustomed to their bulldozing commander. They make their own greetings with perfect civility. “An honor, Captain,” greets Marshal Jean-de-Dieu Soult. Laurence recalls hearing tales of the Marshal's victories at Austerlitz. Young and sharp-eyed, he watches Laurence with keen wariness that is mirrored by Marshall Brune, though the latter has a reputation also as a politician.
Marshal Francois de Kellermann is a stark contrast. Old but clearly in excellent physical condition, he stands with understandable pride to make his own greeting. Kellermann's presence is understandable – he surely cannot take to the field, at his age – but Laurence wonders at Bonaparte's arrogance in taking such a cunning mind as Soult's from England.
It makes him wonder if the war is so firmly decisive after all.
Caroline Bonaparte, as hostess, is the one to greet him. “Prince Laurence,” she says, much to Laurence's embarrassment. “It is my sincere pleasure to welcome you to the home of house Bonaparte, and to France.”
This is a somewhat sweeping statement, made hollow by the fact that Laurence has been in France for months, and 'House Bonaparte' is native to Corsica. He is spared the effort of replying when Bonaparte, thin-lipped, nudges past his sister. “I will introduce you,” he says.
The other man to join them for dinner is a young courtier staying at Tuileries while his château undergoes repairs – he seems vaguely alarmed and mumbles polite greetings to Laurence, though his wife, Karine, looks him up and down and declares that he “does not seem much of an English devil.”
Marshal Soult's wife, Jean Loiuse, is present; Angelique, with Brune; and, to Laurence's surprise, Pauline Bonaparte.
“I thought you to be in Italy, Your Grace,” he says. “Are you not the princess of Guastalla, or is my news old?”
“Oh, I am,” she says lightly.
“Oh, she was,” says Bonaparte sourly.
Pauline shrugs, laughing. “Oh, my brother is sullen. The land is still his, and belongs under the hand of France. I have merely made a profit. Ruling is boring; but, you know, I did not lose everything when I sold the duchy. I am still a princess.”
“Princess of the air, perhaps,” Bonaparte says. “Which I suppose is useful, when you use so much of it.”
Pauline beams again. “Do you see? I have been wise in my investments after all. Now, shall we eat?” Turning, she leads the way to the grand table laid out in the dining hall, forcing everyone else to follow.
Laurence expects there to be someone else – but, no. Five men, and four women, which makes the table unbalanced. He would not, of course, comment – though his manners are tasked when the Emperor makes of show of seating Laurence on his right, much to the aviator's own discomfort. For such a palace it is a small and private gathering.
The seat on his left remains empty.
“Temeraire is well situated?” Bonaparte asks courteously as the others settle in.
“Oh, yes; if I may, do you have aviators stationed here? I could not help but notice the dragons.”
“They are with Kellerman and Soult.” Bonaparte gestures sweepingly at his Marshals.
Laurence starts. “I did not realize,” he says. He wonders what use Kellermann has for a dragon, but does not ask.
“Very useful, having them with us; I never understood the use of a dragon,” Kellerman says. “They have been vital to the war.”
“Everyone says I should hatch one too; but we need some men on the ground,” says Brune good-naturedly. “Maybe one of those couriers would be useful, actually, but from what I've seen the big beasts might listen to a man, but they won't listen to one of those little fellows if they get it into their minds they have a better idea.”
The others nod in agreement. “And my Letalis always thinks she has the better idea,” Soult reflects ruefully.
The conversation seems more suited to a London covert than the table of a palace. Laurence feels an odd sensation of displacement, and covers it by taking a quick swig of his drink.
Recovering, he inquires of his host, “I admit – I am surprised to see you in France, especially with three dragons. Can you be spared so long from the front?”
“It is not such a long flight; and Murat is in command,” Bonaparte dismisses. Murat, Bonaparte's brother-in-law. His sister Caroline visibly straightens with pride.
The group is interrupted by a sudden, anguished wailing from outside the room. No one but Laurence seems surprised, despite the evident source; it is clearly the cry of an infant.
A moment one of the doors opens; a young woman in a fine red dress sweeps inside. Everyone stand. “My apologies,” she tells the Emperor; he kisses her hand as she takes the empty seat. “He was crying yet again.”
“You must be Empress Joséphine?” Laurence guesses.
There is an awkward pause. “No,” the woman says, clearing her throat. “ I – no.”
“I would introduce you to Lady Eléonore de la Plaigne,” Napoléon says.
“I apologize for my entrance,” says the woman before Laurence can address his mistake. “My son is not a month old, and he has refused to sleep for over a day.”
“And what is the name of your child, Madam?” Laurence asks politely.
She makes as if to answer, but Bonaparte twitches abruptly. “That is my son – and heir. Charles Leon Bonaparte,” he says curtly.
The answer startles Laurence, and he tries to hide a blush. He has heard rumors, now that he recalls it, that the Empress has failed to have a child, and that the Emperor has begun making courting overtures to some distant royal in Austria. But this woman is no foreign princess – though, he supposes an Emperor may do as he likes. He wonders if news of the proclaimed prince has made it to Britain.
Then Laurence registers the looks of shock around the assembled table, and realizes that he is not the only one taken aback by Bonaparte's introduction.
“But Napoléon,” Caroline protests, shooting Eléonore a look of surprising venom, “What about Marie - “
Yes, that was the name of the princess. “I will send her my regrets,” Bonaparte says vaguely. “I have said of late, have I not, that the war is the most important thing; and besides, I already have a child.”
Eléonore leans forward, but without looking at her, Bonaparte adds, “Even if the boy shall always be a bastard, he can be a king.”
There is an awkwardness after that which is impossible to recover. Eléonore looks both proud and nearly on the verge of tears. Shortly thereafter the ladies depart, and Caroline taking her arm with a clenched grip and leads out the small group.
There a brief lull. Then the wine is brought out. With only military men present – sans the strange noble - Laurence hopes at last to ask more directly from the war. He wonders how to make the approach without seeming disastrously outrageous, being here as a guest in the hands of someone who must at the end of things be considered an enemy. To openly wheedle out information can only seem in bad taste, at best, and blatantly offensive at worst.
“So,” says Marshall Soult. “Do not make me wait for the meetings and reports, gentlemen. I am sick with curiosity. How is the war going?”
“Better than predicted,” says Brune briskly. “Even in our best projections, we did not expect the enemy to be so disorganized. Or that we would outnumber their beasts so greatly, I admit.”
“We celebrated Christmas in style, in London,” says Bonaparte. “There was an excellent celebration. They are not so opposed to us after all, it seems. People grow swiftly settled to such things.”
Laurence tries to imagine some comment but can scarcely bear to think; his mouth is dry, and he quickly raises his glass again to moisten his lips. He breathes deeply. It does not help. “The fleet has given you no trouble?”
“Bound up by Ireland,” Kellerman says. “We've had a few routs, but nothing serious, and they're staying back; we're not worrying for them.”
“Surely you must,” says Laurence, spurred into speech by this. “You cannot think to just ignore the navy.”
“Not forever, no. But ships are little good against forces inland – forces far from the shore – and we have enough dragons to hassle them, if they come close to conquered cities. Say what you like of supposed British naval-mastery, but a Flamme-De-Guerre suits far better than a 54-gun.”
“Our ships have held so far,” says Laurence coldly.
“Which all speak very well of the excellent Admiral Nelson!” Bonaparte cries. “Nevertheless, you cannot fight the sun and the stars, Captain – some things are inevitable. And we shall prevail sooner rather than later. How would you respond if I said my men have been traversing Britain at a pace of fifty miles a day?”
“It cannot be done,” Laurence says immediately. This is simple sense. Even were the men left to march over flat terrain, without the burden of equipment or fear of attack, it surely could not be done. All factors considered, it is impossible as a matter of plain practicality.
Except the men around the table are smiling as though enjoying a private joke. “It can be done with dragons,” says Marshall Soult.
“...Certainly,” Laurence concedes. A dragon can carry men, even many men, farther than fifty miles in a day. Addressing the emperor: “But even you, Sir, have not enough dragons for the entire French army.”
“No,” Bonaparte agrees. “But if we are careful – if we bring the men on short flights, let them down to march, and have the dragons go back for more men – then with strict planning our men march and fly about fifty miles every day. The British may claim to be masters of the seas; well, let them have that title; the French are masters of the air.”
Laurence is thunderstruck. The idea is plausible – and something the British, he realizes, will never anticipate. Have not anticipated, if London is taken. It is impossible not to feel a reluctant sort of admiration for the tactics behind this invasion. He remembers with a shivering horror the attack he and Temeraire thwarted years before; Britain has no similar mind able to compare to Bonaparte and his men.
“...It is a brilliant strategy,” he admits helplessly.
Unbelievably, Bonaparte seems to loosen, looking at him with something almost akin to pity. “I am sure the occupation shall be over swiftly, and with little enough loss; we plan to propose negotiations for the king's surrender shortly. There will be peace, which I hope you might consider a happy occasion.”
“Sir, I would not consider myself an Englishman if I did,” Laurence replies, and the Marshals glance among themselves.
“I would prefer if you considered yourself a Frenchman.”
At that, Laurence actually laughs, incredulous. Marshal Brune seems offended, but Bonaparte does not seem to mind. He simply takes a sip of his wine and shrugs, then leans back. His earlier sympathy seems to have vanished. “The English and the French will soon be one,” he adds. “So I suppose it will not matter much soon.”
At that, Laurence clenches his jaw and looks away. There is an awkward silence over the table. Then Marshal Soult turns to Brune and asks about the health of his daughter, and a halting conversation arises while Laurence tries to ignore Bonaparte's eyes burning against the side of his head.
Marshal Soult makes his excuses first, with the excuses of age and fatigue; and this opens the way for the rest to dismiss themselves, as well. The nobleman and his wife – Laurence never did bother to get his name – flee the intimidating gathering swiftly, and he wonders at their presence in so small and select a company. Brune and Kellerman find their wives and leave; they all regroup, briefly, to see the ladies in residence.
Eléonore is holding Charles, the child dazed and insensibly young on her hip. He does not look, Laurence thinks, like a young Prince – does not look like the heir to a sprawling Empire. Eléonore, glancing down at the baby every few seconds with an identifiable flush of pride, may not agree. “Good night, Captain. It has been a true pleasure to meet you.”
“And I do hope you will join us again,” Caroline adds, with an odd emphasis. She narrows her eyes at the babe and they sweep from the room.
Pauline insists on hugging Bonaparte – her cheeks are pink and flushed, and the smell of spirits is strong in the air. “Brother, brother, what a fine night. Tell me, do you think this war will last long? Only, I would like to visit London,” she says thoughtfully. “The idea has just came to me - “
“Lord preserve the English,” Bonaparte says dryly. “Get to your bed, dear sister.”
Laughing, she stumbles away.
So they are alone.
Bonaparte walks toward another doorway; after a moment, Laurence follows. It opens into a comfortable office space, but he is not overly surprised when the Emperor manages to pull a bottle of wine from under a nearby shelf. The vices of bureaucrats are an international constant.
“Now,” Bonaparte declares, somehow procuring two glasses as well, “England.”
“I am most eager to hear of it,” Laurence says, accepting a glass and sitting across from the soldier.
“Talk is dull,” Bonaparte dismisses. He leans forward, rapping his fingers against his glass. There is a different energy about him now – keen, enervated. He has a goal, Laurence realizes, watching the way Bonaparte's eyes flicker across him; the Emperor is dangerous with a goal in mind. “What you need,” the man continues, “Is a first-hand accounting.”
“I would be glad for it – if that were possible.”
“Many things are possible!” Bonaparte leans back waving his arm across the room. “Why not?”
“My treason, for one,” comes the dry response.
“I did not say you should return to England as her ally, did I?”
This suggestion is outrageous. “Sir. I am grateful to your generosity – but you hardly mean to suggest I will go forth as yours.”
“My ally, no. But a guest? Why not? That is what you are. If you are a guest here or there should make no difference, I should think.
“You speak of technicalities, Sir. In name it should make no difference – in substance, it can only be the most provoking insult imaginable.”
“Your notions of honor, I suppose.”
“You say that as though you have none.”
This, Laurence did not mean to say. He flushes in an instant with mortification. But to his great surprise the Emperor only laughs.
“I have never held fast to any notions but the idea of power,” Bonaparte says. “ - She is a harsh mistress, but a fierce defender.”
“That, I cannot believe,” Laurence says. “No man can live without some notion of his own limits – some notion of what is right.”
“Some people are more flexible. I have always prided myself on adapting to my circumstances.”
“A man may adapt without losing his morals.” For all that he is a sworn enemy of Bonaparte, Laurence cannot in good conscience call him a coward or a man without honor; he knows few men who could honestly think it.
“Well, morals – that is different. We have already discussed what you think of my morals, Captain.”
Laurence curbs his instinctive reply, at once harsh and too conciliatory; why should he seek to reassure an enemy? “I can only say what my conscience allows, Sir. And I will say also this; I would not give a vow without meaning it in full, and I would not forswear myself unless every ounce of humanity rejected my orders. If we cannot live by a moral standard, I do not know what else there is.”
Bonaparte looks at him long and hard. A strange smile plays around his mouth. “This is why I need you,” he says suddenly. “This is why I want you, do you understand?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Never before have I met a man so principled – and perhaps we will never agree, no. I do not know if that is possible. But I can see you firmly believe what you are saying. Always. I could use a good man at my side.”
“You have more than a dozen Marshals; are they not good men?”
“Do you want to be flattered?” Bonaparte asks. Before Laurence can object, the Emperor continues. “Very well; I will flatter you. You are better. And I am speaking not just of military skill, though from what my spies have told me you do quite well in that regard as well. The closest of my Marshals are bound to me by filial oaths, by long-standing acquaintance; but who, I ask, can an Emperor trust?”
“Forgive me, Majesty; but you sound suspicious.”
Bonaparte laughs. It is an ugly sound.
“I should be,” he says. “In their places, I would think only of advancement – and I picked my Marshals carefully, you see. The best of them remind me of myself.” Bonaparte is looking at him again. “But you do not. You would pledge your service and mean it – you would serve with faith, with loyalty, until your death. Would you not?”
“My loyalty is to England alone,” says Laurence. His mouth is very dry.
“But you have broken that loyalty already!” Bonaparte pounces.
“Then it should be clear, Your Majesty, that I am not the man you think I am.” Laurence stands up abruptly. “Excuse me. I must – I need to - “
“Yes,” says Bonaparte. “Go, then.” The Emperor leans back and closes his eyes. As Laurence turns to leave, he adds, “Perhaps I was wrong, after all; and perhaps you are a coward as well.”
All the guests have departed or retired. A palace like Tuileries is never deserted, though, even at night. Quiet servants scuttle by under the flicker of a quick candlelight, and one rises from a passageway to bow before Laurence before he can become too lost. “Prince Laurence – I will escort you to your beast.”
There's a peaceful silence outside, oddly settling despite the rigors of the day. But the servant pauses near the door, refusing to come out. Alerted by this, Laurence stops; then he sees the guards standing away from their posts, staring warily at the opposite end of the garden.
Temeraire is hunched there alone, his ruff raised and rigid. Clawing up great clods of dirt, he shifts restlessly and stares up at the sky. Laurence hastens over immediately.
“Temeraire,” he says. “Temeraire, whatever is the matter - “
Temeraire whips around to face him. “Oh, Laurence! We should never have let her have him!”
Laurence returns his stare blankly. He looks around; the three French dragons, Lien included, are still near the palace and ignoring them deliberately. “Lien? Who does she have?”
“No, no – Iskierka! They said a fire-breather's captain was captured, Laurence, and is being held for ransom; I knew she would not take proper care of Granby. We must get him back. And this time, Laurence, I do not care what anyone says, we are certainly keeping him!”
“I truly loved my Joséphine, but I did not respect her.” - Napoléon Bonaparte
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Tharkay's face grows grim as Temeraire relays the news he heard from the gossiping French dragons. Laurence has no illusions; if they were permitted to speak of the fire-breather's captain, their captains' plainly did not see the benefit in stopping them from talking. This information may be deliberate.
“Does that matter?” Tharkay asks. “The point remains the same – Granby is here, in France. And the devil only knows where Iskierka is.”
“They will not harm John – his safety is all that controls her.”
“Yes, but I daresay nothing really controls Iskierka. Like as not she will try and go after him, against all reason, and they will have to kill her in the attempt. And then,” he adds grimly, “He will be expendable.”
Temeraire's ruff flares with horror.
“...We cannot interfere,” Laurence says heavily.
“Temeraire and I have given our word to not interfere with matters of the war – and this qualifies.”
“Oh! But we certainly cannot just let Granby be a prisoner,” says Temeraire indignantly.
“We have many friends in England, and a loyalty to England herself,” says Laurence. “If we were going to ignore our promise so easily, we should never have made it.”
“Well, we have already decided that it is good to ignore a promise if doing something else is more sensible, or better for everyone,” says Temeraire. “Surely no one could expect us to hold to a promise when our friends are in danger, as we could hardly have expected these circumstances when we agreed not to interfere.”
“Our word would mean nothing if we do as you suggest. And we should rightfully be distrusted by any good society.”
“He is right,” says Tharkay unexpectedly.
Temeraire seems even more affronted. “But, Tharkay - “
“I don't care a whit about honor – but you can only lie to so many emperors and kings before it hurts you, Temeraire. Now, I have made no vows or promises. I will see if I can get a message to Granby – where is he being kept?”
“The Château de Bagatelle,” Temeraire says grudgingly. “In Abbetille.”
“That is North, I think. Very well. I will see how he is, at the very least. And Iskierka is still in England? You said Bonaparte wants you to go there, Laurence? Then you really have no reason to refuse.”
Dismayed: “You cannot be serious.”
“It is imperative that you reassure her of the necessity of being sensible.”
“Oh, that is true,” says Temeraire bitterly. “Iskierka will try to fly right across the Channel, killing everything, if she only can.”
“And,” Tharkay adds dryly, “Do not try to tell me the offer did not tempt you, anyway.”
Messages are dispatched swiftly, and arrangements are made. Bonaparte does not trouble to hide his pleasure when Laurence joins him and the Marshals at the coast near Calais. They will be crossing the shortest part of the Channel, already held by French forces, and therefore flying over Dover. This already delivers one piece of news Laurence did not have before; the covert has been taken.
Letalis is loaded with men and supplies, including the bulk of Bonaparte's necessary retinue and diplomatic aides. She is holding very still as she waits so as not to disturb the soldiers that sit in Chinese-style carriers hanging down her sides. Lien, in contrast, is draped only in shining jewels. A netting of tiny silver links interspersed with what seem to be hundreds of rubies glitter around her ruff, accentuating the vivid scarlet haze of her eyes. She wears pure gold talon sheaths that Temeraire eyes with envy; his are lost in England.
There is to be no great accompaniment – reinforcements are hard to muster with the English harassing all such attempts, and Bonaparte's visit to the capital was only ever meant to be brief. But there presence has drawn crowds. The three dragons spring aloft to cheers from surrounding citizens, and calls of “Vive l'Empereur!”
“Oh, that is nice,” Temeraire approves. Laurence says nothing.
The flight is swift and pleasant. French vessels fire in salute as they wing by, recognizing both Lien and the streaming banner raised aloft by a member of Letalis' crew. Lien does not carry a banner, finding it, perhaps, undignified.
Halfway over the Channel a particularly loud shot rings out. Temeraire veers left as a stray cannon-ball shoots near.
Letalis lets out a cry and begins to rise. Lien, without alarm, immediately begins to gain altitude. As her wings beat against the air Laurence can see the distant figure of Bonaparte climbing around to her shoulder, drawing his sword and turning to view the source of the shots even as they move farther away.
In complete contrast to the white Celestial, Temeraire begins to wheel around with the clear intent to fight. Laurence can feel hard dragon-skin becoming taut against his hands, swelling with anger and the thrum of the Divine Wind.
“Temeraire, no,” he says. “You cannot - they are English – it is one of our ships.”
The frigate is already being fired upon by a navy vessel. It has put itself into a bad position, and perhaps thought the dragons were going to join the ensuing fray, to attack them so readily. Letalis is too laden, and Lien would not likely condescend to the task, however. With a sad eye Laurence sees the signs of an inexperienced captain, and the ship is not built for war; it raises its flags within a minute.
“...We are falling behind,” says Temeraire, and without waiting for a response begins to move forward.
They land in Dover covert within two hours.
The place – and Laurence supposed he should have expected this – is not just full of French dragons, but prisoners.
Given the uneasiness of watching so many dragons, Laurence should be less surprised than he is to be faced with yet another Marshal – Augereau, this time. The general is older than most of Bonaparte's men, stolid and apparently unfazed by their appearance.
“Your Majesty,” he greets in French. “All proceeds well – the beasts have mostly quit their grumbling. My men are getting eager for action.”
“And I am sure they would have it, if these dragons should escape! You are doing well, Charles, thank you; I believe I shall take a look around. Take me to the senior captain, if you please – You will excuse me, gentlemen?”
Bonaparte walks away without apparent concern, leaving Augereau to rush after him. Kellerman leans against Letalis, visually inspecting the covert with every appearance that he might be content to stand waiting until Bonaparte returns – even if that moment should be hours away. Laurence hesitates.
“Oh,” says Temeraire softly. “That is Immortalis, Laurence; do you suppose he is well?”
Laurence feels his spirits sink; Little must be around somewhere, and likely his crew. “I am sure he is being kept comfortable,” he says. Temeraire cannot really be said to be speaking quietly.
“And... and there is Nitidus,” Temeraire continues, with dawning horror. “And Excidium...”
At this, Laurence cannot quite repress a flinch. “Oh, Laurence, Nitidus is easily frightened; I am sure he will be very anxious for Warren,” Temeraire says. “It is so very cruel, to keep them apart; look, there is a chain on his neck.”
“He is with Immortalis; I am sure that is a comfort.”
Temeraire shifts uneasily.
And, Laurence can stand their companion's deliberate silence no longer. He approaches Kellerman. “I beg your pardon,” he says – the Marshal looks at him with an air of feigned surprise. “ - I am sure Temeraire would be comforted to visit old companions. Would it be an imposition to let him see the dragons here?”
