League of Dragons by Naomi Novik
League of Dragons is a work of fiction. All incidents and dialogue, and all characters with the exception of some well-known historical and public figures, are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Where real-life historical or public figures appear, the situations, incidents, and dialogues concerning those persons are entirely fictional and are not intended to depict actual events or to change the entirely fictional nature of the work. In all other respects, any resemblance to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2016 by Temeraire LLC
Map copyright © 2016 by Robert Bull
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Del Rey, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
DEL REY and the HOUSE colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Novik, Naomi, author.
Title: League of dragons / Naomi Novik.
Description: New York : Del Rey,  | Series: Temeraire ; 9
Identifiers: LCCN 2016008015 (print) | LCCN 2016013985 (ebook) | ISBN 9780345522924 (hardcover : acid-free paper) | ISBN 9780345522948 (ebook)
Subjects: LCSH: Great Britain. Royal Navy—Officers—Fiction. | Napoleonic Wars, 1800–1815—Fiction. | Ship captains—Fiction. |Wizards—Fiction. | BISAC: FICTION / Fantasy / Historical. | FICTION / Fantasy / Epic. | FICTION / Science Fiction / Adventure. | GSAFD: Alternative histories (Fiction) | Fantasy fiction.
Classification: LCC PS3614.O93 L43 2016 (print) | LCC PS3614.O93 (ebook) | DDC 813/.6—dc23 LC record available at http://lccn.loc.gov/2016008015
ebook ISBN 9780345522948
Cover design: David G. Stevenson
Cover illustration: © Craig Howell/Cheeba Productions
By Naomi Novik
About the Author
THE CHEVALIER WAS NOT dead when they found her, but the scavengers had already begun to pick at her body. A cloud of raucous crows lifted when Temeraire’s shadow fell over the clearing, and a stoat slunk away into the underbrush, coat white, muzzle red. As he dismounted, Laurence saw its small hard shining eyes peering patiently out from beneath the bramble. The French dragon’s immense sides were sunken in between her ribs so deeply that each hollow looked like the span of a rope bridge. They swelled out and in with every shallow breath, the movement of her lungs made visible. She did not move her head, but her eye opened a very little. It rolled to look on them, and closed again without any sign of comprehension.
A dead man sat in the snow beside her, leaning against her chest and staring blindly forward, in the ragged remnants of what had once been the proud red uniform of the Old Guard. He wore epaulets and the front of his coat was pockmarked with many punctures where medals had once hung, likely sold to whichever Russian peasants would sell him a pig or a chicken for gold and silver. Flotsam from Napoleon’s disintegrating Grande Armée: the dragon had most likely been driven by hunger to go too far afield, searching for food, and having spent her final strength could not then catch up the remaining body of her corps. She had come down a day ago: the churned ground beneath her was frozen into solid peaks, and her captain’s boots were drifted over with the snow which had fallen yesterday morning.
Laurence looked for the sun, descending and only barely shy of the horizon. Every scant hour of daylight now was precious, even every minute. The last corps of Napoleon’s army were racing west, trying to escape, and Napoleon himself with them. If they did not catch him before the Berezina River, they would not catch him; he had reinforcements and supply on the other side—dragon reinforcements, who would spirit him and his troops safely away. And all this devouring war would have no conclusion, no end. Napoleon would return only a little chastened to the welcoming cradle of France and raise up another army, and in two years there would be another campaign—another slaughter.
Another laboring breath pushed out the Chevalier’s sides; breath steamed out of her nostrils, billowing like cannon-smoke in the frigid air. Temeraire said, “Can we do nothing for her?”
“Let us lay a small fire, Mr. Forthing, if you please,” Laurence said.
But the Chevalier would not take even water, when they melted some snow for her to drink. She was too far gone; if indeed she wished any relief with her captain gone and a living death already upon her.
There was only one kindness left to provide. They could not spare powder, but they still had a few iron tent-poles with sharpened ends. Laurence rested one against the base of the dragon’s skull, and Temeraire set his massive claw upon it and thrust it through with a single stroke. The Chevalier died without a sound. Her sides rose and fell twice more while the final stillness crept slowly along her enormous body, spasms of muscle and sinew visible beneath the skin. A few of the ground crew stamped their boots and blew on their hands. The snow heavy upon the pine-trees standing around them made a muffled silence.
“We had better get along,” Grig said, before the final shudders had left the Chevalier’s tail; a faint note of reproach in his high sparrow-voice. “It is another five miles to the meeting-place for to-night.”
