Home > League of Dragons (Temeraire #9)(10)

League of Dragons (Temeraire #9)(10)
Naomi Novik

“So Napoleon has got away,” Kutuzov said.

“For the moment,” Laurence said. “I believe, sir, that the Tsar is determined on pursuit?”

Kutuzov sighed deeply from his belly, around the stem of the pipe. “Well, we’ll see,” he said. “It’s good to have your own house in order before you start arranging someone else’s. There are a thousand wild dragons on the loose between St. Petersburg and Minsk, and they aren’t going to pen themselves up.”

“I had hoped, sir, that you had thought better of that practice,” Laurence said.

“Half my officers are of the opinion we should bait them with poison and hunt them all down. Well, what do you expect, when they are flying around eating everything in sight, and sometimes people? But cooler heads know we can’t afford it! If it weren’t for you and those Chinese beasts, Napoleon would have had us outside Moscow last summer, and we wouldn’t be here to chat about it.” Kutuzov shook his head. “But one way or another, something must be done about them. We can’t rebuild the army when our supply-lines are being raided every day. You’ll forgive me for being a blunt old man, Captain,” he added, “but while I can see why you British would like us to finish beating Napoleon to pieces, I don’t see much good in it for Mother Russia at present.”

Laurence had already heard this sentiment murmured among some of the Russian soldiers; he was all the more sorry to hear it espoused by Kutuzov himself, the garlanded general of the hour. “You cannot suppose, sir, that Napoleon will be quieted for long, even by this disaster.”

“He may have enough else to occupy him,” Kutuzov said. “There was a coup attempt in Paris, you know.”

“I had not heard it,” Laurence said, taken aback.

“Oh, yes,” Kutuzov said. “Two weeks ago. That is why his Incan beasts went racing off home—back to that Empress of theirs. She seems to have managed everything neatly enough: all the men involved were rounded up and shot before the week was out. But Bonaparte is going to be busy enough at home for some time, I expect. Anyway, as long as he doesn’t come back to Russia, I don’t see that it’s our business to worry about him. If the Prussians and Austrians don’t like their neighbor, let them do something about him.”

At this juncture, Hammond appeared to retrieve Laurence and draw him back into the ballroom; he was worried and yet unsurprised when Laurence related the substance of the conversation to him. “I am afraid far too many of the Russian generals are of like mind,” Hammond said. “But thank Heaven! The Tsar, at least, is not so shortsighted; you may imagine, Captain, how profoundly he has been affected by the misery and suffering which Bonaparte has inflicted upon his nation. Indeed he would like a word with you, Captain, if you will come this way—”

Laurence submitted to his doom, and permitted Hammond to usher him up to the dais where the Tsar now sat in state; but when they had approached the Tsar rose and came down the steps, much to Laurence’s dismay, and kissed him on both cheeks. “Your Highness,” the Tsar said, “I am delighted to see you look so well. Come, let us step outside a moment.”

This was too much; Laurence opened his mouth to protest that he was by no means to be treated as royalty; but Hammond cleared his throat with great vigor to prevent him, and the Tsar was already leading the way into an antechamber, advisors trailing him like satellites after their Jovian master. “Clear the hallway outside, Piotr,” the Tsar said to a tall young equerry, as they came into the smaller room. “Your Highness—”

“Your Majesty,” Laurence broke in, unable to bear it, despite Hammond’s looks, “I beg your pardon. I am foremost a British serving-officer, and a captain of the Aerial Corps; I am far from meriting that address.”

But Alexander did not bend. “You may not desire the burden which it represents, but you must endure it. The Tsar of Russia cannot be so uncouth as to insult the emperor who chose to bestow that honor upon you.” Nor, Laurence unwillingly recognized, be so unwise as to insult an emperor who could send three hundred dragons to Moscow; he bowed in acknowledgment and was silent.

“We will take a little air together,” Alexander said. “You know Count Nesselrode, I think, Mr. Hammond?”

Hammond stammered agreement, even as he cast an anxious sideways glance at that gentleman, who certainly meant to begin issuing demands as soon as his Imperial master was out of ear-shot of haggling: demands for money, which Hammond was far from being authorized to meet on Britain’s behalf. But Laurence could do nothing to relieve his discomfiture. He followed the Tsar out upon the balcony.

A greater contrast with the scene which he had overlooked, from the other side of the palace, could scarcely be envisioned: the streets before the palace gates were thronged with celebrating Russian soldiers, shouting, screams of laughter, a blaze of lanterns, and even the occasional squib of makeshift fireworks contrived from gunpowder. Alexander looked with pardonable satisfaction upon his troops, who had pursued Napoleon across five hundred barren miles in winter, and yet remained in fighting order.

“I trust you were not put to excessive trouble to return the portraits, Your Highness,” the Tsar said. “I was given to understand it quite impossible to extract prizes from the beasts, once taken.”

“By no means, Your Majesty,” Laurence said. “I must assure you that dragons, while having no more natural understanding of property rights than would a wholly uneducated man, may be brought to an equal comprehension; Temeraire was entirely willing,” this a slight exaggeration, “to restore all the stolen property to its rightful owners, if only provenance might be established.” Laurence paused; he disliked very much making use of an advantage he had not earned, but the opportunity of putting a word into so important an ear could not be given up. “It is a question of education and of management, if you will pardon my saying so. If a dragon is taught to value nothing but gold, and to think of its own worth as equal to that of its hoard, it will naturally disdain both discipline and law in the pursuit of treasure.”

But Alexander only nodded abstractly, without paying him much attention. “I believe you were speaking with good Prince Kutuzov, earlier this evening,” he said, surprising Laurence; he wondered how the Tsar should already have intelligence of an idle conversation, held not an hour since, in the midst of his ball. “I am sorry to have dragged him so far from his warm hearth. His old age deserved a better rest than his country—and Bonaparte!—have given him.”

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