Kellerman does not answer immediately. He leans back his head, eyeing Laurence with something like – exasperation? “I am sure,” he says at last, “That you are both quite welcome to visit whomever you like, Captain. And,” he adds more charitably, “Should anyone attempt to stop you, use my name; do not have the Emperor deal with them.
Laurence has no intentions of imposing on either man more than strictly necessary on this journey. Nevertheless he says, “You have my thanks,” and returns to Temeraire. “Shall we visit your wing?” he asks. Temeraire brightens immediately.
Immortalis is chained to the ground in close proximity to several other Yellow Reapers, so the French have clearly made some attempt at providing comfort. Nitidus, an odd speck of blue among their vibrant yellow and white striations, is curled miserably against his side.
They both sit up and stare when Temeraire comes down.
“But you are supposed to be in France,” says Nitidus anxiously. “Or are you here because you are now a France prisoner as well?”
“No,” says Immortalis before Temeraire can answer. He slowly lays back down, peering up at Temeraire warily. “They are here because they are traitors.”
The words are matter-of-fact. Temeraire raises his ruff, and Nitidus shrinks down further. “Oh,” he says. “That does not sound like a nice thing to be.”
“We are not traitors!” Temeraire protests.
Even Laurence cannot support this outrageous claim in the least. Immortalis only looks at the Celestial, patiently, until Temeraire shifts and says, “Well – we had a very good reason - “
“That is what Little said,” Immortalis agrees. “But I do not see at all why you should be coming back to England with the French; there cannot be a good reason for that.”
“Oh, well,” says Temeraire. “That is because of Iskierka, of course; Granby is in France, and she is still here, and we have come to make sure she does nothing very foolish. And no other reason,” he finishes hastily. Which is something of a lie, but Laurence chooses not to protest.
“Granby is a prisoner?”
“They are very interested in him, only because everyone acts very silly around Iskierka.”
Immortalis shifts his wings. “I will tell that to Little,” he says at last. Then he lowers his head to the ground and pointedly closes his eyes.
Temeraire pauses a moment, clearly baffled. Nitidus shifts uneasily. “You are well? And your captains?” Laurence presses the smaller dragon.
“Oh! Yes. They let my Warren out to visit me every two days – under guard,” he says, sadly. “But he seems well.”
“How did you come to be here?”
“There was a great battle outside London – we were outnumbered, especially us dragons. But the infantry was not so terribly bad off until Marshal Davout came around the back. He brought twenty thousand men, Warren said, and thirty dragons. At least nine heavy-weights. Warren ordered me to flee,” Nitidus confides, low, “But I was so very tired, and no one expected them at all – they caught us quickly. And there were over twenty-five thousand prisoners taken, too.”
Laurence staggers at the number. Even Temeraire lowers his ruff against his neck in horror, staring at Nitidus. “What does one do with so many people?” he asks.
“I do not know. But it is very, it is most horrible. Warren says we have already lost,” Nitidus adds gloomily.
“I am sure that is not so,” Laurence consoles, still reeling.
“We should speak to Excidium, Laurence,” Temeraire whispers. Or tries to whisper; the attempt does not serve well to lower his voice. “He may know something more.”
Yes; as the Admiral's companion he likely would. Laurence hesitates. “Yes, very well. I am glad to see you well, Nitidus – Immortalis.”
Nitidus bobs his head. Immortalis does not move.
It occurs to Laurence, as he and Temeraire make their way to where Excidium is chained and being overlooked by a sleepy Petit Chevalier, that none of the French soldiers milling around the covert make any move to stop them or even glance askance. They likely cannot recognize Temeraire as any particular breed of dragon, French or English, unless they see his resemblance to Lien; and Laurence, he realizes, is himself in a plain and undistinguished coat of the French style.
Excidium's head is hanging over a tub of sand when they approach, similar to what the Longwings used when they were suffering from the very sickness that prompted his and Temeraire's treason. The old dragon shifts his eyes around at the pair and grunts without moving; then a small shape uncurls from his side, and Laurence starts. “Roland?”
It is Roland – Ensign Roland. She stands as tall as her young years can allow, glowering at him. “What are you doing here?” she hisses. “Mother will kill you if you have been captured or have come to surrender yourselves in the middle of a war!”
“I have done neither,” he says, and averts the true question. “Can you tell me the state of the war? Where is the army?”
“Retreating to Loch Laggan; the King is at Edinburgh,” says Roland, more quietly now. “Or that was their intent if London fell; the plan may have changed. Everything has gone horribly wrong, and I do not think anyone thought we should have lost so badly.”
“You have been treated well?”
Emily rolls her eyes at him, which answers that question. It is Excidium who speaks now, very suddenly;
“If you are not captured, how are you here?”
Laurence pauses. But he cannot avoid giving answer, not with Roland watching so expectantly. “ - We are come in company with Bonaparte and Marshal Kellerman,” he says reluctantly. “As a guest.”
Roland flinches back. “So you are a traitor,” she says – not angry, but quietly horrified.
Laurence pauses. “I am sure we have not hidden our actions,” he says heavily.
Roland stomps her foot against the ground. “There is a difference between not wanting people to die and turning against us,” she says. “Get away, or I will tell Excidium to bite you.”
“But Roland,” protests Temeraire. “You are part of my crew - “
“Let us go, dear,” says Laurence. He touches Temeraire's flank, and with dejection the Celestial lets himself be led away.
“But she did not understand at all,” Temeraire says after. “Not about Iskierka, or why we had to stay – you wanted to return to England, even though it would have been very foolish and I am glad you did not – Laurence, it is not fair.”
“Many things are not fair,” says Laurence, looking around at the huddles of dejected dragons. Just now a small wing of French beasts is coming into view over the wall of the covert, fresh from patrolling the Channel, and a new wing is rising to the air. The tricolor streams gaily behind them, and snatches of Veillons au salut de l'Empire can be heard over the wind.
“Do you think,” Temeraire says, “That Roland may have my talon-sheaths...”
“I could not recommend holding hope for it.”
They return to Soult and Letalis less out of need than dejection. Bonaparte returns not long later, seeming perfectly satisfied. “To London, then?”
London, Laurence thinks, looks and sounds like nothing less than a bastardized Paris where the Tower of London happens to have wandered by and been lost.
The French clearly have long-term occupation in mind. Construction has already begun to widen the streets, so that Laurence cannot imagine the damage and grief to small owners – should any remain in the city.
General Dufour of the 21ème has been left in charge of the city. He greets Bonaparte formally and warmly, and then asks, with a little desperation, “Your Majesty, has it been decided yet what is to be done with the Kazilik?”
“It is surely safer to keep her separate from her captain, if she is such trouble. We decided that.”
“Yes, yes, but I am sure, My Emperor, that it would do quite well for her to be set apart from her fellow in France. She will not stop threatening to burn the place apart.”
Bonaparte shrugs philosophically. “But she has not.”
Dufour does not seem satisfied, and Temeraire bursts out, “Oh, but she will do it, too! Iskierka is never reasonable. Pray may we speak with her?”
“Do you know her?”
“She hatched during the battling in Turkey, Majesty, and spent a long while being carted around on Temeraire's back,” Laurence says. “She will be greatly concerned for Captain Granby's safety, but I admit, she has a temper.”
“If you can get her quiet, by all means, do it,” says Dufour. “She has already set fire to one of the storage houses – by accident, she says. She's terrifying my men.”
A lieutenant is fetched to show them the way. Laurence regrets he will not hear the rest of Dufour's report, but he expects he will learn more about the war soon enough; and in any case, there is little else he can do to interfere. He and Temeraire set out to find Iskierka.
She is set apart in a wide clearing behind Kew Palace. Aside from being chained to the ground two heavy-weights are watching her; Laurence wonders for not the first time precisely how many dragons the French army have at their disposal.
Iskierka does not seem particularly fearsome right now. She is curled up with her head tucked under her wing sulkily. Jets of steam blast out from her spines with each moody huff of breath.
The two French dragons – both Petit Chevaliers – eye them warily as they approach but do not interfere.
She jerks her head up immediately. “Oh!” she exclaims. “Yes! Help me kill them, Temeraire, these foolish dragons have taken my Granby – no, stay there!” As one of the Petit Chevaliers begins to jump away, alarmed, she looses a tongue of flame in his direction. The two dragons let out loud sounds of protest.
“Stop that!” says Temeraire severely. “We are not here to help you at all,” which is of course exactly the wrong thing to say.
“What do you mean?” Iskierka demands. “Then why are you here, what good are you?”
“We have come to tell you that Granby is in France, and I am sure doing very well; Tharkay is with him. But you had better stop being foolish, now, or I am sure they will do something horrible to him.”
“I do not see why I should listen to you,” Iskierka says. “You are traitors, I have heard all about what you have done, helping the French defeat us in such a cowardly way. I have not been a coward, or a traitor, though I am sure the French would release me if I promised to help them.”
“It does not make one a traitor to do a good thing.”
“Ha! That is very easy to say if it makes you feel better. I have been here fighting and winning prizes for England, and it took many dragons to bring me down. What have you done?”
“I have not gotten Laurence captured,” says Temeraire coldly.
Iskierka snarls and lunges at him. It is a futile gesture. The chain holding her to the ground strains. Temeraire raises his ruff and growls back.
“Stop this,” says Laurence sharply. “Iskierka, John will be quite well. Tharkay is investigating his condition as we speak, and I shall look into his safety personally when we return.”
“I suppose that would mean something if I could believe your word,” she says spitefully.
“Do not be very silly; of course you can, and now you are only being unpleasant,” says Temeraire. “I can see why the French have chained you; you are not a dragon who can be trusted at all to be sensible.” Iskierka lowers herself to the ground, glaring at them sulkily. “We will be going, now,” he adds. “Do not cause any trouble for Granby.”
Temeraire's bravado falters on the journey back. “Laurence, Iskierka was very unpleasant – and she is usually unpleasant, so that is not surprising, but she was also wrong, was she not? Surely we are not so contemptible.”
“She and others have more than enough cause to resent us, Temeraire.”
“...I do not think so,” he says quietly. “This war is not good for anyone; but Napoléon has been very kind to us, and I do not see how anyone would expect us to stay and serve the King instead, when the English only tried to make us do unpleasant things and gave bad orders.”
“It is important to remember that Bonaparte started the war; it seems he is determined to conquer the world.”
“What does one man want with the world?”
“I cannot claim to know. Perhaps no one knows, even Bonaparte himself. But many people suffer for his ambition. Consider the prisoners taken outside London, and the number who must have died in that fighting. What cause, I ask you, was worth such a fight?”
Temeraire seems to think about this as they approach the House of Parliament where Bonaparte and Soult should be. “Perhaps nothing is worth that,” he says at last. “But the British have made colonies too, and have hurt many people who do not deserve it; so if other nations have not waged war or stolen settled lands I should say it is only because they lack the ability to do it, and not that they wouldn't like to. So maybe Napoléon is not a wonderful person, but he is no worse than many leaders, and in other ways he is still better.”
“...You must wait outside, I am afraid,” says Laurence. “I will see where the Emperor and Soult have gone.”
Bonaparte means to stay in London for only a day, Laurence finds with surprise. “We will approach Loch Laggan, where reports say the remnants of the army are congregating. Lefèbvre should be returning soon with reinforcements from Pen Y Fan to hassle the English fleet.”
Laurence startles. “Pen Y Fan?”
“We have convinced most of the dragons from the English breeding grounds to work with us,” says Bonaparte with great satisfaction. “Some of them have been deployed to the north-east, but they will do quite well along the Channel.”
“Surely, supply must be an issue - “
“Lien has excellent ideas about how to stretch supply for dragons. In any case,” he adds confidently, “I do not think this shall be a long campaign.”
They tour London together – a bleak and wretched prospect, less because of any actual disrepair in the city but rather for the utter normalcy of the place. There is no lack of morale among the soldiers, who visibly swell with pride and delight to have their Emperor among them. He cuts a compelling if unorthodox figure, striding confidently through the camp still in riding leathers and long Hessian boots.
It is more dismaying, still, to note the English civilians who have not fled the city. Laurence spots two women smiling charmingly as a French lieutenant bows; one tries to answer some question in slow, halting French, laughing at her own mistakes. Unease curls in his stomach.
“Your countrymen are very accommodating,” says Bonaparte, following his line of sight. And to this he can give no answer.
Their path takes them to the Inner Temple Gardens. The place is noted for its roses, but in late January the gardens are cold and near-barren. It is an appropriately dreary place, and it is more appropriate, Laurence thinks, that Bonaparte should have only the least of what England has to offer.
“You were a navy-man, were you not?” asks Bonaparte suddenly.
“I was never fond of the sea – in Corsica it is more of a curse than a boon. Always unpredictable. This land, I thought, must be somewhat similar. An island in the middle of civilization.”
“They can hardly be compared,” Laurence says, surprised. In size alone this this must be true.
“What is real often has little enough to do with how we interpret a situation. Tell me your honest opinion of this country.”
“She is the finest in the world.”
“I have said that of France,” Bonaparte says. “I have said it many times, though I was not born a Frenchman – not really. Corsica could hardly be considered a part of the Republic then.”
“But it was a part of the Republic,” Laurence notes. And this, the Emperor must concede.
“But opinions can change, you know, as we grow wiser and see more of a situation. There is no shame, no dishonor in that. Did you know I once wrote passionate letters in defense of the Republic? And later I became a Jacobin.”
“A Jacobin!” Now, there is hypocrisy.
“I do not necessarily regret my past. Perhaps, for the time, my decisions were right. Your staunchness is admirable, Captain, but have you considered that it is also unnecessary?”
They face each under under the shadow of a hazel tree. Laurence wishes he could better see Bonaparte's face to judge his mood; it is late evening, and the distant calls of workmen and snorting horses somewhere over the garden's boundaries makes their location impossible to forget. “If I have refused you before, you must understand it is impossible for me to ever accept your offer now. You would never trust it even if I did. It is a cruel thing to extend a hand when all other paths are burnt.”
“Dearest William. I assure you, I would never suspect you of having anything less than the most honest of intentions.”
Laurence opens his mouth. The point is moot, he is about to say; he will not betray his country, and he will not support France. Then out of the corner of his eye a flash of silver glints in the starlight - leaves rustle against the wind.
His mind turns back to a night in Turkey, now nearly a year back.
He dives forward and catches Bonaparte around the middle, sending them both crashing onto the ground. A clear shot cracks the air. Laurence's shoulder flares with heat, ice, numbness, and he rolls away grappling numbly for his sword. His left arm won't move. There is a commotion among the nearby bushes as Bonaparte gains his feet and surges forward.
Laurence lets his sword drop when the Emperor marches back gripping a gentleman by the arm and holding a sword to his neck. It takes a moment, in this strange context, for the man's features to make sense.
“Woolvey?” asks Laurence incredulously. Somehow, all he can think to say is, “ - Good god, man, you are a poor shot.”
Richard Woolvey looks at him darkly.
“Are you well?” Bonaparte asks briskly.
“Well enough,” Laurence responds, and sways when he tries to stand. He cups a hand over his wound and blood leaks through his fingers.
There is light cursing, in – Italian? “Stay where you are, or I will kill you.” This, in English. Fog clouds the treeline as his shoulder is moved about. Dark hair and a ripped coat pass into view, quick flickers of lucidity. “Do not try it,” a voice warns sharply. Try what?
“Damn it, quickly - “
“I would not aggravate his injury, Your Majesty - “
“You will have your own injuries if we do not move faster than rumors, and you allow our dragons to hear of this incident before we return - ”
The pain sharpens, and the world sways like a ship being cast in a gale. Laurence turns his head and sees dark eyes looking down upon him, and the stars shining above, right before every sensation finally fades away.
“Well,” says Soult. “I suppose you have some use, at least.”
Laurence stares blankly at the man. He does not recall why he should be in an opulently furnished room instead of with Temeraire; he does not at all know why a Marshal of France is waiting for him to waken. Then his shoulder throbs with unexpected pain, startlingly close to his chest, and Laurence winces.
“The Emperor has given that sad assassin to your Temeraire to deal with,” Soult says. “Though I suppose he would have liked to run the man through himself; it is the same end for him, of course.”
Laurence moves his eyes blankly toward the ceiling. “Richard Woolvey.”
“Yes, that is the name. Did you know him? I hope he was not a friend.”
“No – a simple social acquaintance.”
“That is somewhat less awkward. He is dead, not that it does us much good. Our progress will be slowed waiting for you to recover – not that I mean to complain,” the Marshal amends, tactlessly.
“Surely you will not change your plans,” Laurence says.
“Well, the Emperor will not leave you behind,” Kellerman tells him, as though this should be perfectly obvious. “Davout and Murat will manage quite well without us an extra week, I expect. After all, who shall oppose them?”
He talks like he is sharing a joke with a French soldier. “All of England, I would expect; and her soldiers at not to be scoffed at, Sir.”
But Soult does not seem to note his tone. “Ha! Well. We shall see. A servant will be in if you require anything – I will tell that mothering dragon of yours that you are awake.”
Laurence thinks as the Marshal leaves that such reassurances will do very little to pacify Temeraire; nevertheless, he doubts he can summon the will to move.
“So, you are not dead,” a voice observes.
“I have been shot before,” Laurence answers as the Emperor enters.
“You cracked your skull as you went down – I daresay that did nearly as much damage.” Startled, Laurence reaches up and winces as his finger brushes a tender ridge of crusted flesh. “It seems I again owe you my gratitude, Captain.”
“You do not.”
“After you have saved me from an assassin - “
“Richard Woolvey,” Laurence says, “Is hardly an assassin.”
“You know the man, then?”
“I cannot account for his behavior. He is – was – a friend of my father's. Perhaps with the occupation there was some plot - “
“No, no conspiracy. He was an opportunist, that is all, and admitted as much to my men. I suppose he meant to make himself a hero through murder, and win a little honor.”
“There is no honor to that sort of killing.” says Laurence savagely.
“You have made your opinion quite clear.” Laurence flushes.
“Majesty - “
“I would think I am not so churlish as that,” Bonaparte says, leaving Laurence disconcerted. “A man who has saved my life may, I think, call me by my Christian name.”
Laurence chooses to ignore this latest absurdity. “Marshal Soult tells me plans have changed?”
“It is for the best – we can await Berthier here, and rejoin the other Marshals in the field together.”
This, then, is not good news for Britain; Berthier is one of Bonaparte's most efficient Marshals. “I have heard much of him,” Laurence admits, not willing to praise overmuch.
“I shall be glad to introduce you. He is a dear friend.”
This admission is surprising. “You seem to surround yourself with them – your Marshals and friends, they are one and the same.”
“Who else might I trust with my armies? Only my most loyal men. And my siblings, who I suppose are loyal out of obligation.”
“That may be doing them a disservice – surely no one would go so far for mere obligation.”
“Obligation and a crown, perhaps. Though, no, of course I love my brothers and sisters, even if I do not trust them. On Corsica I might have called us close; necessity demanded it; now half my family is in Italy and the rest... well, but that is my doing, of course.”
“Certainly you make none of them blush,” says Laurence, and at least that makes Bonaparte laugh.
“Well, that is true! But pride is not always affection, though it can serve just as well.”
“Pride is less painful when met with disappointment.”
“Ah. There, dear William, I am afraid we must disagree. Though of course success with one's affections is always a delight - “
Shouting interrupts them. Feet and a rattle of metal rings from the hallways, and then, outside, there comes a horrible roaring scream. Horses bewail their terror. Bonaparte jolts upright.
“The devil,” he says, all softness sharpening into steely lines. “An attack - ?”
He grabs up his sword and makes for the door; alarmed, Laurence finds that he can move after all provided he has the motivation. He swings himself around the bed, battling off the sheets, and finds his own sword on the bedside table.
Outside soldiers are rushing down the halls. Laurence lets himself be swept along, where no one, thank heavens, even glances askance at his half-clothed state. The mass of men spill outside together where he can see that the attention is all in the air.
Iskierka wheels over a line of buildings, sending out a billowing tongue of flame and twisting back above the roofs. “Where is my Granby?” She shrieks. “I know he is here! You cannot lie to me, I know it, I know it! I will burn this whole city, see if I do not! I will steal all of your gold!”
Letalis is already in the air; when he launches himself at her Iskierka rolls hastily to avoid the smaller fire-breather. They spit at each other, and Iskierka shrieking throws herself forward to grab the middle-weight's delicate wing membranes. Letalis cries shrilly as they both begin to plummet.
A Chequered Nettle rises to meet Iskierka's challenge, diving to intercept her deadly fall. She pushes away from Letalis, leaving the poor Flamme-De-Guerre to flutter clumsily toward the ground and go sprawling. Iskierka tries the same tactic again, but the French heavy-weight dodges and slashes at her with his barbed tail.
This only seems to infuriate her. Iskierka whips around her sinuous body, bowing into the hit, and snarls a cloud of fire right in the Nettle's face.
The Nettle screams and claws at her desperately. He is harnessed but unmanned, Laurence sees despairingly; perhaps there was no time, or perhaps he is one of Bonaparte's ferals. He cannot see the other heavy-weights that have been around London as of late, but as he watches a light-weight Roi-de-Vitesse streaks into the air. A courier-sized beast follows. He shakes his head.
“Give him to me!” Iskierka demands, and blows a wild streak of flame that hits only air.
Then there is another shape rising – larger, much larger. Laurence feels his breath catch. A black dragon moves to hover next to Iskierka, staring at the fight but hesitating to intervene.
“We told you that he is in France,” says Temeraire. “Please stop this.”
“I will not stop until you return my Granby, you liar!”
“Oh, but we are not lying, and we cannot return him - !”
“Then I will kill them all!” Iskierka bites at the courier, and the poor beast screams.
Temeraire watches for a moment without saying anything. Then Iskierka jerks around to claw at the injured Chequered Nettle – turning her back to him – and he dives.
Iskierka writhes as they fall together. Temeraire rakes at her back with sweeping strokes that bring up wells of dark blood, catching at the edges of the soft wing-joints. “Traitor, traitor,” she cries, and she is still crying when Temeraire and the angry Nettle pin her to the ground, still crying when she is wrapped tightly in chains and people start to bring out guns.