He alone of their company was little affected by the scene, but then the Russian dragons had cause enough to be inured to cruelty and hunger, having lived with both all their days. And there was no real justification for ignoring him; they had done what little good there was to be done. “See the men back aboard, Mr. Forthing,” Laurence said, and walked to Temeraire’s lowered head. The breath had frozen in a rim around Temeraire’s nostrils while they flew. Laurence warmed the ice crust with his hands and broke it carefully away from the scales. He asked, “Are you ready to continue onwards?”
Temeraire did not immediately answer. He had lost more flesh than Laurence liked these last two weeks, from bitter cold, hard flying, and too little food. Together these could waste the frame of a heavy-weight dragon with terrifying speed, and the Chevalier made a grim object lesson to that end. Laurence could not but take it to heart.
He once more bitterly regretted Shen Shi, and the rest of their supply-train. Laurence had already known to value the Chinese legions highly, but never so much as when they were gone, and all the concerns of ensuring their supply had fallen into his own hands. The Russian aviators had only the most outdated notions of supply for their beasts, and Temeraire, with all the will in the world, had too much spirit to believe that he could not fly around the world on three chickens and a sack of groats if doing so would put him in striking distance of Napoleon again.
“I am so very sorry Shen Shi and the others had to go back to China,” Temeraire said finally, in an echo of Laurence’s thoughts. “If we were only traveling in company, perhaps…”
He trailed off. Even th
“If it is any consolation to you,” Laurence said, “remember she came into this country as a conqueror, and willingly.”
“Oh! What would the dragons of France not do for Napoleon?” Temeraire said. “When you know how much he has given them, and how he has changed their lot: built them pavilions and roads through all Europe, and given them their rights? You cannot blame her, Laurence; you cannot blame any of them.”
“Then at least you may blame him,” Laurence said, “for trading so far on that loyalty to bring her and her fellows into this country in a vain and unjustified attempt at conquest. It was never in your power to prevent her coming, or to rescue her. Only her master might have done so.”
“I do,” Temeraire said. “I do blame him, and Laurence, it would be beyond everything, if he should escape us now.” He heaved a deep breath, and raised his head again. “I am ready to go.”
The men were already aboard; Temeraire lifted Laurence to his place at the base of his neck, and with a spring not as energetic as Laurence would have liked, they were aloft again. Beneath them, the stoat crept out of its hiding-place and went back to its feasting.
The ferocious wind managed to come as a surprise again, even after so short a break in their flying. The last warmth of autumn had lingered late into November, but the Russian winter had come with a true vengeance now, more than justifying all the dire warnings which Laurence had heard before its advent, and to-day the temperature had fallen further still. He was used to biting cold upon the deck of a racing frigate or aloft upon a dragon’s back in winter, but no experience had prepared him to endure this chill. Leather and wool and fur could not keep it out. Frost gathered thickly on his eyelashes and brows before he could even put his flying-goggles back on; when at last he secured them, the ice melted and ran down the insides of the green glass, leaving trails across his sight like rain.
The ground crew traveling in the belly-netting, shielded better from the wind, might huddle together and make a shared warmth; he had given his scant handful of officers permission to sit together in twos and threes. He could permit himself no such comfort. Tharkay had left them two weeks before, on his way to answer an urgent call to Istanbul; there was no-one else whom Laurence might sit with, without awkwardness—Ferris could not be asked without reflection on Forthing, and equally the reverse; and he could not ask them both, when they might at any moment be attacked. They had to be spread wider than that across Temeraire’s back.
He endured the cold as best he could beneath wrappings of oilcloth and a patchwork fur made of rabbit- and weasel-skins, keeping his fingers tucked beneath his arm-pits and his legs folded. Still the chill crept inexorably throughout his limbs, and when his fingers reached a dangerous numbness and ceased to give him pain, he forced himself to stand up in his straps. He carefully unlatched one carabiner, working slowly with thick gloves and numbed hands, and hooked it to a further ring; he then undid the second, and made his way along the harness hand-over-hand to the limits of the first strap before latching back on.
The natural hazards of such an operation, with half-frozen hands and feet and on a dragon’s back made more slippery than usual with patches of ice, were outweighed by the certain evil of staying still for too long in such cold: he had to stir his blood. At least the instinctive fear of the plummeting ground below was in this case his ally, rather than an enemy; his heart jerked and pounded furiously when his feet slipped and he crashed full on his side, clinging to the harness with one hand and one strap, trees rushing by in a dark-green blur below.
Emily Roland detached herself from a nearby knot of huddled officers, and clambering with far more skill came to his side—she had been dragon-back upon her mother’s beast nearly since her birth and was as much at home aloft as on the ground; she expertly caught his loose strap as the carabiner came banging against Temeraire’s side, and latched it to another ring. Laurence nodded his thanks, and managed to regain his footing; but he was flushed and panting when he regained his place at last.
