Black Powder War

Chapter 3

THEY LEFT THE green oasis of Dunhuang at dawn, the camel-bells in a querulous jangle as the beasts reluctantly trudged away over the dune-crests, their shaggy flat feet muddling the sharp lines of the ridges which cut the sunlight into parts: the dunes like ocean waves captured in pen and ink, on one side perfectly white and on the other pure shadow, printed on the pale caramel color of the sand. The caravan trails unknotted themselves one at a time and broke away to north and south, joinings marked by heaps of bones with staring camel-skulls piled atop. Tharkay turned the lead camel's head southward, the long train following: the camels knew their work even if their still-awkward riders did not. Temeraire padded after like a disproportionate herd-dog, at a distance far enough to comfort them, near enough to keep any of them from trying to bolt the way they had come.

Laurence had expected the terrible sun, but so far north the desert did not hold its heat: by mid-day a man was soaked through with sweat; an hour after nightfall he was chilled to the bone, and a white frost crept over the water-casks during the night. The eagle kept itself fed on brown-spotted lizards and small mice, seen otherwise only as shadows darting uneasily beneath rocks; Temeraire daily reduced the camel-train by one; the rest of them ate thin, tough strips of dried meat, chewed for hours, and coarse tea mixed into a vile but nourishing slurry with oat flour and roasted wheat berries. The casks were reserved for Temeraire; their own supply came from the water-bags each man carried for himself, filled every other day or so from small decaying wells, mostly tainted with salt, or shallow pools overgrown with tamarisk-trees, their roots rotting in the mud: the water yellow and bitter and thick, scarcely drinkable even when boiled.

Each morning Laurence and Temeraire took Tharkay aloft and scouted some little distance ahead of the camel-train for the best path, though always a shimmering haze distorted the horizon, limiting their view; the Tianshan range to the south seemed to float above the blurred mirage, as though the blue jutting mountains were divided from the earth, upon another plane entirely.

"How lonely it is," Temeraire said, though he liked the flying: the heat of the sun seemed to make him especially buoyant, perhaps acting in some peculiar way upon the air-sacs which enabled dragons to fly, and he needed little effort to keep aloft.

He and Laurence would often pause during the day together: Laurence would read to him, or Temeraire recite him attempts at poetry, a habit acquired in Peking, it being there considered a more appropriate occupation for Celestials than warfare; when the sun dipped lower they would take to the air to catch up the rest of the convoy, following the plaintive sound of the camel-bells through the dusk.

"Sir," Granby said, jogging to meet Laurence as they descended, "one of those fellows is missing, the cook."

They went aloft again at once, searching, but there was no sign of the poor devil; the wind was a busy housekeeper, sweeping up the camel-tracks almost as quickly as they had been made, and to be lost for ten minutes was as good as for eternity. Temeraire flew low, listening for the jingle of camel-bells, fruitlessly; night was coming on quickly, and the lengthening shadows of the dunes blurred together into a uniform darkness. "I cannot see anything more, Laurence," Temeraire said sadly: the stars were coming out, and there was only a thin sliver of moon.

"We will look again tomorrow," Laurence said to comfort him, but with little real hope; they set down again by the tents, and Laurence shook his head silently as he climbed down into the waiting circle of the camp; he gladly took a cup of the thick tea and warmed his chilled hands and feet at the low wavering campfire.

"The camel is a worse loss," Tharkay said, turning away with a shrug, brutal but truthful: Jing Chao had endeared himself to no one. Even Gong Su, his countryman and longest acquaintance, heaved only one sigh, and then led Temeraire around to the waiting roast camel, today cooked in a fire-pit with tea-leaves, an attempt at changing the flavor.