Laurence approaches when a crowd has formed. His wound has reopened and blood is leaking from his shoulder, so he is drawing rather more attention than before. Bonaparte is standing close to Iskierka; Lien, he notes, is not in sight. “A pity,” the Emperor says without looking at him. “She was a magnificent creature – nearly twice as large as any of our fire-breathers.”
“She does not need to die,” says Laurence quietly, though she clearly does. He can only think of John, wherever he is, alone and bitterly awaiting whatever scraps of news he might get of the war. Certain, as he might well be, that Iskierka will be docile and compliant for the French due to his own captivity.
“She cannot be controlled.”
“If she were with her captain - “
“I will not risk my men for one beast - “
The Emperor pauses. He looks at Laurence, and then back to Iskierka where she lays prostrate and miserable against the ground. A muscle works in the man's jaw, an anger that cannot be dimmed. “Defour!” he barks.
The general approaches. There are men looking at them expectantly, brandishing their guns and only waiting for an order. “Sire?”
“...She will be taken on the next transport to France, to be taken to the château de Bagatelle. I will have a message prepared for her captain. Send twelve men to guard her; and if she fights, she is to be shot.”
Defour pauses deliberately, but does not allow his face to give any hint of his thoughts. “As you command.”
Without looking at Laurence Napoléon turns and stalks away.
The soldiers begin to clear away a minute later when it is clear there will be no execution. In their midst Laurence suddenly notices Soult watching him. After a moment the Marshal walks over in front of Laurence. He looks the Englishman up and down, then speaks with slow, chilling deliberation:
“One day, Captain, you will ask too much of the Emperor. And I fear that when that time comes all of France will have reason to be sorry.”
Berthier has an intense presence, and it is easy to see why he is favored by the Emperor. He has a no-nonsense manner about him, and moves with quick, flighty movements whenever Napoléon speaks to him. He delivers his report and explains that there is no need for the French army to advance on Loch Laggan; Murat's diplomacy has failed, but now the English are mobilizing as much as they can. With a bit of bemusement, Berthier says that they seem to be preparing to head toward London – though it may be weeks before the army arrives.
Napoléon greets this news with something approaching contempt. “It is an act of foolishness. What general would give such an order?”
“It is an act of desperation,” Berthier counters. “They are starving, My Emperor. I say, let them starve and attack us when they are weak; we may keep the high ground then. And we have the Channel.”
“And London. Yes; then I suppose we shall wait,” Napoléon says. But he does not look particularly satisfied. “ - Send me that dragon captain, Tolbert; I will have a word with him.”
Berthier leaves. Soult seems strangely amused, though Laurence sees nothing at all laughable about the situation; Englishmen starving, and a war near to be fought, even if it is only being planned. “Do you have misgiving?” he prods the Emperor.
“Oh, Berthier has it right, of course it is best to wait,” says Napoléon. Then he adds, a bit irritably, “ - But waiting is horrible.”
Soult snorts with laughter. Laurence stares. “...Ah,” he says.
“Perhaps you may join the scouts, My Emperor, in searching for pockets of militia,” Soult suggests.
“I may do that,” the man agrees. “We will be busy here, I am sure, but supplies can fly without my personal attention.”
Laurence is not unfamiliar with the restlessness that can strike soldiers – he has felt it himself more than once. But seeking battle for battle's sake seems wholly irresponsible, especially for a man in Napoléon's position. He cannot quite grasp the rationale behind it. But he is certain that Napoléon is sincere; that he will go out, fight with his common men, and delight in it. And the men shall be proud, Laurence thinks, to fight under the direction of their sovereign.
“You will lead them personally?” he finds himself asking.
“Anything worth doing is worth doing in person,” Napoléon says. “Is it always best to lead from the front.”
Laurence is not sure what strange spirit possesses him to say, “I would be glad of the chance to accompany you.”
Napoléon goes very still.
For a moment, Laurence fears he has somehow overstepped; even Soult is gaping. Then he sees the way Napoléon is looking at him – his eyes riveted, brilliantly focused. And, something deeper; he is satisfied, as though now, at last, everything is coming together.
Laurence feels sinkingly certain that he has indeed misstepped – but not in quite the way he first feared.
“...You will be quite welcome,” Napoléon says. And the moment is gone. “Tomorrow, then – and do give that shoulder a proper chance to rest first. Come, Charles, I must speak with Captain Tolbert - “
Temeraire only pokes dully at his light harness as they prepare to go aloft. He does not seem excited at the prospect of their excursion, which is worrisome. “Are you well, dear?”
“Oh, I am,” he says, and will offer nothing more.
He does stiffen and glare in a rather familiar way when Lien arrives. The albino Celestial glances at him coldly, and then favors Laurence with a longer stare. As Lien typically seems to pretend he does not exist, this is disconcerting, and Temeraire possessively nudges his leg between Laurence and the white dragon's gaze,
“Surely she is not coming?” Temeraire asks plaintively, already sounding much more like himself.
“I shall ask,” Laurence says. “But we will be flying with the Emperor – it should not surprise me.”
Temeraire releases a heavy sigh that nearly knocks Laurence off his feet.
Napoléon is speaking with two colonels when Laurence finds him; they vanish suspiciously quickly. He turns to the Englishman with every appearance of being unconcerned, though there are half a dozen tightly-rolled missives clasped under his arm. “William – I hope you are looking forward to the flight,” as though it were a pleasant excursion into the countryside.
“I believe Temeraire will appreciate the opportunity,” says Laurence tactfully. “I confess to finding it surprising that Lien should choose to accompany us.”
“Madame Lien is an excellent advisor, and a clever Marshal; however, you are correct, and she is not inclined toward fighting. I had thought of prevailing upon the favor of Gemini - a feral who accompanies us – but she seems delightfully eager today.”
Laurence rather suspects that they both know why. “I see.”
An aide is standing a few metres away looking as though he is trying desperately to appear as though he is certainly not waiting for the Emperor to remember his obligations. Laurence feels abruptly abashed; an emperor has more duties than to answer a guest's unending questions, whatever the circumstances, and Laurence is also quite certain that he never meant to speak with Napoléon so much anyway. Tharkay would warn him against it, he is sure; there is something compelling about the Corsican that does no good to a man trying to remember his duty. “May I ask our heading?” he asks abruptly.
“We have reports of a relatively sizable militia presence somewhere around Northampton; Berthier sent a few more scouts just recently but these did not return.”
“I suppose we shall go with more than a few scouts.”
Napoléon looks oddly pleased. “We shall.”
The aide is edging slowly closer, glancing very anxiously at everything except Napoléon. “Thank you,” says Laurence abruptly. He makes his excuses and moves away.
When he has made a safe distance, he glances back to see Napoléon in deep conversation with the aide and three more officers; there must be an endless amount of details to address concerning the running of a camp, much less the war, and yet the Emperor shows no qualms putting them aside to speak with him.
“I have not the slightest notion of what I am doing,” Laurence says aloud.
Nearly four thousand troops, most of them Berthier's, are to set out under Napoléon's command along with the first battalion of the Chasseurs-á-Pied de la Garde. The dragons have to be convinced to remain behind for the first few hours, which is a strangely difficult task. “They shall see you coming too swiftly,” Laurence insists. “You may land adjacent to the site when we draw near, and the battalion will send flares if Lien is needed.”
“I suppose I am not to be involved at all, of course,” says Temeraire gloomily. “And, oh, you all walk so very slowly... what is that?”
Laurence looks. “They are preparing supplies for the horses,” he says, confused.
“Is Lien not carrying supplies?”
“I would be very much surprised if she were.”
Temeraire bristles. “That is very nice, to go around in a war without wanting to fight or carry food for anyone or do anything useful at all; I do not understand why she is a Marshal. I would be quite willing to carry supplies, and would be not at all sorry; it is much easier for us, Laurence.”
“It is a waste to have you fly alone,” says Laurence reluctantly.
Of course he would not want to offer Temeraire's direct aid in the war, but it is quite different to prevent people from starving in the wilderness. After only a little moral wrestling he tells the quartermaster that Temeraire will carry foodstuffs, and these only; the man is delighted nevertheless.
Strangely, Temeraire is ambivalent once this offer is accepted.
“Oh,” he says, scuffing a talon against the ground. “Only – I did not think you would actually ask, Laurence – perhaps we do not have to do it, after all?”
Baffled: “Have you changed you mind? Are you injured?”
“Not in the least!” Temeraire draws himself up, offended. “I am quite capable, it is only – well, you have not said, Laurence – you are not upset about Iskierka? What I did?”
“My dear, why should I be upset?”
“She said I was a traitor, again, for hurting her.”
“If you had not intervened, the French dragons or soldiers may well have killed her. And she may have killed innocents; there were Englishmen in those houses, too. You acted quite rightly.”
Temeraire sags in relief. “I am so very glad,” he says. “It seems very hard to me, Laurence, to not be a traitor. I do not understand in the least why it should be so – and can I not just do what is right and correct, and not worry about such things?”
“It is neither right nor correct to be a traitor,” Laurence answers, “Which is why people are so concerned about it at all.”
“Yes, but if there is a choice between allowing something awful to happen, or getting a bad reputation and breaking a promise, I should think I would rather help someone. It seems to me like trying so hard to not be a traitor is only a cowardly thing, if it means that loyalty and honor makes people follow bad orders and ignore their own ideas.”
“Loyalty can inspire great bravery,” Laurence says slowly. He does not think Temeraire understands the implication of his own words, but a coward is not something Laurence is often accused of being.
“I should not want to depend on something like that for bravery anyway,” Temeraire says. “Should not people be able to come to their own decisions, and be committed to causes because something is right to do, instead of because they promised they would do it? Someone may be brave for many reasons, but to make them care is harder.”
“Perhaps it is too much to make all of a country care; to appeal to honor is another way of creating moral responsibility.”
“You say that, but I know you will have morals even if people call you a traitor, Laurence. And I also know that you care very much.”
This, Laurence finds hard to argue.
The dragon is left discontented, but does not protest when the time comes for the soldiers to march. Laurence finds it disconcerting to ride his loaned destrier at the head of the long ranks with the Emperor; aside from the uncertainty over his own position, he is acutely aware of his own nationality, though he is unsure of how widely this fact has been circulated. He is wearing black, which does not fit too badly with the dark blue coats of the French infantry, but of course he has no proper place.
Dressed without explanation in the uniform of a British lieutenant, Napoléon himself seems to have no conception of any awkwardness. But that, Laurence thinks ruefully, is nothing new.
They make good time – excellent time. Speed has always been a marked trait of the Grande Armée. Skirting towns while trying to be discreet with a party of more than four-thousand is an onerous task, but they are approaching Upper Stowe by nightfall with the intent of circling around Northampton from the North. If the militia is anywhere near that town, it will be to the upper Northwest or lower South-east, in the dense farmlands and forest. Most likely the Northwest, Napoléon predicts as the camp settles for the night.
Temeraire and Lien approach camp as evening is falling, flying very low to the ground. Temeraire confides, as he is relieved of his supply of foodstuffs by eager soldiers, that he does not much like flying alone after soldiers. “You could all get lost very easily in this country,” he says severely. “Even if it is very small,” which it likely does seem, in comparison to some of the places they have been.
But though he glances warily and suspiciously at Lien, he seems content to fall asleep at once, leaving Laurence to wander the camp for want of activity.
He yet skirts the edges of the camp, not quite willing to immerse himself in the sea of blue uniforms and glinting bayonets. Men look up sometimes as he passes, then either glance away carelessly or mutter. One or two nod their heads. This is almost more unnerving, that a French encampment should show no alarm in his presence.
But it does not seem like an alien place. Here is a man sewing a patch in his breeches, poorly, his comrades laughing at his clumsy hands; they will probably help him mend it later. There is someone writing a letter on crumpled parchment. Men all over are restlessly checking their weapons, either sharpening their swords or pulling apart their guns; and on the other end of things, he sees a soldier asleep sitting up, jolting to wakefulness every few seconds like he isn't quite ready to rest yet.
It is not at all an alien scene. He could be standing by any encampment in the world and listening to the grumbling complaints of privates eating their dinners, or the more-quiet complaints of their officers who are trying to make an example but are not happy about it. Still, there is a sense of ease to the place; even the complaints sound half-obligatory.
“How large do you think this militia is?” asks one man nearby.
“Does it matter? We're with old Boney himself; we will rout them sure enough!”
Laurence spots the man in question standing apart from the camp near a stand of trees. His head is tilted toward the fading light; he looks wholly unremarkable, clad now in new riding-leathers and lacking any signification of rank. Laurence has seen Napoléon in splendid formal wear at Tuileries, but it seems that on the field he prefers to dress like the most ragged soldier imaginable. Perhaps it is from a sense of camaraderie, or mere preference; perhaps it is something more, the same inclination that leads a man who is becoming master of Europe to head a middling battalion of 4,000 men out into the field.
Laurence approaches. Napoléon turns at the sound of his step and his hand twitches once toward his hip. He nods when he sees Laurence.
“I am glad you have come, William,” he says absently, then adds, “Morale is high; it is always good to get an idea of such a thing before a battle.”
“Your people seem at ease.”
“We have a history of success.”
Laurence inclines his head.
They stand silently together; Napoléon continues to stare at the sky as though it will reveal its secrets to him. The moment stretches on.
“...I confess, I still do not understand why I am here.”
Napoléon does him the kindness of not pretending to misunderstand. “Do you know,” he says, “I have long understood that Temeraire's egg was not meant for me. I was pleased when it was sent – honored and thrilled at the potential and the implications – but when it went to you, I was not upset in the least.”
“I have heard otherwise.”
“You have heard wrong. The little red man of destiny told me, dear William, that the partner of that egg would help bring France victory and peace – I did not understand what he meant, however. I thought I was supposed to be that partner, but, ha! I knew when reports of the Amitié's loss came in that you would come to us one day.”
Laurence does not understand in the least what Napoléon is talking about. “The little red man?” he addresses first.
“He told me many more things, after,” Napoléon says, looking at him again in a way that Laurence does not quite understand. “ - that I must be careful, among them. I must say it is very frustrating, to be careful.”
“I suppose it would be,” for such a man as Napoléon, at any rate. “However, I am afraid to admit I still do not understand.”
Napoléon does not seem bothered by this. “And I can already see he spoke truly,” he says, as though half to himself. “And already – already, I come to value you dearly. I hope that you choose to stay, when this fighting is over.”
Lauence rather does not know how to react to this proclamation. “ - Majesty, I - “ he falters. “ - I had not thought circumstances had changed,” he says at last, recovering himself.
Napoléon seems to be looking through him. “Then I must make greater efforts,” he muses.
Baffled in the extreme, Laurence turns to look out again over the army. He wonders who this 'red man' could be. An advisor? Napoléon follows his gaze.
“You should know I resented my initial years in the army,” Napoléon says. “When I had leave I would return to Corsica and fight against the French for independence – I am sure I would have been thought a traitor, but I did not see it as anything such. Is it strange, do you not think, that we can fight so hard to kill men and then speak civilly over high tables? That is what happens at the end of things.”
“It should always be a goal to speak civilly, and to have dignity in war – but it should not be considered strange that people will fight to protect what they believe.”
“And that is why my Armée fights,” Napoléon says. “We want that lasting peace – but what is peace without justice, without humanity? Captain, you cannot understand the changes in France since the Revolution, since my own coup. I have heard the judging words of the world, but they do not speak of the equal chances offered to nobles and peasants alike, the men we have freed from servitude, the liberty given to Christians and Jews and Muslims as equals. My enemies cry outrage when their castles fall, but of course they say nothing of the schools being built in all our territories. Europe will be stronger when it is united, when it is together and can share in our prosperity.”
“When it is united under you,” says Laurence softly.
“Is that thought unbearable?” Napoléon demands. “I do not think I have ruled poorly thus far.”
“No. No, Napoléon, no one would accuse you of that.”
The Emperor watches him. Laurence struggles to find a rebuttal, but he is weary, so weary of arguing the same grinding argument. “Your people love you,” he finds himself saying instead. “And I can well understand the cause.”
Napoléon pauses. “You say that as though you do not understand the reaction you have on others,” he says. “We are not so different, I think.”
Laurence looks away and mutely shakes his head; Napoléon does not pursue his questioning. They stand together overlooking the encampment as the sun falls and the moon ripens broad and beaming over the encampment.
“A token of good fortune,” Napoléon calls it.
Soldiers shake off the frost from their boots in the morning before moving onward. Temeraire is disconsolate, but as Laurence tells him, “You may easily rejoin us, my dear. Watch the sky for our signal; we will call if we need you early.”
He does not verbalize his motives for staying with the infantry instead of Temeraire; indeed he hardly knows his own reasoning, though surely there is something to be said for observing Napoléon's actions. But the Emperor can hardly be said to be planning anything extraordinary.
Two hours walking puts them near Brockhall, heading Northwest. Nearly all the land around is farmland, so every patch of trees is a relief. They are headed rather closer to the town than Laurence might recommend, but it is only in this area that there is a consistent line of tree coverage which might hide them from the sight of prying farmers.
They are just about to breach the line of such a copse of trees when shots ring out, and through the green foliage brilliant spots of red burst into the open.
“Ambush! To arms!”
Riflemen in the front ranks of the English columns are dropping to the ground and taking aim; another row stand over them. The French, more fond of brunt attack, surge forward heedless of the fire and close the distance swiftly. Laurence is pressed forward by the swell of the column, and he puts his hand to his sword but does not draw it. The redcoats are his countrymen, and too familiar. He experiences a strange moment of disconnect; who does he fight?
Then a shot goes roaring past his cheek, leaving his ears ringing. Laurence has to withdraw his oriental blade to block a slash from a red-coated private. This answers the question, then, quite against his will.
Laurence blocks three swings in quick succession, losing ground; his opponent is a bad swordsmen but does not seem to know it. Emboldened, the man makes worse mistakes, flinging himself after Laurence frantically. It is half-instinct to take the opening – to dodge and slash at the unprotected skin between shoulder and chest – but the man freezes, gaping at him in surprise.
“Find an easier fight!” Laurence demands desperately.
Perhaps it seems like a taunt; enraged, the man stiffens and raises his blade. Laurence swings.
The redcoat dies soundlessly, and his body falls unnoticed amid the clamor of fighting. Someone else immediately moves to try and take his place, but Laurence backpedals and then twists away.
Gaining a sense of the field is difficult under current conditions, but Laurence is spared the task of trying to direct anyone. He does, however, notice something he cannot abide. He fights to push his way back against the ranks, glad that the French seem to assume his precedence and move to let him through. “Take it down, damn you! Do you mean to kill him?”
A young man in a somewhat silly, pompous uniform stares back at him. He does not even have a weapon at hand, though he is trying to reach the front. “What?”
“We are outnumbered – They may yet take the field, and they will give no mercy if they know the Emperor is here.”
“But the eagle is - !”
“The eagle is a damned red flag under their noses!”
“Listen, Pierre, he was with the big hats,” says the second standard-bearer. They drop down the flag which signifies Napoléon's personal presence on the field.
This persuasion accomplished, Laurence hesitates over what action to take next. He has no desire to return to fighting against his countrymen. He is saved the trouble of wondering when Napoléon appears next to him carrying something beneath his jacket. “Come with me – all three of you!” The two strangers gape at them. “We are getting reinforcements.”
Laurence only has time to wonder, confusedly, who these reinforcements are supposed to be before he is forced to chase after the Emperor.
While they run Napoléon waves down a Captain of the Imperial Guard, calling out orders even as they dodge through the shifting mass of men. “Gather fifty of the Guard, and whatever enlisted men you need – form two or three rows behind the treeline in the rear – wait for my signal - “
The Captain seems to grasp something which Laurence is failing to understand. Fifty men, even fifty of the famed Imperial Guard, cannot save this battle through surprise.
Napoléon spots the hapless standard-bearers and insists they must stay by his side, too. But the famed eagles are still lowered, remaining level with the ground like lances.
It does not seem likely that Napoléon Bonaparte would run from a battle, and yet to all appearances he is doing precisely that. If his men notice, they give no sign of discouragement; ranks close tightly in the spaces Napoléon has left, and opposing soldiers are heard shouting their dismay over the clash of metal. “Savage dogs,” Laurence hears; the words are shouted in now-foreign English. The French soldiers are giving no quarter to protect their Emperor.
They crash out of the French ranks, and from there it takes several long, agonizing minutes to circle the battle, even hurtling headlong as they are. Noise of the skirmish cannot be ignored, and agonized cries rise to their ears. But none of the Guard falter or suggest turning back, and Laurence wonders if they share his own doubts at all.
Near the rear of the conflict these men are set to spread out some distance from the end of the English forces, but as they settle in to wait Laurence and Napoléon continue on with the standard-bearers. Laurence is now wholly baffled.
When the sounds of the battle have nearly disappeared, Napoléon abruptly halts. They are standing in a sizable field, and Napoléon suddenly reaches into his oddly-bulging coat and pulls out a bundle of flares.
Finally something about the situation seems sensible, but: “Two dragons could help, but they may not be able to change the course of a battle.”
“Then we must present more than two dragons to the enemy,” Napoléon declares, and sends up a flare.
It arches into the sky in a brilliant burst of light. Napoléon pauses a minute, then begins to set up another; silently Laurence takes a third flare and begins to prepare it.
They run low quickly, but there are still two left when one of the standard-bearers lets out a sound of a alarm and Laurence looks up to see six redcoats burst into the field not twenty meters away.
They do not seem to recognize Napoléon, thank Heaven, or there would be a much more extreme reaction; but upon sight of the standard one man exclaims, “A cuckoo!” and draws his musket.
“Hang on,” another says as Laurence and Napoléon raise their swords; the frightened standard-bearers, unused to combat, are holding long knives in one arm each. “That kind means a Marshal, doesn't it? Who's the Marshal?”
A lieutenant standing behind – the most senior officer of the group – scowls and pushes himself forward. “Do you surrender yourselves?” He calls.
“Never,” Napoléon swears.
The man looks unimpressed. “Grab that one alive,” he says, gesturing to Laurence in his unlabeled black coat.
This command necessarily hampers the use of guns, and Laurence uses it to his advantage. He pushes himself thoughtlessly in front of the Emperor, glancing around only swiftly enough to see the still-frozen French soldiers standing with their useless flags. “Are those the most important things on this field?” Laurence demands; the typical answer would be, yes, if Napoléon were not present. “You must make your choice - “
And then he must turn back, because the fight is upon him.
