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 Bishop. 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!”