“He will not stay,” says De Guignes.
Napoleon is busy with a thousand things, and he inspects a missive in his hand even as he disapproves the remark. “He came here,” the emperor counters. “It would benefit him nothing to return to England; nothing at all. And the safety of his dragon will tempt him.”
Napoleon has encountered many dragons over the years, yet possessed no true notion of their intelligence or use until Lien joined the court. It became at once clear to him that he must reassess all strategies of the Armee de l'Aire, and further apparent that dragons have been sadly wasted. From a practical level, he considers them intelligent and clearly self-possessed - in other words, worthy of the all the same considerations as humans, so long as those considerations benefit the state.
“I have met him only briefly, I admit,” says De Guignes. “But my impression in China was that Captain Laurence is a man of excellent moral character. I should not have expected him to betray his country.”
“And yet he did,” says Napoleon, handing over the letter and waving forward his secretary. Together they and a convoy of guards walk down to Lien’s pavilion, and even from a distance the two Celestial dragons there are visible, like reflective obelisks; one creature, black and scarred, and the other white as the horizon.
Napoleon ignores De Guignes’ doubts to dictate another letter, this one to the Spanish ambassador, which his secretary pens hastily. He cannot suppress his own anticipation, though, and when he stands before William Laurence he at once grabs the Englishman to kiss his cheeks.
It is no small thing what this man has done – no exaggeration to say that he ought to be considered a hero by all the world. To fight a war with plague, Napoleon thinks, is just like the English; it was ridiculously ill-considered, when he only imagines how easily the outbreak might have affected England’s own allies, and poisoned the whole world to them, besides. It might be a good tactic from a place like China, with thousands of their own dragons to take the world by storm; but from England it was just stupid cruelty.
He makes a mental note to pen another series of letters; France must be quick to offer their own mushrooms to allies, though the farmers have not yet managed to cultivate them. With all luck no other countries will be infected yet, and the gesture shall be appreciated but unnecessary. In any case Napoleon imagines that his country will leave this situation looking much better than England, who has endangered all her own friends.
Napoleon finds Laurence to be just as De Guignes indicated – polite, careful, and firm in his every refusal to betray his country more than he already has. He displays an admirable concern for the sake of his draconic companion, and no concern whatsoever for himself, which Napoleon must respect even against his own disappointment. Good men are rare, but hard to sway.
And then Captain Laurence refuses his offer of haven, and after Napoleon tries – sincerely tries – to express on him the superiority of his vision, of his future for France, Laurence says simply this:
“Your Majesty, I am a soldier, not a statesman; and I have no great philosophy but that I love my country. I came because it was my duty as a Christian and a man; now it is my duty to return.”
- Throughout his life, Napoleon has admired the stories of classical heroes, ranging from the myths of Hercules to the more concrete feats of Hannibal Barca and Alexander the Great. And here before him stands a hero in the making, he recognizes – a figure tired and resolute, but whose significance future historians must recognize and applaud.
He is reminded with abrupt force of Polybius’ writings on an old Roman soldier, a general captured by Carthaginians in years long since passed. He was paroled and sent back to Rome as a messenger, to negotiate peace; instead, he urged a continuation of war, and then returned against the advice of all friends to Carthage where he suffered torture and death in the face of his defiance. The general’s honor, on both counts, could allow for nothing more.
Napoleon noted the story both for recognition of the soldier’s convictions, and also for being ludicrous. If a man so spurned the morals of his enemy, what would it matter, to neglect vows to that corrupt power? But there is something about the story, some nebulous and abstract quality, which always stuck with him.
And now here is a man whose act is greater – who moves not to preserve the intentions of his country, but to follow his own morals; follow them sorrowfully, regretfully. And yet he loves his country anyway. It is a dichotomy Napoleon cannot fully understand, even as he appreciates it. Napoleon has fought hard for the power to shape France to his vision of greatness. Laurence, lacking that authority and chained to service, has nonetheless been compelled by the righteousness of his convictions.
Napoleon cannot agree with the Captain’s interpretation of duty. But perhaps that does not matter.
“God forbid I should alter such a resolve,” he says at last, after every effort has failed – not even the grim certainty of the captain’s execution can sway him. “Your choice is the choice of Regulus, and I honor you for it. You will have your liberty – you must have your liberty.”
He sends off the captain with a troop of the Old Guard, and the promise of Accendare’s formation to see him over the Channel, under a flag of truce. It is the least he can do – it is all that he can do, and when Captain Laurence leaves he dismisses his retinue to sit with Lien in her Pavilion. The dragon leaves him to his thoughts, and he finds his gaze ever straying to the sky. Even now, as he sits here, a man moves resolutely toward his death; not a soldier’s-gamble, but a sure death, and one that he does not deserve. A good man – a wasted man.
He will be hanged by the month’s end, Napoleon thinks; and he only hopes, in an odd spirit of sympathy, that the English do not leave the captain to suffer long.
Then he returns to the palace and resumes writing letters.