Temeraire himself kept low to the ground, his eyes slitted almost shut against the glare and the breath from his nostrils that came streaming back along his neck: it made clouds filled with needles of ice that stung Laurence’s face. Grig flew behind, making as much use as he could of the air churned up by Temeraire’s wings. Below them rolled the endless snow and the black bare trees frosted with ice, the fields empty and glittering and hard. If they passed so much as a hut, it remained invisible to them. The peasants had taken to covering their houses in snow up to the eaves, to conceal them from the sight of the marauding feral dragons: they ate their potatoes raw, rather than light a fire whose smoke might betray them.
Only the corpses remained unburied, the trail of dead that Napoleon’s army left behind it. But even these did not linger in the open long: a host of feral dragons pursued them, savage as any murder of crows. If a man fell, they, too, did not wait for the body to grow cold.
Laurence might have called it the hand of justice, that Napoleon’s army should now be hunted and devoured by the very ferals he had unleashed upon the Russian populace. But he could not take any solace in the dissolution of the once-proud Grande Armée. The pillage of Moscow trailed grotesquely behind them: silken cloth and gold chains and delicate inlaid furniture discarded along the sides of the road by starving men who now thought only of bare survival. Their misery was too enormous; they were fallen past being enemies and reduced to human animals.
Temeraire reached the rendezvous an hour later, on the edge of nightfall. He inhaled a grateful deep breath of the cooking-steam from the big porridge-pit as he landed, and immediately fell-to upon his portion. As he ate, Ferris approached Laurence: he was holding several short sticks which he had tied together at the top, making a skeleton for a miniature tent. “I have been thinking, sir, if we propped these over his nostrils, we might drape the oilcloth over them, and have his nose in with us after all. Then his breath shan’t freeze in the night; and we can open a chimney-hole at the top to let it out again. Whatever warmth we might lose thereby, I think the heat of his breath will more than make up.”
Laurence hesitated. The responsibility of their arrangements was the duty of the first lieutenant, and ought to be left in his hands; the interference of the captain on such a level could only undermine that officer’s authority. Ferris would have done better to apply to Forthing rather than to Laurence, allowing the other man to take the credit of the idea, but that was a great deal to ask when Forthing stood in the place that should have been his; that had been his, before he had been dismissed from the service.
“Very good, Mr. Ferris,” Laurence said, finally. “Be so good as to explain your suggestion to Mr. Forthing.”
He could not bring himself to refuse anything which might improve Temeraire’s situation, already so distressed. But guilt gnawed him when he saw Forthing’s cheek color as Ferris spoke to him: the two men standing mirror, the one stocky and squared-off in shoulders and jaw, and the other tall and lean, his features not having yet lost all the delicacy of youth; both of them equally ramrod-straight. Forthing bowed a very little, when Ferris had finished, and turning gave stiff orders to the ground crew.
The oilcloth was rearranged, and Laurence lay down to sleep directly beside Temeraire’s jaws, the regular susurration of his breath not unlike the murmur of ocean waves. The warmth was better than anything they had managed lately, but even so it was not enough to drive out the cold; at the edges of the oilcloth it waited knife-like, and slid inside on any slightest breath of wind. Laurence opened his eyes in the middle of the night to see a strange rippling motion in the cloth overhead. He put a hand out and touched Temeraire’s side: the dragon was shivering violently.
There were faint groans outside, grumbling. Laurence lay a moment lo
“I am up,” Temeraire said, without opening an eye. “In a moment I will be up,” but after a little more coaxing he climbed wearily to his feet and joined the line the Russian dragons had formed: they were all walking in a circuit through the camp, heads sagging.
After they had walked for half an hour, the Russians permitted their dragons to lie down again, this time in a general heap directly beside the porridge-pit. A thick crust of ice had formed over the top; the cooks at regular intervals threw in more hot coals, which broke through the crust and sank. Laurence urged Temeraire to huddle in as well; a great many of the small white dragons curled in around him. The oilcloth was slung again; they all returned to the attempt to sleep. But it seemed to him the cold grew still worse. The ground beneath them radiated chill as a stove might have given off heat, so intense that all the warmth which their bodies could produce was not adequate to push it back.
Temeraire sighed behind his closed teeth. Laurence drifted uneasily, rousing now and again to put his hand on Temeraire’s side and be sure he was not again shivering so dangerously. The night crept on. He roused Temeraire with the other dragons for another circuit. “The banners of the Monarch of Hell draw nigh, Captain,” O’Dea said, he and the other ground crewmen stamping along with Laurence alongside Temeraire’s massive plodding feet. His hands were tucked beneath the arm-pits of his coat. “No wonder if we are o’ertaken, and the dawn find us locked in ice eternal; God save us sinners all!” Then the cold stopped even his limber tongue.