Napoléon is at his side a moment later, covering his poor shoulder despite Laurence's attempts to maneuver him away. Perhaps it is this sight, and not Laurence's words, which spur on the two behind them. With cries of Vive l'Emperour! they drop the standard into the dirt and rush headlong at the fight.
The English seem to think nothing of this sudden passion, even if they find it unwelcome; Napoléon cuts down one of the privates, his sword cutting the man's shoulder down to his hip. Laurence blocks a dozen blows before he thrusts his sword through the gut of another officer but the blade catches between this man's ribs; he is forced to abandon it so he can duck under a swinging slash, moving away briefly from the fight and waiting for an opening to grab another sword.
He is just steeling himself to leap at the knees of the lieutenant, who is harrying one of the bloodied and panting standard-bearers, when a horrible sound shatters through the air. It is loud enough to give an impression of silence, making the ears ring and shudder; a moment later a black shape descends into the field with brutal efficiency and sweeps away the enemy.
A flare of white follows and Napoléon vanishes from his spot next to Laurence, plucked up by golden talons; Lien comes close enough that her foreleg brushes his skin and sends him stumbling.
The English soldiers lay dead or dying on the ground. Temeraire lands swiftly and wraps himself around Laurence, snarling suspiciously at the pale French officers. In the air, a quick word seems to pass between Napoléon and Lien; then she drops and plucks them up, too, and also takes the flag.
The officers are trembling, but they set the standard billowing on Lien's shoulder, and Laurence thinks he begins to understand. “That will be quite the signal for the Guards,” he murmurs, feeling a chill of horror. The French cannot win this fight – it will be a travesty for him to allow that to happen – but what else might he do?
“Oh, are we flying?” asks Temeraire, and without prompting picks up Laurence and puts the captain on his back. Laurence scrambles to hook himself onto the Celestial's harness. Then Temeraire follows Lien into the sky.
They fly sweepingly over the battle, and Lien releases another terrible, sudden roar as they appear over the back ranks of the English. Below them the hidden Imperial Guard leap from their spots among the thin treeline, charging the startled rear, while on Lien the standard-bearers raise their flags in triumph.
Cheers rise from the French ranks. Cries of panic and alarm sweep through the English, some of them coming to a complete standstill as they look at Napoléon's well-known dragon. Laurence can only imagine what they are imagining – a far greater force following what was only an advance group, for surely the Emperor himself would not deign to go anywhere without a great accounting of men.
Lien hovers menacingly, making no move to attack, and Laurence puts a hand against Temeraire's side as he feels the dragon tremble with confused eagerness. He watches in resignation as the meager English group surrenders.
“Your assistance was invaluable,” says Napoléon.
The journey back to London is slow going, and louder; the battalion is making less effort to be inconspicuous, and the English soldiers are complaining bitterly now that they realize they have been fooled. But they have lain down their arms and given surrender; honor demands that they stand by it even if they could reach their cannons and other equipment.
The militia does not greatly outnumber the French battalion, but it is much larger than Napoléon had reason to expect.
“It was also not expected,” the Emperor adds.
“It did not even occur to me to do otherwise,” says Laurence quietly.
He has been unable to cease thinking of this. Would the army have surrendered so easily had they seen only one Celestial descending upon their army, instead of two? Would Napoléon have even been able to signal Lien without Laurence to fend off the lost cavalryman? Perhaps – but Laurence will never know.
He does know that some strange new sense of duty forbids the idea of allowing Napoléon to be killed, even by the hand of another; his conscience is at war.
Napoléon seems satisfied. “This is not a large victory, but it will certainly raise the spirits of our men, and I daresay hamper whatever is left of the opposing army. My men have interrogated some of the privates; this company was headed to Coventry to rendezvous with more militiamen in a week, and the army a few days after that. We may be able to get the jump to them.” Napoléon looks thoughtful. “ - Of course, there is a chance they make regular communications with that camp. All officers have denied it, but one cannot be certain.”
“We will return to London first, I am sure?”
“Yes; perhaps Soult will investigate Coventry. We will need to begin preparing for the full force of the army, and I will need Berthier for that.” Napoléon glances at him. “I had thought, perhaps, to part with you here if you should prefer to make a detour?”
Laurence is startled. “A detour?”
Has his preoccupation been so evident as to warrant dismissal? “Nottinghamshire is not so very far from here,” says Napoléon.
Laurence stiffens. “ - I – No. That is kind of you; however in all luck my family will have departed to Scotland.”
“That I doubt. My officers should have assured them of their safety at the estate; it would have been foolish to leave, when they were more safe there then anywhere else.”
“...I was not aware.” It pains Laurence to say, “You have my thanks.”
“Then you will go?”
Laurence shakes his head and reaches up uncomfortably to adjust his collar. “No. I am gratified to hear they are well, however,” he adds sincerely.
“You do not wish to visit your family?” Napoléon presses.
“I am sure they are quite otherwise occupied dealing with their tenants under present circumstances,” Laurence evades. More likely, his father would throw him out the door on sight.
Napoléon seems to understand him anyway. He narrows his eyes. “Any parent should be honored to have a hero of the Empire in the family.”
“That may very well be true in France.”
Napoléon observes him narrowly a moment. “Well,” he says at last, “There is enough to do in London, at any rate; you will not be bored.”
So it is that the now-swollen group heads more slowly back to London, where the prisoners are some of them quartered with willing families still in the town – these mostly the captive officers – and many more are settled in the center of the troops outside the city until ships can come to draw them to France. They await fates as prisoners at Dartmoor or living in wretched conditions on moored ships.
Of course, even the enlisted men may find freedom sooner than expected, Soult tells him in what is probably meant to be an encouraging manner. “We will have no need for prisoners when England is under the rule of the Empire!”
The Marshal is flush with energy, pleased that he will have a chance for action before the central engagement. Soult has been appointed to set off with his men in two days to find favorable spots around Coventry for an ambush against the rest of the hidden militia. For his part Laurence finds Temeraire near Kew Palace and goes to him.
“You are content?” he asks as Temeraire regards the French-occupied city with restless eyes. It should not wholly surprise him to learn otherwise; their situation must repulse anyone with a modicum of decency.
“Oh, yes, only – would it perhaps be possible, Laurence - “
“Perhaps we could read together?” Temeraire bursts out. “Or go flying, alone – it has been some time, and I am certain of course that there is much happening in the town, but if you are not occupied - “
Laurence is stunned. “Of course – I am dearly sorry, Temeraire, if I have neglected you. I have been distracted, but that is no excuse.”
“Oh, I do not mind that; only, you are not angry?”
Laurence reaches out to touch Temeraire's foreleg, looking up into the Celestial's anxious blue eyes. “No, dear - you are not to blame for anything,” he says sadly.
Temeraire proclaims himself happier to read than fly, so Laurence borrows a book from a young French captain. It is a horrendous novel; he thinks longingly that it might be possible, now, to procure good English literature, if only they could find someone unafraid of them. He does not mention the thought to Temeraire.
He is struggling to stay awake over the protagonist's melodramatic recitation of his woes when Temeraire abruptly shifts and says, “Laurence, that is no soldier; I believe she wants to speak with you.”
Laurence blinks and looks up. Temeraire is distracted by a figure approaching them very cautiously from the path, and he is surprised indeed to see a woman in English dress. A moment later the book slides from his grasp, forgotten, and he stands.
It is Edith.
To his gaze she looks as beautiful as ever, but there are dark circles under her eyes. The bones of her wrists jut out a little too sharply to be quite healthy. Ignoring the lack of warmth in her assessment, he begins with great awkwardness to say, “I cannot begin to express my remorse - “
“Then do not,” she says, and he falls silent.
He would never have gone to Edith after the death of Richard Woolvey; it would have been repulsively unkind, much as he wished to apologize, and a great selfishness on his part. But now that she is here, of her own volition, he finds that he does not know what to say.
“I am glad that I married Richard and not you,” she says bluntly. “He was brave in the end. And you will always be a traitor.”
“Oh, you are her,” says Temeraire suddenly. Edith eyes him warily. Laurence says, “Please do not intervene, Temeraire.”
To Edith, he says, “I should not have expected you to stay in the city.”
“Our son grew ill. Measles.”
“A baby,” says Laurence, thinking of the anguish of raising a fatherless child in this soldier-filled city. “Edith – should there be anything I might do, anything at all - “
“He is dead.”
The words lay between them for a moment, then break in the wind. “You have my greatest condolences - “
“What I want is your neck in a noose, and my Richard returned to me – I want Napoléon Bonaparte dead,” Edith tells him. “Can you give me that?”
The first request is not impossible or even unlikely. One day he may meet the fate he deserves. But the other - “No.”
She watches him quietly. “You are not the man I remember. The man I wished to marry.”
This, at least, is an easy thing to answer. “No. I am not.”
Temeraire takes Laurence flying the next day. They are close enough that a flight to the ocean is easy enough, and Temeraire is glad to fly low and skim across the ocean. The salt-spray is a familiar sensation, and Laurence does not even mind the damage to his clothes. The dragon catches a wriggling tunny and toys with a massive skate for awhile before plucking out turbots one by one. “Better than porridge,” he decides.
They are drifting near a vessel adorned with the tricolor. Laurence takes up his signal flags and waves the French signals, told to him at Dover covert, to indicate an allied dragon of France.
After a moment the ship confirms understanding and safe passage. Laurence stows the flags away and contemplates throwing them in the ocean.
“Laurence?” Temeraire asks hopefully. “Do you think we might find a dolphin?”
There is a party being held at one of the English houses and most of the officers are in attendance. Laurence does not go near the place but he watches the Frenchmen go by one by one, or sometimes in pairs. They are dressed in handsome jackets and shining boots, and they talk and laugh under the lowering sun as though this were any evening gala. Tomorrow, many of them will be setting out with Soult to try to kill English soldiers; maybe the man hosting the party has a son in that militia, Laurence thinks morbidly, or a cousin.
Occasionally the passing officers are escorted by woman – English woman, of course, in long fine dresses and glittering jewels. There is no privation; there are no signs of suffering. Napoléon has assured Laurence that with a large section of the Channel taken there has been a steady flow of supplies, and raiding has been scarce. This will be a short, humane war – if the English roll onto their bellies.
Surely his country will fight to the last – but this display says something different. Laurence retreats from the scene and returns to Temeraire.
But Temeraire is not alone.
Temeraire hesitates when Laurence arrives, looking between him and the guest doubtfully. “I would speak with you alone,” Soulr says.
Laurence nods, and Temeraire, though he sighs, seems not to actually fear for Laurence's safety with the Marshal. The two walk out of earshot.
“Have you been enjoying the company of London tonight?” Soult asks pointedly.
“I went for a walk – alone,” is the flat reply.
There is a long silence, unhurried. Laurence does not appreciate the feeling of being appraised. He been appraised repeatedly, by a thousand eyes, since that first drastic flight to the Emperor. But he waits nevertheless, and this patience is rewarded.
“The men say you helped in the battle,” Soult says. “Are you a proper man of France, now? Are you loyal to us?”
Laurence swallows past his initial revulsion. “Sir, no,” he says. “I hope to never be called that – however - “
Soult looks at him expectantly.
Laurence turns to look far across the field to where Napoléon is sitting alone with Lien. His hand is resting against the Celestial's broad white leg. Alone, the Emperor of France, the Nightmare of Europe, looks like some small figure from a fairytale painting. Lien bows down to nose at his side as the sun lights their silhouettes in a soft halo.
Soult follows his gaze. “Ah,” he says. “ - Well, perhaps that is good enough.”
Soult's forces return triumphant with three-thousand militia prisoners. Then there is a waiting-game.
Davout's presence in England is no longer a secret after the Battle of London. But he still has some 19,000 men and 29 dragons. Napoléon is fond of rear attacks, Laurence is starting to see. He means to try one yet again, and even if the British are expecting it now fighting on all sides is not a pleasant thing.
Lefèbvre's forces will be staying to the west in preparation of utterly surrounding the British during the battle between the two forces, which will occur at Shoeburyness for the simple reason that this is where Nelson has openly congregated the mass of the Grande Armée. The British do not dare wait for him to pick off more of their troops; they will have one decisive fight to end matters.
Lefèbvre was originally dispatched with 8,000 men. He has since received more, and there is more news – news Laurence receives with horror: Lefèbvre has liberated the ferals at Pen Y Fan. Many of the dragons have been set loose on the countryside or sent with small bands of French soldiers, but the bulk of the dragons travel with Lefèbvre himself. Between Lefèbvre's forces, Davout, and the Napoléon's own men, the British soldiers may well find themselves surrounded by the French and the hostile sea.
But of course, Laurence does not yet know the plans of the British. They may very well have some trump, some unknown stroke of genius strategy -
“And then of course,” Napoléon tells him at one point, “We will have Murat's men, but how they shall even fit into the formation - “
Murat arrives ahead of the English, and his men fit in quite neatly after all. The Emperor's brother-in-law is a cheerful man, dressed absurdly in vibrant tricolors and ruffled sashes that swing when he walks. Even his horse is covered with the fur of some foreign and colorful creature, draped all over with colorful spangles that jingle fearlessly.
He seems to know exactly who Laurence is and is delighted to meet him.
“Yes, yes! Walk with me, Prince Laurence; I have greatly desired to speak with you.”
“Please, I am no prince,” Laurence protests, resigned, even as he follows Murat's bouncing strides.
“Then call me Joachim!” Murat misses the point entirely. “Are you not impressed with the might of France? I am sorry to say your lords and admirals here would not surrender; but I suppose we shall have some good fighting, and I have not properly warred in awhile. Come now, will you take a message for me?”
“I suppose my dear brother will be taking you back to France with him when we win; if I should die, my dearest Caroline will weep horribly, but she should have a letter to sigh over. That is romantic, I think. Do not tell her I said so or she will burn it up. Here - “
Laurence watches with amazement as Murat withdraws a quill and parchment from his many-fold pockets and begins to write. But he accepts the missive, unable to refuse such a request, and Murat seems pleased.
“Now,” says Murat, “Show me the sights.”
There are not many 'sights', Laurence thinks, worth viewing in this strange and warped London. But he complies, walking patiently as Murat exclaims and comments on the cities destroyed architecture, saying here, “What an odd building,” and, “is that where the fire-breather attacked? Marvelous.”
The soldiers they pass are clearly delighted to see Murat, and also show no signs of the same tremulous awe evident around Napoléon. “The best of France are here,” they are saying. “The Emperor himself and his brother. We cannot fail.”
“Il est notre homme du destin.”
Laurence is not sure he has heard correctly. It seems like an odd non-sequitor; perhaps his colloquial French is not yet perfect. He makes an inquiry with Murat to be sure there is not some meaning he misunderstands.
In English: “Man of destiny, yes!” Murat switches back to French. “That is my brother.”
“I am sorry, I do not understand.”
Murat is beaming. He reaches up to balance his ridiculous hat. “They say that he is chosen by God to lead all men – to unite the nations under France and bring our enlightenment to the world. It is a new era, Prince Laurence – I am sorry, Will, do you prefer Will? - it is his time, and Heaven has ordained it. Even you have been a gift in that regard.”
“I beg your pardon?”
Murat smiles. “Ah, has he not told you of that? No matter. Well, if you do not see it yet, you will; such success as is enjoyed by my brother can be due to nothing less but divine favor.”
“He is only a man.”
“He is blessed, Will. And tomorrow you will see why people say that.”
At the end of things, Laurence does not have to agonize long about how to spend the battle. This is because it is, in truth, horrifically one-sided.
Even were ten Celestials to aid the English, there could be no chance of redeeming them.
He stands with Napoléon and Defour as they observe the field and give instructions. Above, Lien drifts in lazy circles to survey the fighting; after an hour she comes down for an easy nap. Beside Laurence Temeraire looks entirely miserable.
One of Lefèbvre's dragon-courier's comes up at the two-hour mark to say that Nelson's fleet has come up from Copenhagan and tried to join the fighting. It is being occupied in the Channel by the bristling French fleet, and many of Lefèbvre's dragons detach to help. Laurence listens with interest, but the fleet is chased away within two hours, five of her ships burnt or otherwise lost. The French continue to hold the Channel.
In the center-field men are cut down like red wheat; neat human rows form, break, and fall, then organize again to desperately repel the enemy. The fighting is both monotonous and terrible.
The generals around Laurence are watching the slanted carnage with satisfaction even as they argue further tactics; Laurence can only hope to find one source of sympathy who might share in his horror, but Temeraire, of course, is not watching any of this.
Temeraire is watching Maximus and Lily.
The remnants of their formation – these two heavy-weights with Dulcia and another unknown lightweight – are fighting desperately to keep up against the hordes of French dragons. There are few English dragons in the air; perhaps ten more, mostly light-weights. Even without special tactics, the battle would be a desperate thing; they are completely outnumbered, and dozens of French beasts lay dozing beyond the battlefield as they wait to relieve their comrades in the air. It is a strange sort of battle like Laurence has never seen – blocks of heavyweights slamming through the English dragons to scramble them as lightweights and even couriers zip around the larger dragons to claw them in passing. And, he realizes, this must also be an effective boarding tactic; Lily suddenly flies away from the main group, twisting and crying, before hanging her head and flying off the field. Moments later a French courier-dragon goes to her before returning behind Empire lines.
Temeraire lets out a low, keening cry which is quiet by his standards but serves quite well to silence every officer in within a hundred meters. Laurence finds Napoléon looking at him by the next tent, expression impossible to read. Laurence shakes his head. In response the Emperor turns to his nearest captain and jabs a finger at a diagram, whispering harshly.
Temeraire does not care for any of this. He is looking in the direction of Lily, who is only a tiny, motionless shadow against the frantic glint of swords and smoke coming from the field's infantry. Laurence cannot see where the courier-landed, but he feels this is a safer path – and the person at the end is far less likely to spit acid at them if annoyed. “I am sure Lily would be glad if we should see Harcourt; and we are of little use here,” he admits.
Temeraire straightens immediately, and Laurence moves to climb up his foreleg.
“Excuse me – is there a problem?”
It is a French general – Laurence does not recognize him. “Sir, I do not know of one.”
“Then I see no reason to go flying about and disturbing the field; you can certainly only confuse matters.”
“We have no intentions of interfering with the battle.”
“I am sure. Nevertheless - “
“General Perrot.” Napoléon's voice slaps against the wind. “Perhaps you have some actual contribution to make to the discussion?”
Perrot spins around. Napoléon hardly has to raise his voice to be heard; at the sign of his displeasure the surrounding officers fall awkwardly silent. “My Emperor – I am only - “
“You are only - ?”
Perrot clasps his hands behind his back. He regards the Corsican, then stiffly walks back and makes a quick bow. “Nothing. Shall we continue with the matter of the 11th infantry?”
Laurence meets Napoléon's eyes over Perrot's shoulder. Then he turns away and clambers up to Temeraire's neck, latching a hook against the Celestial's breastplate.
They rise from the ground and, this time, no one moves to stop them.
“Oh, stand down men,” says the French aviator. “It is the Good Englishman; how do you do, Sir.”
Laurence receives this appellation with some blankness, then decides to ignore it in favor of more pressing concerns. “Very well, thank you. May I inquire about the prisoner you took just recently?”
“The lady captain? Are you wanting to speak with her? She is taking tea with Deschamps and Borde.”
Of this Laurence is dubious; he cannot imagine Harcourt passively 'taking tea' during a battle, and indeed upon being ushered to where the liberated infantrymen are standing with Harcourt he finds her glowering coldly at the surrounding soldiers. Many of them are wearing their arms openly, though their language is nonthreatening; would she break a parole to escape and reach Lily, he wonders? Under present circumstances any officer's honor might be tested.
Upon seeing him her face falls briefly; then she masks the expression, tightening her mouth into a twist of anger. “So. You are here at last.”
Laurence looks at the French aviators. “Might we have a word?” he asks.
Soon he and Harcourt are sitting alone and the noise of the others is a distant backdrop. Even the fighting could almost be forgotten, if not for the dim and disconcerting thunder of cannons. “I am glad to see you well,” Laurence says.
“Is that what will say to me, after all these months? That you are glad to see me well? I am not glad to see you well; I would be glad to you both in chains, or shot.”
“Harcourt!” Temeraire cries, hurt.
“Do not act injured when you have stolen Lily from me.”
Laurence lowers his eyes. “Your anger is justified.”
“Well, of course it is. But do you know, Laurence, that we applauded you at first? We were all sorry to see you go to old Boney, but we were not sorry the French had the cure. Only the most hard-hearted aviators could be. The Admiral herself sang your praises and had shouting matches with the admiralty defending your decision.”
Laurence closes his eyes.
“And then people started whispering,” Harcourt remembers. “A big black dragon, flying around France... well, who knew why Boney wanted you moving around over there. But when we heard you were here, with that Corscican himself...”
They both pause. Laurence looks away.
“I told everyone it had to be a lie,” Harcourt says. “A trick, even. What is the trick, Will?”
“I wish I could satisfy you with an answer.”
“How do you justify it to yourself?” she demands desperately. “Tell me that. I deserve to know that.”
“I do not deny it, and if – if I could explain - “
“Do not give me excuses.”
The comforting weight of Temeraire is pressed behind him. Murmurs of conversation rise from Harcourt's escort nearby where they sit speaking together. “It is not so different,” he says distantly. “Changing one concept of duty for another.”
“And is that what you have done?”
“I am not sure yet. I suppose I must, or else not survive at all.”
“I would have found that idea more likely.” Harcourt is quiet for a moment.”I suppose you would have done nothing without a good reason.”
“My reasons can only be my own; but we have only ever acted as we felt we ought. All else follows.”
“I will never forgive you,” she says without inflection.
Laurence cannot make himself be surprised. “I would not expect otherwise.”
By their fire, the French soldiers abruptly fall silent. Harcourt and Laurence look around to see them watching something in the distance. Following their gaze over to the battlefield reveals a grandiose sight.
The pair are rising over the French line, with lesser dragons falling back to make a great and terrible honor guard. Napoléon stands tall on one of Lien's broad white shoulders. Her eyes glimmer as red as the burnt streaks of sunset arcing over the horizon. They hover in place against this bloody backdrop, the dying of the day, and Napoléon brandishes his sword in the air and shouts. Laurence cannot hear the words; the words do not matter. The clamor of a hundred thousand voices rushes up to meet him from the corpse-ridden field.
On the field soldiers brandish their bayonets and rush at the enemy. Screams and cries of pain rise with renewed energy. Those who cannot reach any foe simply raise their swords in salute. Vive L'Emperour.
Laurence closing his eyes and leans back his head. Chosen, Murat said. He takes a breath. The cheers are endless, endless. It is, he thinks, not terrible to be deluded.
And beside him Harcourt says, “Oh, Laurence - What have you done?”
Victory songs travel through the air amid the cries of the wounded. Efficient triage is arranged for soldiers from both sides of the battle; guards are formed for the prisoners. Provisions have to be prepared. These are almost secondary considerations. Napoléon needs to formally accept his opponents surrender along with the terms of the loss of England.
“I am not the King,” say Prime Minister William Grenville. “What you are asking I cannot give you.”
The four lords who have assembled in the occupied House of Parliament look to be in a very sorry state. Their clothes, once splendid, are ruined with mud and wear; Napoléon, dressed in his casual leathers, is at once more respectable and outrageously insulting. The other Imperial soldiers standing around the room are much better groomed.
“A king who has abandoned his country to ruin is a ruler of nothing. I will have your surrender; let the House of Stuart be my concern.”
Sweat rolling down his cheek, Grenville gives his surrender.
Napoléon claps his hands together. “Excellent. If that is settled - “
“Excuse me,” says a man only vaguely familiar – a man named Wellesley, Laurence thinks. “It is not. You mean to put a new leader in England, then? Is this what I am to understand?”
“Berthier will serve as regent until my brother can take over.” Murat glances sidelong as Napoléon but says nothing.
“And I suppose all of Europe is to serve a string of Bonaparte's eventually,” another lord snaps. “It surprises me you do not put William Laurence on the throne – that seems like it would serve your traitor very well, would it not?”
“That would be an interesting idea, if he would accept the posting,” says Napoléon. “Would you, dear William?”
Appalled: “I would not.”
The assembled lords snort, but Napoléon only says, “And I am grateful for that. Now, if we may turn to practical matters - “
Of course, Napoléon's pleasantness is mere formality. The lords have no bargaining powers left and they know it. Grenville is informed that he will have a 'new, and somewhat different' place as an advisor and 'foreign ambassador' in France – something which must be a vast understatement. “You will have all the time in the world to devote to your new position, and need fear no distractions,” Napoléon assures the man pleasantly. “One of our couriers is seeking out your children and wife now; they will come with us back to Paris and foster with a good family.
“...That is most gracious of you.”
Lord Mulgrave is stripped of rank half-apologetically; Laurence supposes the remnants of the scattered navy are too much of a threat still to the French to allow any mercy there. The Lord Chancellor will continue his services, “with their new requirements, so long as this is deemed suitable.”
“Oh, thank you, Sire,” says Lord Eldon eagerly. “That is very kind – most gracious – I - “ he falls silent as the other lords look at him coldly.
“I will be glad, of course, when George comes to reason.” This, in reference to the King of England. “But to bring the glory and enlightenment of the Empire to England brings me nothing but joy.”
“Oh, I'm sure it does,” says Wellesley dryly; Napoléon has hinted that his services, too, will luckily be unnecessary now that the 'unpleasant business of war' is all but concluded.
Grenville wants to know what Napoléon means to do next – how he will address the lords and commoners about his victory, how he will take command, what changes he wishes to install. Napoléon smiles and tells him not to be concerned. “You will learn the answer to all of these questions and more when you are safely in France,” he says. “But there will certainly be improvements – I will say that. I look forward to seeing the full potential of this place brought to bloom under my brother's hand.”
No one seems very reassured.
But they leave – rather, they are forced to leave: and in succession, with only a few quick murmurs and bows to Napoléon, the others follow. Murat goes last, eyes trailing on the Emperor expectantly. But Napoléon does not address him, and at last he exits as well.
Laurence stays. “They cannot kill you now,” says Napoléon.
“I beg your pardon?”
Napoléon turns. “England is ours; and therefore any legal fault they hold against you is lifted. What will you do now?”
Laurence pauses. This has not occurred to him. “It does not erase my actions,” he says.
The Emperor waits.
“...I suppose I should ascertain the safety of my family before all else; I am grateful for your intercession concerning them, but I am obliged to see to their condition personally.” However little they may likely agree.
“Excellent,” says Napoléon. “May I accompany you?”
Laurence stills. “Oh,” he says lamely. “ - Well, that is, the delicacy of the situation should perhaps necessitate a certain intimacy – a privacy best kept between the family - “
“I will be glad to tell them of your excellent efforts for the Empire,” says Napoléon cheerfully, though such recounts could only serve to make his mother faint with horror.
Laurence is quiet for a moment. “Sir, I would hardly think to stop you,” he says finally.
At first it is almost eerily normal to fly over England toward Nottinghamshire: and then, even worse, it is pleasant.
Lien has declared that with the fighting ended she will return to Paris to watch over Charles Leon; Napoléon did not seem particularly surprised by this proclamation, so there must have been some discussion beforehand. It surprises Laurence that a dragon might become attached to a child while their original companion yet lives, but the Chinese often flout Western expectations.
With great reluctance the Imperial Guard has been persuaded to remain behind, which might have seemed like an excellent concession, except for this: Napoléon accompanies Laurence on Temeraire.
“Never would it have occurred to me to join the Armée d'Le Aire,” Napoléon says in the first few hours of their flight. “Which is fortunate, or I would surely be in a much-altered position; nevertheless there is much to appreciate in dragons that I might have never known if not for Lien.”
“She is hardly a good example,” Temeraire sniffs, overhearing.
Napoléon does not quibble. “Nevertheless.”
“Aviators have different restrictions when compared to other men – and forgive me, Napoléon, but I do not think you would have fared well with them.”
“Some might once have said as much to you. But there is something to appreciate in peace – a brief peace; see, there are no aides and no damnable advisors begging for papers and direction up here. Not that I complain of my duty, but you might be surprised – just last week one of my captains managed to misplace his battalion.”
“I once knew a captain who misplaced his ship in dock,” Laurence confesses. “It took a full ten minutes for us to understand just what he was getting at.”
Napoléon actually laughs. It is rare enough that Laurence pauses just to focus on the sound; but then the Emperor is talking again, the brightness dissipated and disappointingly gone so fast that Laurence wonders if he has imagined it. “I suppose a misplaced dragon is at least understandable, when they might wander away from you. At any rate, it is excellent to have time free again; will you tell me about your family?”
This can only be an unpleasant reminder of the upcoming trials, but Laurence is determined to ignore the particulars. He nods and speaks of the Lord and Lady Allendale, his brother George – due to inherit – and Thom, who has entered the Church.
Napoléon listens with avid eagerness – and, strangely, he seems especially interested in Thom. “Sending children to the church as a profession is something I will never understand. Some must be called, perhaps, if such a thing as a god exists; but to be sent is ludicrous.”
“You are not religious?”
Napoléon waves his hand idly as though this is not quite in question. “I know religions, I appreciate religions. The Muslim men in Egypt, they had a particular way of appealing and communicating with their god that I could appreciate – I could appreciate the relationship. As for myself I will not say there is no god. The only force I am content to believe in is the red man, and unless he tells me to confess my sins I daresay I should do quite well without the loss of time.”
Laurence flushes, but it is hard to protest; he has not attended church in years, and a few talks with Mr. Erasmus in Africa can hardly count as a revival of piety. “The red man?” he questions instead. He will not presume to inquire too closely, but he does prompt, “You have mentioned him before, I believe.”
“The red man of destiny. He has brought me many victories. He predicts my triumphs and failures – the Egyptian campaign, Danzig - and he has predicted you.”
Laurence starts. “I beg your pardon?”
“I was informed that the partner to Temeraire would be invaluable to my successes, as I've told you. And you have very much been that.”
“...This... red man, then, is the reason for your continued interest?”
“Not at all,” Napoléon surprises him by saying. “Were that so I might already have considered his prophecy completed; it could be, certainly. But the most important and valuable things in life are never understood at a glance; without his urgings I might never have noticed you at the first. And I see very well how much of a tragedy that would have been.”
“May I ask who is this red man?” he evades. “Furthermore, why do you trust him so readily?”
“That is like asking why I trust the sun,” is his answer. “He visits me on the eve of greatness and despair, and he visits in my dreams. I cannot know more than that.”
Wholly baffled, Laurence stares; and then Temeraire is descending rapidly, commenting, “That is very well, but I suppose he would be more useful talking to you if you were awake, would he not?” and the familiar lights of Wollaton Hall come into view.
With some dismay Laurence realizes that the amount of lights in the house are unusual even for his grand home; leaving Temeraire near the woods, they come around the front and the noise of many conversations begin to drift down.
With dread he realizes that the house is full. Bursting, in fact. A familiar face is waiting by the door; Finnegan, a servant, who upon recognizing him gapes for a long minute.
“Pray alert Lord Allendale to our arrival,” Laurence says. “I am not sure it would be wise to intrude.”
“I - “ confused, the man fumbles a bow and back-steps into the house. The door slams shut behind him.
After a moment the noises of second-hand conversation dim, then disappear entirely. Laurence waits stiffly until the door opens.
He does not, however, see Lord Allendale. His brother George stands at the door, white as a sheet.
“Damn you,” his brother blurts. “You will be lucky if you are not lynched, you fool.”
Laurence tries not to take offense. “I am glad to see you in good health,” he acknowledges. “I did not expect your presence, however; is all well?”
George opens his mouth, cheeks mottled with something that could be either anger or alarm.
“Do not keep him standing, George,” says a very welcome voice. Lady Allendale comes to the door. “Will.”
Lady Allendale seems to have aged before her time. Since he has last seen her the woman has gained new wrinkles around her eyes, and the pale light of her hair shows streaks of silver under the gleam of nearby candles. Mutely, Laurence accepts his mother's embrace and kisses her cheek. Her skin is soft, old. It seems to tremble under his touch.
“Well, in, then,” says George. Then he adds quietly, “Though I do not know what you expect.”
Laurence's arrival – and, more clearly, his deeds – are evidently known. The hall is nearly silent when he enters, but it is not empty. He is startled to recognize faces from the nearby village as well as those among his father's contemporaries.
“I beg your pardon,” he says. “I did not assume we would intrude on a...” he hesitates. “Gathering?”
For a moment, no one says anything.
“We have been acting the host of late to many people,” says George at last. “Raiding parties are rare on the side of the French – more rare than we might have hoped – but people still fear being molested. An officer, you see, came some weeks ago to say that we were exempt from damage by the war. For a favor owed to you, understand.”
“Yes,” Laurence says. “ - Yes, I have been told as much.”
“It was terrible the past week,” someone ventures. “ - Though that was largely from our men, of course, and nothing to resent - “
“Still,” George interrupts, “We see enough French colors about to be wary; an army always needs food. I don't suppose you know where they are heading next?”
It takes a moment for these words to be understood. Then he realizes that a dragon travels much more swiftly than a man, or even a horse.
“By god,” says Laurence blankly. “You do not know.”
“The fighting is ended,” he says. “Grenville and the Lords surrendered at Shoeburyness not four day ago. Berthier is regent now.”
The cries and panic this arouses assail him like a wave. “Now,” says Napoléon from behind him, “It is not so terrible as that, I would think.”
A woman in a green dress shakes her head from side to side. One gloved hand cups her mouth. “Oh! So you might say when you have won the day!”
George looks very pale. “What a wretched way to announce it,” he says. “You are certain?”
“I was there, yes.”
“There to what end?” someone demands. “Not fighting for us, surely - “
“And you bring a Frenchman here on the tail of your victory,” a man from the crowd accuses. “What sort of black villainy is this - “
“That is enough,” Lady Allendale says. She pulls away from George and the guests fall silent. “A visitor, of whatever nationality, shall be respected in these halls. I shall not hear of anything else.” With one last look at George, Lady Allendale turns. “You shall be welcome here, William; that at least shall never change. Now, and who is your guest?”
Laurence stiffens. He half-turns to where Napoléon is smiling pleasantly at the watching assemblage. His mind scrambles, but at last he swallows past the sudden dryness in his throat. “Mother,” he says. “I introduce to you His Imperial Highness Napoléon Bonaparte – Lady Allendale, Napoléon.”
Somewhere a plate shatters.
In the ringing silence, Napoléon steps forward and takes Lady Allendale's limp, pale hand, apparently heedless of the way her eyes have frozen over his shoulder. “It is my honor, Lady, to meet the mother of such a dear friend.” He bows over their shared grip, and she makes no response.
Very certain that only shock is keeping back outrage, Laurence hurries to turn to his frozen brother. “We have come to – to see to your health, given the fighting - “ It seems suddenly a feeble excuse.
“And I am glad to see your family well,” says Napoléon. “But wherever is your father, dear William?”
This is a striking question, and Laurence turns to George for an answer.
“...Ill,” says the older man, registering at last his address.” - He is ill. And will not be disturbed.” By you goes unsaid. “ - You – I am afraid, Will, that we are full to bursting; we cannot offer shelter overnight.”
His eyes dart quickly to Napoléon, who takes no offense. “We shall return to Temeraire shortly, then,” says the Emperor. “But it is excellent that you have such a good variety of folk here – I shall be glad to meet my new people.”
George stares at him in blank horror.
Someone in the crowd steps forward. He is carrying in his limp grip a dinner knife, dull and greasy, as one might use for chicken or turkey. “God, we will not have it,” he says. “We will not just stand here - “
Laurence pulls out his sword and steps in front of the Emperor. “Sir, I would not advise that,” he says grimly.
Silence stretches on. People are shifting away, but the overwhelming aura is not one of anger – not one of rebellion. It is fear.
No one else tries to challenge them.
“Why the devil would you bring him?” George asks.
They are standing in the kitchen. Frightened servants duck around them, more than necessarily need to be present; no one wants to be in the main hall right now where Napoléon is making his rounds and trying to charm his resentful new subjects.
“It was hardly a matter of choice; he invited himself.”
This is an excellent question.
“I wish there were an easy answer to that,” he says finally. “How fares Father?”
“Poorly. This stress has not been easy on him.” The look George shoots him clarifies, your actions have not been easy on him.
A servant ducks around them carrying a platter of cheeses. “We had the best of intentions,” he says. It is the only possible justification he can give.
“Gods, Laurence,” says George. “I know you had lost some money in Africa, but if you were that desperate - “
“I would not sell to France for bribery!”
“As base a motivation as it would be, I might understand the inclination,” George says. “But whatever reason could you have, then?”
“You have not spoken with him.”
Laurence flushes; but he is committed, now. “You have not spoken with him,” he repeats. “Napoléon. No nation, no bribe or former bindings might compare – I had thought myself steadfast in all matters, but I think he could talk an angel to Hell; and I am not that.”
But George looks away and is silent. There is perhaps not enough filial love in the world for such a betrayal as this. Laurence searches in vain for something to say, but when he graspfor more words the first thing he blurts out is, “Gong Su?”
It is the last face he expects to see within the familiar walls of Wollaton Hall. Gong Su is carrying a tray of curry – it seems distinctly out of place among the offerings of the other servants – but at the sight of Laurence he at once sets it down to began making the Chinese gestures of obeisance, which stalls all activity as other servers overcome their fear to watch.
George takes the distraction to exit, and Laurence, taken utterly aback, hastens to end the spectacle. “Thank you, Gong Su, but please, that is quite unnecessary – and whatever are you doing here?”
“Lady Allendale graciously offered me work and lodgings after I found myself free.”
Aware of his responsibility, Laurence immediately offers, “I regret that I should have caused you any difficulty. If you should desire assistance finding passage to Beijing - “ he has no idea how he should manage such a thing, but he will certainly try.
Gong Su shakes his head. “It is not my desire to return to China. However, I would speak with you before you leave, my Prince.”
Though puzzled by this request, the only option is to agree. “I shall not forget.”
Upon exiting the kitchen Laurence finds himself pausing, one hand braced against the wall as he takes in the scene before him.
Napoléon is seated at the table typically reserved for cards. A small crowd has gathered around him, mostly comprised, oddly, of young ladies. On the outskirts of this group young men shuffle and peer over the heels of their wives and sisters, wearing sour, pinched expressions. Or, most of them do; a few look openly fascinated.
Moving closer, Laurence expects the Emperor to be weaving some words of charm over the women. He is surprised instead when Napoléon, guiding the hand of young Miss Kaelea, tells her, “Next we weakened our right flank, here, to draw an attack; this left them exposed to our hidden troops when they fell upon us, and we were able to cut off their lines of communication - “
The young woman nods, brow furrowed in concentration, and Laurence realizes after a minute of listening that he seems to be describing the Battle of Austerlitz where Napoléon's heavily outnumbered forces decimated the Russians and the Holy Roman Empire.
“They believed everything,” says Miss Kaelea after another few minutes. “Oh, you tricked them so very well; were you certain they would believe you?”
“I was fairly confident of their arrogance, though still less confident of our victory,” says Napoléon with a modesty that seems faintly ridiculous. “I told my men in France to not tell dear Joséphine of the campaign until we had already won.”
The women laugh, thoroughly delighted.
A hand touches Laurence at his elbow. He turns to find George standing there, his mouth pursed grimly.
“I think it is best that you go now,” he says.
Gong Su meets them as they are leaving.
“A letter from the Emperor of China,” he declares, and to Laurence's utter astonishment presents a beautifully scripted scroll closed with the Imperial seal.
Gong Su reveals himself to be an Imperial Agent; Laurence is barely able to muster outrage, and Napoléon seems thoroughly delighted, saying that the trip has been 'worthwhile for this discovery alone'. He invites Gong Su to accompany them to France – to work in the palace, if Laurence will not need him - and the man accepts.
“What does the letter say?” he then asks.
Laurence scarcely wants to comment on the Emperor's admonishment to find himself a wife; but he does say, “I have been invited to visit China again whenever convenient; and Temeraire and I have been commended for the spread of the Cure.”
“Naturally,” says Napoléon. “The Chinese, at least, recognize the basic rights of dragons.”
Laurence sighs. “Well, I am sure Temeraire will be pleased by the missive.”
Napoléon nods, and indeed Temeraire is. But it seems to Laurence that the Emperor is excessively thoughtful for the flight back to London.
They pass over Wissant several days later heralded by cheers from the locals. Shots are fired in formal salute; Laurence is unsure if the French recognize Liberté and Letalis, situated respectfully behind Temeraire to give precedence to Napoléon's presence on his back, or if the sight of any Celestial has perhaps become noteworthy. He rather hopes it is the former.
Then the crews traveling with the two Marshals unfurl their standards and Liberté flies quickly to weave around Temeraire while flashing Napoléon's personal standard. More shots of welcome ring out.
For a city on the coast, Wissant looks pleasant and peaceful. As though there is no war. Temeraire flaps his wings to gain altitude and they continue flying to Paris.
“My wife – you are radiant as ever.”
Joséphine is an older woman, her hair gray-touched, her skin brittle. She is garbed in a brilliant pale green dress, covered in frills, and the heavy crown over her head could sink a man in the ocean. She stands straight nevertheless while glaring at Napoléon.
“My husband,” she says. The Emperor is smiling at her, but his eyes are wary. “You must be fatigued after your journey – welcome home.”
Napoléon is enclosed with members of the court immediately upon arrival; Laurence catches a glimpse of Kellerman and other half-familiar faces in passing.
Soult and Murat have left as well, and the Empress has stormed after the council in full fury. Laurence can well imagine the cause of her ire and tries not to dwell on it.
Standing in one of the Tuileries' many confusing halls, he turns around and startles to find a mild-faced man standing behind him.
“My apologies,” the stranger says quickly. “Allow me to introduce myself; I am Dominique Larrey, a surgeon; I am told you took injury in London?”
Startled by both the name and topic, Laurence reaches up to touch his scalp. “I am quite well, thank you,” he says. His shoulder twinges as though to lay claim to the lie. Larrey, he recalls now, invented the renowned ambulances of the French military – swift, horse-drawn carts of odd proportion that dart in under fire to collect the wounded. He must have seen the man during one battle or another.
“And of course my Emperor gained no injuries?” asks Larrey, hinting at the real reason for his concern.
“None to my knowledge.”
At this the man visibly relaxes. “Excellent. Of course I am told the battle was quite one-sided, but even that is no guarantee.”
Laurence draws back his shoulders. “Everyone says that it was so now that the battle is won; nevertheless, it seemed less certain during preparations. Even Marshal Murat was concerned.”
“I did not mean to offend, of course; I am sure the English fought well.” Changing the subject: “You met Murat on the field, did you? Did you get a letter by him? He is always sending off letters to Caroline; I cannot tell if he is morbid and hopeless, or perhaps he just enjoys the drama of writing his last farewells.”
“He does not seem hopeless,” Laurence argues doubtfully.
“No, I suppose not – and there are worse crimes than being sick with love.” Larrey smiles kindly
A bit uncertain how to respond to this, Laurence inclines his head; they are interrupted by a sudden commotion down the hall. “No, no, I suppose there is no time; get rid of the painter; we have a meeting with Lien, she becomes agitated if she does not see the prince - “
A fatigued woman sweeps down the hall flocked on either side by servants; Laurence recognizes her as Lady Eléonore de la Plaigne, though she seems shockingly diminished from their last meeting.
The woman is carrying a squalling baby draped in fine clothes – the new prince, Charles Léon Napoléon.
Her eyes rise and meet with those of Laurence as she walks by; her stride falters. Then her eyes narrow, and gathering the prince closer to her chest she turns her head and ducks swiftly around a corner. The sound of her retinue fades to a distant clamor.
After a pause, Larrey says, “It has, of course, been difficult – with both she and the Empress Joséphine...” he trails off.
“Of course,” says Laurence.
“Perhaps I could show you the grounds?” Larrey suggests.
Laurence quickly agrees.
A person could spend days thoroughly exploring the Tuileries. As it happens, Laurence and Larrey pause after a brief visit to the gardens where they see the dragons.
Letalis and Temeraire seem to be warming to one another, chatting amicably while Temeraire eyes the well-dressed nobles on the distant pathways. Soult is checking his dragon's harness, and Laurence finds he is wearing a military uniform. Looking closer at the man's dragon, he can see luggage and equipment among the middle-weight's apparel.
“You are leaving?”
“To Spain. Jean Lunnes has done excellent work there – we are allies of the Spanish, you know they are having internal troubles - but now that England is no longer able to nip our flank the problem should go much easier.”
Laurence stiffens his shoulders. “There is always another war, it seems,” he says slowly.
He watches Soult carefully, but the Marshal's face reveals nothing. “I would not call it a war – we are helping our allies. But even so, is that not the way of matters? Perhaps you may join us there one day. I am sure my Emperor would be overjoyed if you were to accept a command – you are grown popular enough no one would object to an English Marshal, I think.”
“Is that so?” If Napoléon means to cajole him into joining the French army – into becoming a Marshal, of all ludicrous ideas – then his intimate behavior over the past few months takes on a new light. “I suppose, then, that he often endeavors to seduce particular men to join his ranks of Marshals?”
Soult starts to laugh.
This seems to be a confirmation; but instead, Soult shakes his head, still seeming delighted by something Laurence cannot understand. “No – no, Captain, though I assure you, most men would consider the proposition a compliment. But his – seduction – has been far more involved than I expected when he announced to us that he meant to persuade you of his good intentions.”
“Announced,” says Laurence flatly.
“His Majesty is always planning,” says Soult cheerfully. “He has been after you for months – but do not look so serious. I suspect you will find it flattering, eventually.”
Laurence narrows his eyes. Larrey, clearing his throat, intervenes. “I, too, will be joining the Peninsular expedition soon enough – but not quite yet,” he tells Laurence. “We are confident that it will not prove too difficult, especially now that...” he hesitates.
Now that England is subdued, of course. Now that no one is left to truly oppose the Empire. Laurence nods curtly, then turns to look back toward the Tuileries. Somewhere inside that ancient, ancestral palace of French rulers sits a pretender – a pretender he has helped, he reminds himself forcibly – and he knows, suddenly, he cannot stay another instant.
They wish to make him a Marshal, and Napoléon Bonaparte is a man accustomed to getting what he wants.
“Forgive my rudeness,” says Laurence. “Will you give my apologies to the Emperor? I believe we must be leaving.”
Larrey and Soult both look at him. Next to Letalis, Temeraire straightens. “We will see Tharkay again?” he asks hopefully. “ - Oh, and Arkady, I suppose...”
“Are you certain?” asks Larrey. “I am certain the meeting will break soon - “
“Quite certain,” is the firm reply. “We never meant to be so long away; I believe a return to a quiet life will be perfectly satisfactory.”
Temeraire looks as though he would like to protest this, but does not. The two Frenchmen only watch as he climbs up Temeraire's harness, but before the Celestial can spring aloft Soult calls, “Do remember – you are always welcome as a guest to his Majesty.”
Laurence bows his head briefly. Then the world falls away, and he tries to imagine that he is leaving the memory of the war, of his choices, behind him.
(He is not quite successful.)
That sight that greets them at the Château d'Hérouville is unexpected. Laurence can feel Temeraire's wings trembling with eagerness – or perhaps just anticipation of a fight – as they descend from aloft. Laurence, for his part, is surprised by the restraint implicit in the fact that Iskierka does not try to torch them out of the sky.
“So,” she says when they land, “Now you are here to properly steal my Granby, I suppose?”
“Oh, do not be a fool,” says Granby's voice. Laurence is astonished to see him walking up with Tharkay, looking well despite the addition of a small scar across his face. “I do not know whether to punch you or curse you,” he says – and then belies both by tackling Laurence in such an embrace that he can barely breathe.
“Oh, excellent,” says Temeraire. “I am glad that you have not lost all sense, Granby, like everyone else. None of our old friends seem very fond of us lately.”
“I cannot imagine why,” says Tharkay dryly. He nods to Laurence.
Iskierka barely waits until Granby has stepped back to pluck him away, curling her body around him jealously. “I am certainly not fond of you. I do not see why you should expect anything else, when you try to trick everyone and betray us.” She flaps her wings, and adds to Granby, sulkily, “He scratched my back.”
“They saved your life, you devil,” Granby says. “You should be grateful; I am grateful, whatever the circumstances.”
“And I am glad to see you well,” Laurence says. “But tell me, how have you come to be here? The last I knew you were in Abbetille.”
“Tharkay visited a few times, and we were plotting an escape when Iskierka was carted across the Channel. With the threat, mind, that we should both be killed if she should make any ridiculous attacks again.” He gives the Kazilik a pointed look, and she averts her gaze; a potential threat to Granby is, perhaps, the only thing which will give her pause.
“And they brought you here?”
“I believe they decided I was your problem now,” he says dryly. “But, enough of that; what is the news?”
And then of course he has to tell them; Tharkay, it seems, has gathered that there has been a victory, but the château is isolated and neither have properly understood the magnitude of England's defeat. “There will be a Bonaparte in England within the month, I am sure,” he finishes.
Neither Granby nor Tharkay know what to say to this. “...I cannot say it is entirely unexpected,” Tharkay replies at last. Laurence looks at him sharply, but the man only shrugs. “Countries are falling before Napoléon one after another; England was the only true enemy remaining to him.”
“He has his eye on the Spaniards, I am sure. The Russias.”
“And he shall have a clear path,” Tharkay predicts. “But it is no longer any problem of ours; the war is lost, unless you think England can be regained.”
Laurence would like to say that yes, of course it can be regained; but he thinks of Shoeburyness, and the thousands captured there and slowly shakes his head. “We were utterly defeated. England – there is no chance.”
Granby turns away. Tharkay just nods. “Then grieve if you must, but move on. That is all anyone can be expected to do.”
Laurence wonders if it can be so easy.
“I do not mean to complain,” says Temeraire quietly. “But it is very quiet here.”
This cannot quite be called accurate. Arkady is strutting in front of his cohort not very far away and apparently telling some sort of story, sneaking sideways glances at the sunbathing Iskierka as though hoping to attract her attention. Tharkay and Granby are somewhere inside the manor-house, but every now and again Laurence can hear the distant clang of a door or peeling of a window from up the hill.
But there is more to quietude than silence. Laurence leans against Temeraire and looks up at the sky. “It is a dark sign, to find oneself wishing for war.”
“I do not wish for war – only something more exciting than this, perhaps.”
“I am dearly sorry if you are not content.”
Temeraire twists around his neck to nudge Laurence. “That is not what I said, either,” he reproaches. “Only... England is lost now. We will not stay here forever, will we? It is better now that we have company, but I do not know that I could stand it.”
Laurence watches as two of the ferals begin to snarl at each other. “Forever,” he says.
“Perhaps we may go to China?”
“And then back here, I suppose,” Laurence says. “And maybe travel to the Americas, or back to New South Wales...” But what of England?
“What a nice thought,” says Temeraire.
The French dragons start to appear back in the sky slowly, and sometimes they stop at the château with an easy disregard for manners to talk with Temeraire and steal wide-eyed glances at Iskierka. A few of the officers watch Laurence too; but they do not approach him, and he offers no overtures.
One day he has to fight off a sense of disorientation as a Pascal's Blue approaches in lazy spirals, and it takes a minute to realize that the dragon is headed straight for his position. Laurence stands as the creature lands, and when he looks sees that the dragon's captain seems to be Dominique Larrey.
“Are all of the Empire's officers dragon-captains as well?” Laurence asks as he dismounts.
The doctor laughs. “No; my Emperor has honored me with the Legion de l'Aile, which is a new honor including a dragon-companion and the means to provide for one. The greatest honor, of course, is Requitum's company.” He touches the dragon's side affectionately.
Laurence invites him inside, asking his reason for coming.
Larrey declines the offer. “The Emperor was most disappointed with your early withdrawal. Did he displease you?”
“No, certainly not.”
“Then I am certain you will accept his invitation to dine this Saturday? It shall be a quiet affair.”
“I must decline; it would be unwise.”
“Would you care to join me, then, in flying to Saint-Denis-les-Sens? I will be meeting with a dragon-surgeon there, and I am sure the subject will interest you.”
Laurence is sure that Temeraire would enjoy the excursion. “No. I am certain we will be quite occupied today with other matters.”
Larrey politely does not ask what these 'matters' could possibly be. “Well, nevertheless I am glad to see you well. Do let us know how you faring; I am sure any of the captains passing through would be happy to pass on a letter.”
That would explain the suspicious number of couriers who like to loiter around the air, then.
Granby rubs at his face with one hand. He grimaces down at the resulting layer of sweat. “I know I am a complainer Will, but – it is not bad work, but I am not meant to be idle all day.”
No one could truly call their efforts with the cattle idleness, but Laurence well understands the point. Nearby, Tharkay glances up and quirks a brow. “Perhaps you should not have been captured, then,” he suggests. Granby shoots him a scowl.
A mere two weeks he has been back at the château, and already Laurence is restless with the motionless skies and repetitive fields. Tharkay, at least, seems to make good use of the nearby cities; he disappears frequently, occasionally with Arkady or Gherni, and anyone might guess as to what his business is on those days.
In the end, Tharkay's life is his own. Of far greater importance is the fact that he always comes back.
The three approach Temeraire's half-finished Pavilion, which Iskierka has largely claimed for herself in his recent absence. The two heavyweights are sitting on their haunches and glowering at each other over the sad structure.
Granby groans. Laurence sends him a commiserating glance and steps forward. “Temeraire - “
He stops. Everyone looks up at the familiar sound of dragon-wings.
It is an Honneur-d'Or, and an unfamiliar one. Temeraire tilts his head as the creature descends, then all at once abandons Iskierka entirely to turn toward its shape. “Oh, excellent,” he says. “Napoléon has come for a visit, Laurence.”
Immediately Laurence puts all his attention on the approaching middleweight. Sure enough it carries only a single, familiar rider who steps down easily when the pair land.
“You have grieved me with your silence,” the Emperor complains, stepping forward to kiss both his cheeks. “But, it is good to see you well; will you introduce your companions, dear William?”
Startled, Laurence turns. Tharkay is watching them both with narrowed eyes; Granby stays very still, as though trying hard to remain unnoticed. “This is John Granby – Iskierka's Captain. And Tenzing Tharkay, who - “
“Who I have heard much about from our dear Ambassador De Guignes; yes, you do make interesting friends.”
“So it would seem,” Tharkay deadpans.
Napoléon beams at him. Then he turns his head sharply to Granby. “I am sure you, Captain, will of course not be too interesting during your stay? I have very sharp memories of your dragon; General Defour complained for a week about not being permitted to shoot her.”
Granby works his jaw. “...We're not interesting at all,” he says at last.
Iskierka snorts in outrage. “Excellent,” says Napoléon. “Walk with me,” he addresses Laurence. “I would see what you have done with the property.”
With one last, apologetic glance at Granby, Laurence leads the Emperor away. Temeraire speaks to the others in low voices as they go.
“You surprise me,” Laurence says as they walk. “Surely you do not have the opportunity to fly outside the city so frequently as it seems.”
“I am always busy, but I may just as easily read reports in the air as in an office. And Berthier's replacement cannot harass me a thousand feet above Paris, either.” Napoléon releases an aggrieved sigh. “I must hurry him back; no other man compares as a head of staff. But, tell me; I hope you did not leave due to distress?”
They pause over one of the overgrown parts of the field situated near the base of a hill. Soft grass and gently rolling lands spread out before them. Laurence tilts his neck toward the sky and shakes his head as though to clear it. “Why should I have been distressed?”
A hand touches his elbow. “However good the cause, there has been a drastic change to the state of your birth-nation. You seemed troubled by it.”
“...No,” he says. “No, that was not why I left.”
“Perhaps you might tell me of your current business instead; I have little interest in the past.”
Napoléon says nothing for a moment. “We have been sending emissaries to Tsar Alexander. I am hopeful concerning our negotiations, though my court doubts me; they always doubt until I prevail.”
“You do not intend to start a war with Russia?” This comes as a surprise for some reason.
“What rumors you hear! On the contrary, I intend to reach an agreement with the Tsar. War has never been my objective.”
“I do not know why anyone would think otherwise,” Laurence murmurs.
Napoléon looks at him. “The fighting is over,” he says, all earnestness. “You can see the true beauty of France now – and I promise you will not be disappointed.”
The fighting is not over, Laurence thinks. Perhaps it will never be over. “Beauty seems to be a diminishing thing.”
“It can be found in abundance, if only you look toward the right places.”
Laurence looks out at the silent grass, the placid waters of the pond. Somewhere above them a lone bird cries from aloft before the noise is swallowed by the air. Napoléon brushes a hand along his arm and they begin back toward the Pavilion.
Before he leaves, the Emperor asks if Laurence will join him at Tuileries the next week. Laurence says yes.
“So, you are here again.”
Caroline Murat neė Bonaparte looks considerably less pleased to see him today in comparison to their first, previous meeting months before.
“Still here,” she emphasizes.
“Yes; I am sure Marshal Murat is well?”
“Quite. The announcement declaring the new King of England shall be made soon, of course.” Caroline tilts her chin, making it clear just who this king will be.
“To my knowledge, His Majesty King George still lives,” Laurence replies evenly.
“A king without a country is nothing. And England certainly is in need of a king.”
Laurence pauses – has there been poor news of England? - but he does not take the hint. “I would be interested in the results of any such announcement,” he says at last.
Caroline frowns at him. “...Yes, well. Dear Napulio is busy with his court; I suppose you are here for nothing and no one else, if you are committed only to draining your land without compensation. But, I believe my sister Pauline desired to speak with you.”
Laurence inclines his head stiffly. His heart is pounding with the sheer strength of his indignation. “I will seek her, then.”
This proves to be a long and arduous task; the suites of Pauline Bonaparte are located near the end of the Palace in an open and lovely place. He is admitted by a large, dark-skinned servant who stares at him with blank suspicion.
“I beg your pardon,” says Laurence. “I am here at the request of Pauline Bonaparte?”
The man looks at him silently. Then he gestures and turns away.
Hesitating, Laurence follows.
The proportions of the Tuileries are continually disconcerting. Laurence would far prefer the cramped economy of a ship's berth to the airy relief of the palace, and the regal rooms of the Bonapartes are clearly among the greatest the place has to offer.
Quietly, the hulking servant beckons him to a far door. The servant pushes the door open and follows through.
Laurence feels his entire neck go red.
Pauline Bonaparte runs a soapy hand up her bare neck; milky water sloshes down into the tub beneath her. “Well, come in, do not gawk... Oh, you will do,” she says approvingly.
“I beg your pardon?” Laurence's voice comes out shockingly weak.
It is clear upon a closer look that the woman wears a thin white chemise even beneath the water. Then Laurence realizes that he should not be able to even determine this much. He turns away swiftly. “My profoundest apologies,” he tells the nearby wall frantically, “I did not intend - “
“Oh, of course not; but come in anyway, come speak with me.”
“I – excuse me, I must go, I - ”
As he flees, he hears Pauline talking to her servant. “I really do not see what Napulio sees in him, Paul. What a bore.”
After several minutes of rushing through the halls at a fast walk, Laurence slows and begins to look around in dismay. He is quite hopelessly lost. This problem does, at least, distract him from his mortification. He turns in place several times and picks a hallway.
Finally, he sees a familiar face.
“There you are, captain,” Soult says. “Come along, we had begun to worry you left again; the court is finished, and there will be dinner soon - “
If Soult notices his red cheeks, he politely makes no mention.
There are many unfamiliar faces at the table, and some – such as Pauline's – which he wishes were unfamiliar. Lady Eléonore is present with the prince, sitting stiff and somewhat miserable. A courtier Laurence does not recognize keeps trying to engage her in conversation. Kellerman and his wife are present, and both are interested in speaking with him. So is a young, unknown courtier, Soult, an ambassador, and, he realizes eventually, apparently everyone at the table.
Napoléon is not inattentive but speaks easily to everyone around him. For far from the first time Laurence must pause to watch the way he so easily dominates the entire hall, thrusting out his words to lure in the unwary.
Somewhere near the dessert-course Napoléon declares he has an announcement. The table hushes.
“The proclamation and papers will be sent tomorrow, but the matter is decided and there is no harm is saying it. Lucien will be made King of England, effective immediately; and I am sure my noble brother will do a fine job.”
The polite applause is interrupted when Caroline screams.
Laurence reaches for a knife by instinct. But Caroline is only watching Napoléon, eyes cloudy with tears. “Lucien!” She says. “Lucien!”
There is movement around the room – not the sort of shocked stillness that might be expected, but simply a general shifting that seems almost embarrassed. Laurence locks his eyes on Lady Caroline's; she begins to clutch at her neck, her high-pitched wails trailing away to sobs.
By her side, Murat looks deeply uncomfortable.
“You hate us, you hate us, why are you so cruel, brother - “
“Enough.” Napoléon says flatly.
Caroline throws her chair away from the table with a harsh squeal of wood. She gathers up her trailing dress and leaves in a storm, face streaked with tears.
Murat glances after her, grimaces, and downs a glass of wine. Then he gets up and follows.
Joséphine promptly bursts into tears.
There is an awkward silence along the table. Next to the Empress, Larrey reaches out to pat her shoulder consolingly; her gasping only seems to increase in volume.
The dinner is ended early.
“I fear that I may have offended the Lady Caroline,” Laurence says.
She has returned now that dinner has passed and everyone is speaking quietly around the room. Her eyes are red-rimmed, and she glares around the hall when anyone looks at her. But she glares most of all at Napoléon and, oddly, Laurence himself.
“I do not find that likely,” says Larrey, his current conversational partner, in a rather reluctant way. “ - You have met her before?”
“She seemed perfectly amenable during our first meeting.”
“I do not doubt it. Lady Caroline has certain desires – certain ambitions. She does not take kindly to interference with our Emperor.” Larrey says nothing more.
Jealousy? It seems a petty thing – a petty thing for a petty woman, perhaps. Laurence frowns. “I see. And... “ He pauses, glancing at Empress Joséphine. He does not quite want to inquire, but he feels he is missing something important about the dynamics of the court.
Larrey follows his gaze. His smile fades. “That... is perhaps not a subject which should be discussed here,” he says. “You may find it useful, however, to apply to our Emperor about his current relations with his wife.” When Laurence stares at him, scandalized, Larrey just smiles wryly. “I assure you he shall not spurn your questions. Now, if it is not a burden may I introduce you to the Baron de Chambord...?”
Laurence does not ask Napoléon about Joséphine.
He does wonder, when they walk around the garden trailed at a distance by several members of the Imperial Guard, why it is that the both of them always end up alone at the end of the day. He does not regret this – he can admit that the Emperor is compelling company – but Laurence cannot be the only one vying for his attention.
Napoléon says to him, “I was glad for your company tonight – it has been a trying few weeks.”
“Are the negotiations going poorly?”
“One could say that – though, perhaps not the negotiations to which you refer.” Napoléon quirks his brow. “I typically do not mind the whims of the court, or their quick moods; they are not so hard to guide if you understand how. But Joséphine does not deserve their attention, and it hurts her.”
“Politics can be difficult to maneuver for anyone.”
“We are getting a divorce,” says Napoléon abruptly.
Laurence pauses. Divorce is exceedingly rare – though much more frequent in France than in England. “I see.”
“Do you?” But Napoléon continues: “She will always be a dear friend, and always the Empress of France. But circumstances must allow for change.”
Laurence does not ask the first question that rises to mind. “I am sure it must be difficult,” he says tactfully. “If there is anything you require...”
Napoléon looks at him for a moment. “It is said,” he tells Laurence, “That the English do not care for divorce only because they do not actually understand passion.”
Laurence blinks, caught off-guard by this sudden change of topic. “That is not – that is not at all true.”
“Have your read the lais of Marie?”
“Marie - ?”
“Marie de France.”
“I have not.”
“There is a particularly charming story, Laüstic, about a young pair of lovers who never meet, never even see one another; a wife goes to her window as her husband sleeps to whisper to her love, the knight, after dusk. When her husband grows suspicious she says she goes out to listen to the nightingales, and in fury he has such a bird brought to him and throttles it before her eyes.”
“That does not sound like a charming story.”
“The woman sends the dead bird to her lover, who has it put into a golden, jeweled box. He carries it with him always – a gilded cage for a dead bird, and a shocking thing, I would imagine, to anyone who asks about the object's contents. The wife survives, but she may as well be dead to continue living in that place.”
Laurence listens to this assessment silently. “...In England, we prefer love stories that end in love,” he says finally.
To his surprise, Napoléon smiles. “Dearest William, so does everyone.”
Iskierka twists her body around into tight coils. “Well, I certainly do not see why one follows the other,” she is saying. “Why should we let the French dragons live just because they let us live?”
“Dear, it is a matter of honor,” Granby fumbles miserably; he is not a man to expound on the subject much, but any good officer needs to respect parole. “And anyway, we are in France now; the French dragons are all around us, and they would kill us in an instant if we tried anything - “
This is clearly the wrong track to take. “Ooh! So you think I cannot beat them!” Iskierka straightens and snorts a small jet of flame from her nostrils. “Well, do not be silly; I will kill all of their dragons, every one. And Arkady and the others will help me - “
“They will not,” says Tharkay. “They are perfectly comfortable, I am sure, and not eager to die. Consider for a moment how many dragons visit this property daily; that is but a small number of the French forces in this area.”
Iskiera glares at him. “You are all jealous,” she says. “You are all cowards, and none of you wish for Granby to be free - “
“Not if it means your death, no,” says Granby sharply. Iskierka swivels her head to look at him. “Quit this talk now; I will not have anyone hear of it.”
Iskierka claws at the ground angrily. “This is the worst place in the world!” she cries finally. She jumps into the air and flies away, as though she will leave all of them and even French behind.
Of course, she cannot.
Later, Temeraire flies with Laurence alone. “They are not happy here, are they, Laurence?” Temeraire asks. “Granby and Iskierka?”
“They are alive,” Laurence says. “Both of them – I daresay Granby would never be truly happy again if she had been killed.”
“Oh, well, I am sure he would have gotten over her,” Temeraire grumbles. “ - But I do not see why they should not be happy. France is a very pleasant place, and it does not even seem quite so dull as it was. Although,” Temeraire adds, “It would be better if we could be proper aviators again.”
“I am afraid there are only French aviators here,” says Laurence diplomatically. “But it is quite different for those two – they have not left the château since arriving. I beg you to be patient with Iskierka, Temeraire.”
The dragon is quiet for a moment. “One day they will return to England, won't they, Laurence? Now that it belongs to the French, it does not matter if they are prisoners here or there.”
“...I suppose it is quite possible. I cannot imagine that Napoléon can afford to have dozens of dragons fed with no return; he will try to entice them into fighting for him, but I imagine Granby would refuse.” He is certain of it. “They may, however, be encouraged to protect the shores of England from incursion – further incursion - if they can ever be trusted to not turn against the French soldiers.”
This last part, of course, is the problem. Privately, Laurence finds it more likely that Iskierka will be sent to some sort of breeding-grounds – he imagines this is the fate that has befallen most of the dragons in England – but he has not asked. Napoléon has freed most breeding-dragons, after all, so he may be wrong.
“I believe Iskierka would be glad to fight anyone,” Temeraire says. “But I hope... it would be very unpleasant, Laurence, if she were to do something foolish. Even if she is very ridiculous, and would deserve whatever happened to her,” he adds judiciously.
“I know precisely what you mean, my dear,” says Laurence. “But I am sure she shall do quite well; shall we return?”
Brest is a city of bustling ports. It lacks many features that would be shared by an English port and the organization is wholly wrong, but a port anywhere in the world has certain qualities that are universal. The smell of fish is heavy and wet in the air, and Laurence cranes his neck to see the peek of a lighthouse in the distance. It is difficult to see from where he walks beside Temeraire.
Walks, beside Temeraire. Other people seem to be far more interested in Napoléon's presence, and that of his Imperial escort, than the twenty-ton dragon trundling beside them. This might be more strange if Laurence hasn't already seen two other dragons in the city-streets, though certainly none of Temeraire's immense size.
Temeraire tilts his neck from side to side to peer at the small shops they pass, clearly interested. “It is very different from China,” he murmurs loudly. No wonder, Laurence thinks privately; the Chinese shops were long-established, while these buildings have clearly been built recently to accommodate the dragon-wide streets.
But he does not say so. Napoléon is pleased to expand on the merits of the city. “This city hosts our greatest naval academy, dear William; I am sure you will find it of interest.”
Laurence has a hazy recollection of taking part in a skirmish against the place once; he remembers its cannons best. “There are some excellent vessels here,” he admits. “Temeraire, I believe this is where your namesake was built.”
The dragon perks up, swinging his head away from where he had been eyeing a disconcerted teashop-owner as though preparing to ask for a vat or two of the stuff. “They are nice, but not very different from those in England,” he says. This is not quite true, but to a dragon the differences must seem small indeed.
Napoléon raps his knuckles against the hilt of his sword. “Come – I believe there is something which will impress you around the corner.”
A few minutes later finds them looking upon a fine ship-of-the-line, a vessel which Laurence thinks – traitorously – could rival the Victory for grandeur. Bristling with gunports, there is no doubting that she is meant for war; the name Destin shines in freshly-gilt paint from the ship's bow.
“I did not realize France had such ships.”
“She will be the first of our new navy. Our flagship. It is time for France to master the waters.”
“I thought you mastered the air.”
“Only a weak man settles,” Napoléon says. “We will strive for ever-greater glories; I do not forget the threat the shipping of England posed. Even now Nelson is somewhere past Copenhagen waiting for revenge because he could not breech the Channel. He shall not have it.”
Laurence imagines the remnants of the English fleet brooding bitter and alone in Sweden – unsupported, unaided, with their allies few and far between. “No,” he says honestly. “He shall not.”
Napoléon graces him with a rare smile. “You approve?”
“She is beautiful – I would be glad to be here when she launches.”
“I will mark the date.”
“Will there be many similar ships?”
“Similar, though not of such splendor. The Destin took years of planning, and our finest materials went into her. I myself consulted with the head of the academy on the project.” When Laurence turns to him in surprise, Napoléon adds, “Before I became consul, I pursued a career in mathematics.”
“Mathematics!” Temeraire says, delighted.
Napoléon turns to him with a faint smile. Laurence doesn't understand much of the conversation for the rest of the night.
He finds that he doesn't much mind.
Laurence smooths down his parchment, frowning with disapproval at a few crooked marks. His French writing is not yet so easy as his speech. The light streaming in through the window hits a new angle and seems to throw the whole text into an unpleasantly slanted look; he contemplates rewriting the whole thing, then sets it back on the desk with a shake of his head.
“You still write to someone?”
Laurence looks up as Granby enters the room, shedding his jacket casually as he comes. “I am afraid I have somewhat lost the habit,” Laurence admits ruefully. His hand already feels cramped.
“But someone,” Granby persists, eyeing the letter with interest. “Who?”
The implication is clear – who would still want to write to Laurence? He cannot take offense. “Napoléon,” he says, and signs his name before he change his mind. There is certainly no need to rewrite it, none at all -
“The Emperor?” Granby looks at him incredulously. “Whatever for?”
Laurence frowns. “I beg your pardon?”
“Why are you writing him?”
Laurence blanks. “For no particular reason,” he says after a pause. “He was telling me in his letter about his son and the new scribe at the Tuileries. Temeraire wishes me to tell him about the progress on the Pavilion.”
Granby looks at him, equally blank. “...You are writing to the Emperor of France about... Pavilions?” he asks. “You are writing to Bonaparte as friends?”
Laurence hesitates. “There is little harm in maintaining civil relations,” he says.
“Civil,” Granby says. “Well. Civil.”
Laurence seals his letter. Granby watches him in silence and says nothing as Laurence leaves to give the letter to a dragon-courier lounging in the field.
Two children dart daringly close to the carriage, then move away with delighted laughter when one of the Imperial guards move forward. The man takes a single step back into his position; Laurence is mostly sure he imagines the smile on the man's face.
It is strange not to have Temeraire by his side, but Laurence resists to urge to glance around and steps out behind Napoléon into the stone courtyard. Interested onlookers have gathered at a distance near the palace fountain. “This is a recent acquisition, is it not?” He does not have much of an interest in art, but he suspects Napoléon has been making an effort to show off France's finer qualities; why, he is not yet certain, though he has suspicions.
Though how Napoléon thinks art will convince him to join up in the war -
“The palace, no; but the Musée Napoléon was only reopened several years ago,” Napoléon answers. Laurence has to tilt back his head to take in the full scale of the building as they approach; the Louvre Palace rivals the Tuileries in size. They approach the grand doors. “We have made many additions to it in the past years; we have just re-acquired a piece found on the Egyptian campaign which I believe Temeraire would find interesting, a stone with many curious forms of writing - “
“Sire, Sire! Listen a moment!”
Laurence immediately brings his hand down to his sword, wishing his movements did not so closely mirror those of the nearest Imperial guardsmen. A man darts up behind them and is swallowed by a crush of guards as Napoléon turns, eyeing him critically.
“You must listen,” the man insists, apparently unperturbed by the six-foot men in armor tugging him away. “You must end this war – you must, it will end in disaster - “
The guards like this even less. One elbows the man's ribs and he doubles over, winded.
Laurence starts to step forward, memorizing the stranger's face. He catches a glint of wide, dark eyes and ruddy cheeks. Then Napoléon touches his shoulder. “Come, he is no one.”
Reluctantly, Laurence turns around. The sounds of a scuffle fade away as the aching doors of the Louvre swing open.
“Disaster!” the man calls.
Later, the Emperor chooses to accompany Laurence to the château; it is an odd gesture only because Laurence knows he truly does not have the time. Upon arrival the courier-dragon who made the trip waits in the field while the two briefly enter the house.
“I may be occupied for some weeks,” Napoléon says abruptly. “ - Negotiations.”
“We have been investigating relations with the Americas – the Southern Americas, especially, for the American Colonials are largely ambivalent still. The Sapa Inca, the Empress of the Incans, she has responded to us. There is hope for a lasting alliance.”
“Do you mean to visit the Sapa Inca yourself?” he asks.
“No. I have considered the matter at length, and I shall send along my brother Louis when the time comes. He has made noises about courting, though I do not think he will truly enjoy it; there are many rumors that he prefers the company of men.”
“ - I see,” Laurence manages.
He does not know how to respond to this flippant remark. Napoléon seems to notice his discomfiture. “Have I surprised you?” he asks, amused.
“No, no - “
“He may spend his time as he likes, of course,” the Emperor says airily. “I pressure my siblings into nothing - “ Likely a blatant lie. “But I suppose if he shall marry, an empress is a good choice.”
“I am more surprised that you discuss it so... openly,” says Laurence with delicacy.
“His preferences are not, perhaps, considered to be in good taste. But he has committed no crime by it; not in France.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“As part of our civil code – my civil code – there shall be no laws, no prohibitions made on the basis of religion. What is the reasoning behind such censure? A man should trust his soul to his own conscience, not the law. It is so in all French territories.”
“ - Your brother is fortunate, then.”
“It is a glorious thing when a man is free from the judgments of his neighbors – when every man from a king to a breadmaker can have equal freedom under the law.” Napoléon reaches out, startling Laurence by grasping his hand and raising it to his own chest. “I think you will agree that there is much of the heart that cannot be withheld by the arbitrariness of men.”
“...But traditions inevitably have a basis in good sense,” says Laurence, and carefully retrieves his hand. “And laws must be respected.”
“Or altered, perhaps.”
“If that is within your power.”
“Do you never break tradition?”
“With good motive,” say Laurence unthinkingly.
“Then you shall have it,” says Napoléon, “If it shall take me a hundred years to convince you of the fact.” Stepping closer, he touches Laurence's neck before leaning in and kissing his cheek so closely that his lips skim the corner of his mouth.
Laurence says nothing; without another word Napoléon exits, and the door clicks quietly behind him.
Laurence is not a fool. Slow in the realization, perhaps, but not a fool. He stares at the shut door, and as his wits return he can only think to say: “Oh, damn it all.”
Laurence finds himself reluctant to approach Tharkay for counsel about his latest problem – not for fear of judgment, and certainly not because he doubts Tharkay's ability to advise him, but because Tharkay seems perhaps too adept at reading into his motives and mind. Finally he finds Granby alone in the château library and requests a moment.
“You look as though I am about to order a firing-squad, Laurence,” says Granby. “I hope I am not quite that fearsome.”
Laurence observes the wall over Granby's head with great concentration. “I had an extremely interesting conversation with Napoléon yesterday.”
“Sometimes I wonder what you two discuss,” Granby comments. “Are you going to tell me?”
“He told me,” Laurence says with great care, “ - and he found it very important that I should know this – he told me that, in France, it is not illegal for two men to find the affection traditionally preserved for a man and woman.”
There is a silence. Then, strangled: “Oh?”
“He was very concerned that I know,” Laurence repeats, certain that his face is furiously red. He will have no misunderstandings here; if he is to have this conversation once he will not have it again. “...I confess, John, I do not know quite how to say this...”
Granby sounds absolutely miserable when he says, “No, no – oh, hell, of course not.”
Shared dismay is better than repulsion. “Any - “ Laurence falters. “Any counsel would be welcome; I confess I cannot consider myself on even footing, and I do not trust my first judgment.”
There is a lengthy pause. For a moment Laurence fears he has asked too much. “Well,” Granby says slowly. “To start, how have you reacted to such – instances – in the past?”
“Largely, I have not.”
“You cannot have failed to encounter such relationships, Laurence, not in the Navy.”
“That cannot quite compare.”
“Something must compare.”
This is said a bit snappishly, and Laurence is immediately contrite. Granby is only trying to help, after all. “In the Navy, I confess I turned a blind eye to – insinuations, or subtle indiscretions. But never have I found myself so confronted by my own sense of conscience.”
Granby is quiet for a moment. When he speaks, he sounds very tired. “You must make your own decision,” he says. “I cannot guide your morals. But I will say this; I do not see how one situation differs from the other, and I will stand by that. The proximity of the act makes no difference; people do ignore it when it suits them, and that is because no one at all is harmed, Laurence. There is a point where a man must question the reason for a rule, and when something begins to ruin his personal happiness – to strangle it – it is the time to question why.”
Laurence is moved deeply by this support, which is more than he would ever have expected. “I cannot know if you are right – but there is sense in what you say. Thank you for speaking with me.”
“You are welcome,” says Granby. “And for God's sake, do not ask me to do it again.”
Laurence agrees wholeheartedly.
If Granby seems to avoid Laurence for a few days, Laurence cannot blame him; and in any case his behavior returns to normal soon enough, though he does seem to favor Laurence with strange, half-wary stares every now and again.
Tharkay is harder to ignore, with the man very aware that he is ignorant of something and determined to learn what it is; Tharkay will rarely outright ask something but has an eerie way of appearing around the property – whether Laurence is in the château attic or reading at the very edge of one of the fields – and inserting himself very neatly into one's conscience.
Temeraire, of course, is always the rub.
“Why might we not go to Paris?” he asks. “I told Requitum we might fly to the ocean; she would like to try swimming, and does not believe me when I tell her how large whales are.”
“I – dear,” he says, momentarily distracted, “Please do not land on any more whaling boats, it startles them quite unnecessarily. And you may certainly see Requitum, but I am afraid I cannot join you today.”
“Sometimes, you do not have very good reasons for anything,” Temeraire sighs after a moment of silence. He rearranges his wings, which have begun to droop sulkily. “Of course you must not come if you should not like to - “
“That is not it at all,” he surprises himself by saying.
Temeraire tilts his head.
Laurence wavers. “...Perhaps I shall come after all,” he says quietly.
“Oh, excellent! Only do not change your mind again, please; it is a very nice day, and I am certain we shall find many whalers if we set out early.”
“Whales,” says Laurence suspiciously.
“Yes, of course,” the dragon hastens to correct.
As they fly to Paris a comfortable silence falls, and Laurence uses the spans between the familiar wingbeats to contemplate his struggle. If he is to contemplate pederasty, he cannot shirk from examining the ramifications. He must also consider a very important question; is the act worth the disgrace, the censure he will face from society?
Can he face any more censure than he already does – and would he care, if so?
A man should not base his actions on the thought of his reputation. Laurence dismisses the question. It is a moral dilemma, then, and in this regard morals become murky indeed.
“Napoléon will be glad to see us again so soon,” Temeraire comments as they slowly spiral down over the Tuileries gardens; familiar dragons, guards, and courtiers turn to them from the ground.
“Yes, I suppose so,” Laurence agrees lowly.
But it is not Napoléon who meets them. Requitum is, indeed, in the garden and she is pleased to see Temeraire. Watching the eager Pascal's Blue dart around him chattering about her day eases some of Laurence's concerns. He is almost startled when a man comes up from behind him.
“The Emperor is not expecting you, I think,” says Larrey. “I am afraid he has meetings all day.”
Laurence tries to understand if something is being implied. “I certainly mean to be no inconvenience - “
“No, no – you are always welcome here,” the doctor says automatically. Looking at the two dragons, his eyes soften. “ - Come. Join me for a walk; I have been in the library far too long today.”
They gain many eyes on them as they walk; it is not the first time Laurence has noticed the odd way he is viewed, a sort of mingled intrigue, respect, and disdain from various directions. He realized abruptly that he seems to attract fewer of the latter looks today, and after a puzzled moment realizes that it is because he is walking with Larrey, and not Napoléon.
Laurence flushes anew to realize the new overtones to dozens of interactions he has had since coming to France – subtle insinuations and knowing glances from people clearly more observant than himself. Napoléon is not a man known for subtlety.
Larrey asks about the château, politely, and then inquires after Tharkay and Granby with what looks like real interest. “We have many prisoners,” he says when Laurence inquires. “Many of them are indeed being slowly released with promises of good behavior, but a dragon captain – a captain of that dragon – I cannot say.”
“It hurts John to be in this country, I am certain. And I do not blame him; he does not share my crimes, but to sit peaceably in this country hurts his spirit. And I would not have him be party to my own betrayal longer than necessary.
Larrey views him thoughtfully. “Does it truly still bother you?” he asks.
“I beg your pardon?”
“England – your betrayal, as you call it. I am sorry if I overstep, and I do not question your loyalty or your honor. I know you have done all you can to temper Our Emperor and limit your involvement in the war. But the war is over; and for your part, I have seen no reason you should grieve for England. Indeed, I have seen no sign that you do.”
Laurence is quiet. “I will always grieve for England.”
“Perhaps that is true. A better question is, can you also learn to love France?” Larrey looks at him carefully. “...Or, do you already?”
Laurence folds his hands behind his back and looks ahead.
After a moment Larrey looks down. “Well, it is your business,” he says. “I do not mean to press. But a man should know his priorities, his own mind.”
And that, Laurence thinks, is really the problem.
“I am a traitor,” Laurence says.
“Well, yes,” says Granby. He pours himself a cup of tea – ignoring Gardinier's cluck of disapproval from long habit – and sits down at the nearby table with Laurence and Tharkay.
“No – I am a traitor.”
Granby looks at him a moment. He blinks slowly. “Oh,” he says.
Tharkay... sighs. “Will. Are you only just learning this?”
“There is a significant difference,” Laurence says desperately, “Between an act of betrayal made for moral reasons – to prevent crimes which must offend all common decency, all standards of humanity regardless of nationality – and to turn one's back on everything...” he trails off. The other two are looking at him pityingly.
“You passed that boundary quite some time ago,” Tharkay says. “I will not argue with your reasons for taking the cure to France; but since then you have hardly acted like a man loyal to your nation.”
“No,” Granby says, more rueful. “You haven't – I'm sorry, Laurence. Let me say it plainly; I gave you my doubt for Iskierka's sake from the start, but were you anyone else, and had I known of any of your actions second-hand, I would have called you a Frenchman and a traitor and wiped my hands of you.”
Tharkay just shrugs when Laurence looks back at him; he does not care about silly things like nations or patriotism, after all.
Laurence sits for a moment. “Does this change something?” Tharkay asks. He sounds honestly curious.
“Everything, perhaps.” Laurence stares at the table. “There is no altering it, is there?”
“There is no England,” Tharkay points out dryly. “Not really - I would say it is hard to show your loyalty to a country that has been subsumed.”
Laurence stands so abruptly that the others wince. “I beg your pardon,” he says, and exits.
As he walks from the manor-house he passes Temeraire curled at the base of the hill.
“Are we going to fly somewhere?” Temeraire asks sleepily. He twists around to look at Laurence's riding-coat, his dark boots.
“No, dear; pray sleep again, and do not be concerned.”
Temeraire needs no further prompting.
It is still a popular habit of nearby aviators to lounge upon the property like a resting-point, and today is no different. Laurence finds a blue and white Pecheur-Couronne lounging with her captain. They both look surprised when he approaches.
“If it would not trouble you,” he says. “I would appreciate transport to Paris.”
Without Temeraire's distinctive bulk in the air no one glances twice as Laurence dismounts from his escort.
The flight was silent, but he does not dare question his decision now that it is made – he will question himself forever if he lets himself think again.
He enters the Tuileries without issue. Faceless courtiers roam the halls despite the hour, drifting by without giving him a second glance. Laurence always draws attention, but tonight no one seems to notice him. His ears ring with the glottal sounds of French speech; then, like a familiar coat, the words and syllables slip around his ears and fall into place. He has long ceased to notice his fluency with the language.
The late hour makes it easy to guess where he needs to be. His feet take him across the palace and into a private, ornate set of rooms connected to a smaller entrance. Two Imperial guardsmen stand outside. They glance at Laurence once and do not intervene when he pushes open the door.
The study is larger than some houses, and more grand than most. A small desk sits almost ludicrously small in the center of the room, neatly covered in papers, quills, and ink-bottles. As the door clicks open Napoléon glances up sharply, his face relaxing immediately into pleased surprise.
“Hello – sit, if you like. I am just finishing.” The Emperor dips his quill into a bottle of ink; there are black stains on his fine white breeches.
“Routine reports?” Laurence approaches the desk.
“No, no, excellent news,” says Napoléon absently. His quill scratches out a line on the parchment. “George III has fled to Halifax with his son – but whatever are you doing here so late? It is no decent hour for a dragon to fly.”
“I needed to see you.”
Perhaps it is his tone that makes Napoléon pause. “Did you?” He looks up, his sharp eyes taking in every aspect of Laurence's appearance. Carefully, he sets down his quill. “- Why is that?”
“I have been think of – changes,” he fumbles. “And traditions.”
Napoléon is standing now. “There is always room for change – but if you have come to advocate caution, know that it may be best to say nothing at all.”
“I believe I am quite done being cautious.”
Ink has a very faint, very distinct scent. For months Napoléon has made his overtures, softly, gently, but Laurence finds he is unprepared to be the whole focus of the man's sharp regard – wholly unprepared for the hand, hot against his back, that pulls him forward into the man's waiting grasp.
(Everyone knows this: when Napoléon Bonaparte has laid a claim, he will not relinquish it lightly.)
Several weeks pass. Laurence finds himself spending more time at the Tuileries, and by unintended consequence noting the cautious maneuverings of the court. The divorce is not quite finalized, but Joséphine spends most of her time at the Château de Malmaison, ostensibly for the clean air, and everyone politely avoids any mention of other reasons. She will always be Empress. Laurence is introduced to Lord Talleyrand – a polite, smiling man who makes the skin on his neck crawl – and, among other things, does his utmost to avoid Pauline Bonaparte.
(“You saw her naked, didn't you,” Napoléon sighs one day. Laurence's sputtering denials are not very convincing.)
One evening as he returns to Temeraire he is waylaid by Marshal Soult and Dr. Larrey, both of whom approach him with clear intent.
They have a proposition:
“Kellerman is going to Britain with Dr. Larrey,” Soult says. “They would like you to join them.”
Laurence startles. “Whatever for?”
“The Scots are causing some trouble; the old British king has fled, like a coward, but now the Scots are saying they are not a part of Britain and were never conquered at all. Which is untrue – they fought at Shoeburyness too – but these things happen occasionally.”
'These things' – rebellions. “And I would accompany Marshal Kellerman along with the purpose of - ?”
“No one can say you do not know the terrain; and, indeed, we could use some good advice for dealing with the people there. We cannot yet trust anyone in Britain, not really.”
But they can trust him.
Laurence pauses. “...Yes, very well.”
The two praise his decision as though he has arrived at some great insight. They leave, and Laurence stands wavering alone in the hall for a moment before continuing to the gardens where Temeraire lies in wait.
The great Celestial seems impatient. “Laurence, there you are. I do not know what she is about, but Lien has invited us to tea, and I suppose she is planning something dreadful. We may refuse her, can we not?”
“It would be most rude,” Laurence says reluctantly.
“She will certainly be rude to us,” Temeraire protests, but subsides muttering.
Lien has already made arrangements at her pavilion. The sky has faded to a hazy salmon-pink, and her scales glow with the reflected light of her ruby torque.
Temeraire sits as far away from her as he can manage without looking ridiculous.
But Lien says nothing to them, except to nod her head mutely at Laurence when he finally gives his own greeting. Finally Temeraire cannot stand it, and bursts, “Oh, why do you pretend not to hate us? We know you mean to kill me, and Laurence as well; it is far kinder to act than to draw us out with these strange invitations.”
“It would be far kinder,” Lien says, tilting back her head with something like satisfaction. She waits.
“ - Oh, you are very unpleasant,” says Temeraire.
“I will have my revenge. But not as you expect it.”
“Then how - “
The great white Celestial drinks from her tea with an infinite delicacy. “Human lives are swift,” she says. “A dragon can afford to be patient. This is something you have yet to understand, Lung Tien Xiang.”
“I will never understand you; I do not want to understand you.”
Lien gazes at him scornfully. She turns to Laurence. “Napoléon is very fond of you,” she says coldly. “I do not know why; I do not care, but it is so. You shall live, then, and shall not suffer if it shall make him suffer; but you will continue to make him happy.”
“I believe I understand,” says Laurence grimly.
“Excellent.” Temeraire puts his ruff back as Lien takes another careful drink of her tea. “Then we are done – for now.”
Arrangements are made more quickly than expected. At the Château d'Hérouville Granby pulls Laurence aside when he learns of his intentions.
“I am grateful to you, Will, for saving Iskierka,” he says. “And so I'm not going to tell you what I'm going to do; but know that it needs to be done, and don't blame yourself when you are a country away, anyway. I wish you well on your travels.”
Laurence stares at the man for a moment. Then, hesitantly, he clasps Granby by the shoulder and nods. “And I wish you well on – in our absence,” he says lamely.
When the day comes to meet Marshal Kellerman, Laurence arrives to find Tharkay waiting by Temeraire with a packed travel-bag. “Arkady is being needlessly difficult,” he says, as though this is an explanation. “I believe he has been quite spoiled.”
“ - It should not surprise me,” Laurence says in lieu of a proper response. Temeraire cranes his neck curiously as Tharkay climbs into the harness, but perhaps the mood is telling; he does not ask about Tharkay's intentions, either, and the three of them set out for Calais together by dawn.
The preparations are noticeable; outside Calais Kellerman's silvery-blue Argentum, a particularly small Poux-de-Ciel, waits with Requitum and a courier beast. There are a strange number thronged among the dragons, being insistently pressed back by guards, which is when Laurence realizes that Napoléon Bonaparte is seeing them off.
He really should stop being surprised.
Larrey is still making quick arrangements with several men – one of them wears the attire of a civilian doctor – and so Laurence takes the opportunity to take to the ground and greet Napoléon.
Napoléon stands with the courier, watching the shoreline with a thoughtful eye. “By the time you return, I should be back also with news from Russia,” he says. “We may have either face peace or a greater war to face in days to come.”
A greater war – Laurence cannot scarcely fathom it. “Then I shall pray for peace,” he says. “And after you return?”
“There is always France – a whole nation to look after.”
“And Spain, I suppose,” Laurence says.
Napoléon ignores this. “Either way I dearly hope you find the journey to England beneficial.”
Laurence narrows his eyes. “This journey is, so I am told, meant to benefit King Lucien.”
“And so it shall,” the Emperor returns easily. “But there is no reason you shall not benefit as well.”
By Requitum Larrey directs a few men to get the last pieces of luggage secured.
Napoléon reaches up to touch his cheek. “The flights will be lonely again,” he says wistfully. “I do hope you hasten back.”
Laurence cannot help but speak honestly. “I can see no other possibility, when I shall be thinking of you every day.”
Napoléon leans in to kiss him - careful, quick, mindful though largely uncaring of the crowd. Even French manners, which render such an exchange not so unusual, are little comfort; Laurence's face is hot when they pull apart.
There is nothing more to be said.
When he returns to Temeraire the Celestial has noticed nothing strange; Tharkay, however, watches him flatly with raised eyebrows. Laurence matches the stare as long as he dares, then turns away when Argentum and Kellerman take to the air.
Dover covert is much changed. From the sky Laurence sees two dragons bound in chains – a Yellow Reaper and a sad little Greyling – but the rest move freely. There are, however, signs of definite French occupation. Aside from the English beasts the covert hosts a sleeping Fleur-de-Nuit, a Petit Chevalier, and two Papillon Noirs. And, of course, the tricolor is mounted rather noticeably from the battlements.
He is wholly unprepared for the sight of Admiral Roland at the covert entrance.
Jane, of course, has seen their flight. She does not look at Laurence or Temeraire when the dragons descend. “Well, what do you want now,” she asks Kellerman curtly.
The Marshal is unfazed. “We are merely resting our dragons; we will be on our way again for London in the morning.”
“Then you may speak to Ensign Telani regarding anything you might need,” - a deliberate snub. But Kellerman just smiles genially as Roland waves over an ensign before turning heel and leaving the group altogether.
Temeraire's sigh is very nearly audible.
After the other dragons are situated Temeraire cranes his head around to speak to Laurence and Tharkay. “I saw Maximus and Lily when we flew down,” he says. “Shall we visit them, Laurence? It has been so very long, and I am sure they shall not be cross with us.”
Tharkay snorts. Laurence, dubiously, responds, “If you believe that is wise, my dear, I will not forestall you. But I will say that you should prepare yourself for a poor response.”
“Do not be silly,” Temeraire dismisses. So with reluctance they accompany him to find the two heavy-weights.
Maximus and Lily are both waiting expectantly in their fields when they arrive. “So you are not a prisoner,” is the first thing Lily says. “Everyone has been very confused about what happened to you, and Catherine gets very upset when I asked, so I supposed perhaps you were being tortured very horribly.”
“Oh! But that is silly, we talked to Catherine ourselves,” says Temeraire, hurt. He shakes himself off; “Well, I am glad to see you both well, too.”
“It is not very different under the French,” Lily says. “The orders are much the same, though we must not all fly at once, and indeed we are given some freedoms we did not have before; only,” and here her voice goes low and sad, “Catherine is not very happy.”
“I would not say Berkley is unhappy; but he is upset. And he gets angry often,” Maximus says. “These French fellows tell me he will get over it soon enough and I suppose that is likely. I do not much see, myself, what difference it makes who sits in Parliament.”
“I find it quite likely that they shall both be happy again,” Temeraire says. “Laurence is even though he was very loyal to England before; although, I think he is mostly happy because of Napoléon, and Berkley and Catherine have no one like him.”
Tharkay coughs quietly and turns his face toward the sky.
“I suppose there is the new King,” says Lily very skeptically. “Will he make Catherine happy?”
“No, no, I have seen him in France; he is very blustery and silly. Perhaps they can find other French soldiers - “
“Temeraire, that is quite enough, dear,” Laurence says hurriedly. “I am certain your captains can want for no better company than the both of you; and may I ask where I might find Berkley and Harcourt?”
“Catherine does not want to see you.”
“Berkley said he does, but probably shouldn't,” says Maximus in a vaguely bemused way.
“The French watch us quite closely,” Lily is telling Temeraire now. “They fear we will rebel or escape. And of course Catherine and many other do intend to rebel, but we will hardly be obvious about it.”
“You should not rebel,” says Temeraire. “France is quite wonderful; I am sure you will be content if you only wait and see.”
“Now, that is something,” Tharkay tells Laurence.
“I beg your pardon?”
“As long as I have known Temeraire he has always preached sedition.” Tharkay gestures. “Now you and Napoléon have him finally preaching loyalty – to France.”
They reach London by noon the next day. During the campaign Laurence had thought it wholly transformed; now he does not even recognize the city and indeed feels vaguely confused for a long and horrible moment when the dragons begin to descend.
Every road has been widened, reformed. This means that the houses, the buildings, the very layout of the city has been awkwardly shifted into a complex and sprawling pattern to permit the roads – clearly dragon-oriented – to continue unimpeded. Fortifications are also in the works; a small outer wall has begun to rise around the city, which seems like an archaic addition. Laurence wonders if it is meant to keep others out or to pen London's recalcitrant citizens in.
The newly-proclaimed King Lucien meets them by the Tower of London.
It is an interesting choice – the tower has not been a common royal residence for nearly two centuries. After greeting them Lucien mentions that he is having it repaired. “It is an excellent symbol,” he says, though whether he refers to the tower's long history of royal owners or its more recent reputation as a seat of tyranny and torture remains unclear.
“And you are my brother's prize Englishman,” says Lucien, eyeing him warily. “I suppose it should not surprise me he has you – it is no strange thing to love my brother, though you might be unique in your expression of it - “ Laurence stiffens, and Lucien straightens with evident satisfaction at having hit the mark. “ - but, come, you must be better than these men squawking at me about how I am destroying their great and glorious traditions. You, surely, see the need for change?”
“...Sir, if I may advise you at all I can only tell you what I might think is best for England.”
“We all want what is best for England, do we not?” Lucien asks. “We must merely ensure that what is best for England is also best for France. They can no longer be considered separate, after all.”
“Then I wonder,” says Tharkay unexpectedly, “If during planning France will consider England in her decisions.”
Lucien shoots Tharkay a cold look. “Come inside, then,” is all he says. “We have much to discuss.”
“There are a few ships around the Isle of Man – almost inconsequential,” Kellerman says. “We will let them starve themselves and surrender; they do not dare try to take the shore, and we have conquered the Isle through dragons. Ireland, now, that is also a problem, but one which we can afford to address later.”
“There were fears that the Irish would try to join the French,” Laurence recalls. “Before Napoléon was Emperor.”
“Were there? That may benefit us. But the Scots cannot wait; their very land borders England, and with the English still restless we can not allow traitors to run back and forth along the border freely. Everything must be controlled.”
They are camped outside Harrogate. Laurence listens and nods. “Who leads them?”
“They are divided,” is the satisfied response. “Some unimportant man, Wellesley – you may remember him from Shoeburyness? - I suppose he has convinced the scattered English troops to elect him as their leader. The Scots, of course, want their own people leading, and fight more for an independent Scotland than a free England; if you ask my opinion that is more sensible, but they mean to fight us nevertheless.”
“And look,” says Tharkay, “We have brought a doctor, so we can kill them and patch up their injured, too.”
Larrey gives him a stiff look. “I heal anyone I might, Sir. War is a horrible business, but it does not have to be more cruel than necessary.”
At that Tharkay just laughs and walks away.
Laurence watches him with a frown. “I must ask you to excuse me,” he tells the others. They wave him away. As he goes, though, he hears a voice behind him:
“Will the prince e'tranger join us at Leeds?” an aide says, “or continue to Hawick - “
Laurence knows the words, but the address confuses him. He files away the title for later consideration.
Tharkay is waiting for him by one of the cannons – they are quite recognizable, as Temeraire has complained heavily about lugging his own 12-pounder. The man does not look angry so much as calculating, and Laurence wonders, suddenly, if he expected to be followed.
“Why did you come with us?” he asks, changing his intended question.
Instead of answering the question, Tharkay sighs. “Laurence. You have practically been pining.”
Laurence stutters. “I do hope you never truly need to be subtle,” Tharkay says. “The French love Napoléon, and everyone else fears him, else I suppose there would be a problem. But do not try to take me for a fool.”
Laurence is very still for an instant. “Does it matter?” he says at last.
Tharkay meets his gaze evenly. “I am here because I wanted to be certain that you know what you are doing.”
“I do. I am quite resolved.”
Tharkay nods. He is quiet for a moment. “Then this is where I must leave you.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Do not take this as any personal judgment; my reasons are my own. And, for what consolation it might be, I truly should not stay in one place overlong – or with one person.” Tharkay lets his lips twist in a rueful smile. “A journey straight to the arctic would be more comfortable.”
“I do not understand.”
“I hope you never do,” he says. “Good-bye, Laurence.”
Before the flight to Hawick – where they will have the designated meeting with the Scottish leaders because, Laurence is told, “those cowards do not want us in their cities” – Laurence asks Kellerman about the title he overheard, prince e'tranger.
“Ah,” Kellerman says. “You have heard that? The public has decided on your proper title at last; it is the traditional term for a foreign prince who has been naturalized. Not technically correct, but close enough.”
But by now he is resigned to much; he does not argue, even when the term is heard being bandied about by other officers. He supposes it helps them to have some term to use, and he is quite tired of being called the 'Good Englishman'.
They make Hawick in the early afternoon. A delegation is already prepared, and the encampment is well-surrounded by platoons of soldiers. Yet it takes Laurence an effort to understand the specific cause of his unease.
After some arguing the dragons are permitted into the talks, which clearly rattles the Scottish representatives. After the formal greetings – Wellesley looks like he has something wet and unpleasant stuck to his fingers when he shakes Kellerman's hand – Laurence turns to the man and asks, “You have no dragons?”
Everyone glances around in surprise.
“Treasonous, quarrelsome things, all of them.”
“Well they will be, if you say such things to their faces,” Temeraire reproves.
“Just like that,” Wellesley shakes a finger at him. “Just so!”
“Temeraire is not one of your men, Sir,” Laurence says. It goes against all good notions of warfare to ignore the use of dragons, especially when facing a force so aerial-dependent as the French.
“No, no longer – you have made that very plain.” Wellesley scowls. “But we have not come here to discuss dragons; you should know very well we are not giving up Scotland.”
Kellerman interjects very politely to inform Wellesley that England has already surrendered, and Scotland is a part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain; Wellesley would like to point out that England surrendered, not Britain, and losing a battle is not the same as losing a war. The two Scottish men by his side, Major General Ferguson and another man not introduced, do not seem as quarrelsome as Kellerman has implied; perhaps Wellesley has simply said nothing controversial as of yet.
Then Wellesley says, “This insult against the crown, against Britain, will not be tolerated - “ and Major General Ferguson interjects:
“Though, of course, we have no intentions of inciting any hostilities against His Majesty the Emperor. Peace is our greatest, our only wish at this point.”
There is a strangled silence. Wellesley gapes like a fish, clearly stunned, and Laurence almost averts his eyes from sheer discomfort.
“...A peace might be possible,” says Kellerman at last. Unlike the English general, he is clearly pleased. “Very possible, with the right terms. What do you have in mind?”
Ferguson exhales slowly.
Under Wellesley's horrified eyes he brings out a treaty which essentially amounts to a surrender – a peace bought with willing bribery, an exchange of part of Scotland's lands, willingly given, on the sufferance that France not fight for the rest. Because, of course, if such a fight were to happen, everyone knows France would eventually win.
A map is brought to the table and examined. Kellerman toys with the terms. “Mostly sufficient,” he says. Ferguson is glowering now. “But perhaps, if we changed the border here - “ he makes a mark. Ferguson releases a sound of protest.
“We are not giving you Glasgow!”
“We are not giving you Edinburgh!”
Laurence clears his throat. “Perhaps the French could have the land here, up to Greenock – it is mostly uninhabited, I believe – and also Great Cumbrae, next to it. Then the Scottish could keep the Isle of Arran?”
Everyone pauses. “...You do not really need Great Cumbrae,” says Ferguson, resigned.
“But it is such a nice little rock,” says Kellerman cheerfully. “Excellent suggestion, Prince Laurence.” Wellesley glances at him darkly. “Let us amend the terms - “
Wellesley tries to protest one more, time, and is finally silenced by the third man – King Victor Emmanuel of Saldinia, Head of the House of Savoy. “There will no fighting,” the pretender of Britain says flatly. Wellesley stares at him furiously just as Laurence realizes the depths of the English desperation that is being displayed here; no one believes King George will be able to return. No one truly thinks there is any hope of reclaiming England.
So they take away a piece of Scotland without spilling a drop of blood – and if Wellesley meant to offer terms of war, that is quite impossible now.
As they fly away later Laurence finds himself watching the rolling Scottish hills, the clear skies. He tries to find regret in his heart, and instead can only feel completely and utterly content.
Temeraire tells him, “I think the cities are not as afraid of us as before, Laurence. It is strange.”
“They are accustomed to dragons now, my dear. And even to the French.”
“It is very nice, when no one is afraid. And now the English are done fighting the French as well.”
“Some of their soldiers may one day fight the enemies of France.”
“Perhaps one day the whole world will be united,” Temeraire says. “Would there be peace then, Laurence?”
“I do not think that is likely to happen, Temeraire. But you are not alone in thinking about it.”
They stop by Dover covert before crossing the Channel.
Jane deigns to speak with him this time – she lets him into her office, alone, and stares coldly from behind her desk when he stands in front of her and fumbles over what to say. She interrupts before he can make a fool of himself for too long:
“Half the country has heard of it already,” she says. “Your success in Scotland; I do not know if you expect me to be impressed. We blessed you when you left with the cure, Laurence. We loved you and feared for you; but no one expected this. Did your vows mean nothing? Does England mean nothing?”
“You cannot ask that. I am sorry, Jane - “
“Do not apologize to me,” she snaps. “ - Though you should. But if you are truly sorry, answer the question.”
“I will always grieve for England. But now I must rejoice for France as well, and one duty must supersede the other.”
Jane stares at him. “I would hit you if I did not suspect it would make you feel better. You have chosen a side, Laurence.”
“Yes,” he says. “Jane - “
“Do not apologize. If you have truly betrayed us – if you will continue to betray us – let me believe you at least think you are doing the right thing. I can live with that, even if you are wrong and I must hate you for it.” Jane leans back in her chair. Closes her eyes. “Go away. And for god's sake, stay out of England – there is nothing for you here.”
When Laurence and Temeraire return to France, the Château d'Hérouville is empty.
Or, not empty, so much as quieter than before; Gardinier meets them at the front, very prim, with tea and a report. The herds are doing very well; the ferals have left, save for three of them. And Granby and Iskierka are gone, he says; they fled during the night a week back, headed for Belgium. There is no word yet if they have been captured, but a dead lightweight has been found with his face burnt away.
Temeraire is horrified, and Laurence has nothing to say.
There is more news; a messenger from the palace who is revealed to be Gong Su. He is garbed finely in a dark robe, and after giving the perfunctory genuflections to Temeraire and Laurence he delivers a letter to each.
Temeraire's contains the typical greetings, news, and poetry tidbits. Laurence then opens his own – a letter from Prince Mianning himself – and finds among its contents this:
We have received word that you have become an allied brother of the French Emperor. The Son of Heaven looks favorably upon this match which might strengthen both our nations.
Gong Su is, he thinks with dismay, evidently an able spy.
Another section, more distressingly, encourages him to find a wife as soon as possible.
“I do hope the Prince does not seriously intend to match me with some Chinese woman,” he says. “A stranger – it cannot be borne.”
“We are aware of your relations with the French Emperor,” says Gong Su to his great mortification. “That is quite fine, but this is not Fujian, and you are a prince. You can certainly remain here with the Emperor and still marry. Or at least you may take a consort.”
Temeraire turns interestedly to ask about Fujian and Laurence decides to make himself a cup of tea.
Laurence and Temeraire are both standing outside the Tuileries – along with a crowd of courtiers and soldiers – when Napoléon descends on the back of an Honneur-d'Or in triumph. By now vague news of a treaty has already arrived by courier; the cheers are tremendous.
Napoléon catches his eye and nods, then leaves the middle-weight's back while speaking with his foreign minister, Talleyrand. Laurence touches Temeraire's side and goes inside the palace to wait.
The Emperor finally arrives while stripping off his gloves impatiently, taking Laurence into a hasty embrace that shows his evident pleasure. “Come, look at the portrait the Tsar has had commissioned for me,” Napoléon says, releasing him. “We have imposed peace on Russia.”
“Is that not correct? Well, no matter.”
“I suppose that negotiations went well, then.” The painting shows a pavilion in the middle of a river and the two rulers embracing.
“Negotiations went very well,” Napoléon says. “I believe the Tsar will be a good ally to France; also, Prussia no longer exists.”
Laurence blinks. “I beg your pardon?”
“We gave Russia Bialystok and several hundred miles surrounding.” Napoléon shrugs like this is inconsequential. “The rest of Prussia is now divided between the great Kingdom of Westphalia, which will be cared for my by brother Jerome, and the Duchy of Warsaw. Jerome will do a good job with the place, I am sure.”
“ - I see.” England, as far as Laurence knows, is still called England; but he imagines there is little difference in one method of conquering over another even if a country's name does remain the same.
“Drink with me to our mutual victories; it is a good day, a good year.”
Chairs are found, drinks poured. Sitting back, Laurence watches as the Emperor of France unhooks his plain coat – green today, a mere colonel's uniform – and nearly misses the man's next words.
“It has been settled,” Napoléon says. “ - We are going to war with Spain. I would be gratified, dear William, to have you by my side in that campaign – to have you as a Marshal of France. Will you oblige me in this?”
Laurence says nothing for a moment. “How could I do otherwise?” he says at last.
Napoléon smiles and pours him another drink. Laurence looks into his glass for a moment, thinking of England, his family, his old vows lost and forsaken.
He drains the glass and thinks of France.
...So, uh, I realized after posting this that I got the dates wrong, and I thought that the Battle of Shoeburyness was in 1807. It was actually in 1808, which means a lot of the historical events I worked with should be completely thrown out the window, and also I want to light myself on fire. Aaargh. (The Treaty of Tilsit referenced here at the end happened a full year earlier, Napoleon's son Charles-Leon is a year old in January and not several weeks old, several of the Marshals were probably fighting in Spain, etc etc.)
I may or may not do something about this eventually? At the moment I'm just going to go hit my head against a wall.