The few oasis towns they passed through were narrow places in spirit, less unfriendly than perplexed by strangers: the marketplaces lazy and slow, men in black skull-caps smoking and drinking spiced tea in the shade and watching them curiously; Tharkay exchanged a few words now and again, in Chinese and in other tongues. The streets were not in good repair, mostly drifted over with sand and cut by deep channels pitted with the ancient marks of nail-studded waggon wheels. They bought bags of almonds and dried fruit, sweet pressed apricots and grapes, filled their water-bags at the clean deep wells, and continued on their way.

The camels began moaning early in the night, the first sign of warning; when the watch came to fetch Laurence, the constellations were already being swallowed up by the low oncoming cloud.

"Let Temeraire drink and eat; this may last some time," Tharkay said: a couple of the ground crewmen pried off the cover from two of the flat-sided wooden butts and brushed the damp, cooling sawdust away from the swollen leather bags inside, then Temeraire lowered his head so they might pour out the mixture of water and ice into his mouth: having had nearly a week's practice, he did not spill a drop, but closed his jaws tight before raising his head up again to swallow. The unburdened camel rolled its eyes and fought at being separated from its fellows, to no avail; Pratt and his mate, both of them big men, dragged it around behind the tents; Gong Su drew a knife across its neck, deftly catching the spurting blood in a bowl; and Temeraire unenthusiastically fell-to: he was getting tired of camel.

There were still some fifteen left to get under cover, and Granby marshaled the midwingmen and the ensigns while the ground crewmen anchored the tents more securely; already the layer of loose fine sand was whipping across the surface of the dunes and stinging their hands and faces, though they put up their collars and wrapped their neckcloths over their mouths and noses. The thick fur-lined tents, which they had been so glad to have during the cold nights, now grew stifling hot as they struggled and pushed and crowded in the camels, and even the thinner leather pavilion which they got up to shield Temeraire and themselves was smotheringly close.

And then the sandstorm was upon them: a hissing furious assault, nothing like the sound of rain, falling without surcease against the leather tent wall. It could not be ignored; the noise rose and fell in unpredictable bursts, from shrieks to whispers and back again, so they could only take brief unrestful snatches of sleep; and faces grew bruised with fatigue around them. They did not risk many lanterns inside the tent; when the sun set, Laurence sat by Temeraire's head in a darkness almost complete, listening to the wind howl.

"Some call the karaburan the work of evil spirits," Tharkay said out of the dark; he was cutting some leather for fresh jesses for the eagle, presently subdued in its cage, head hunched invisibly into its shoulders. "You can hear their voices, if you listen," and indeed one could make out low and plaintive cries on the wind, like murmurs in a foreign tongue.

"I cannot understand them," Temeraire said, listening with interest rather than dread; evil spirits did not alarm him. "What language is that?"

"No tongue of men or dragons," Tharkay said seriously: the ensigns were listening, the older men only pretending not to, and Roland and Dyer had crept close, eyes stretched wide. "Those who listen too long grow confused and lose their way: they are never found again, except as bones scoured clean to warn other travelers away."

"Hm," Temeraire said skeptically. "I would like to see the demon that could eat me," which would certainly have required a prodigious kind of devil.

Tharkay's mouth twitched. "That is why they have not dared to bother us; dragons of your size are not often seen in the desert." The men huddled rather closer to Temeraire, and no one spoke of going outside.

"Have you heard of dragons having their own languages?" Temeraire asked Tharkay a little later, softly; most of the men were drifting, half-asleep. "I have always thought we learned them from men only."

"The Durzagh tongue is a language of dragons," Tharkay said. "There are sounds in it men cannot make: your voices more easily mimic ours than the reverse."

"Oh! will you teach me?" Temeraire asked, eagerly; Celestials, unlike most dragons, kept the ability to easily acquire new tongues past their hatching and infancy.

"It is of little use," Tharkay said. "It is only spoken in the mountains: in the Pamirs, and the Karakoram."

"I do not mind that," Temeraire said. "It will be so very useful when we are back in England. Laurence, the Government cannot say we are just animals if we have invented our own language," he added, looking to him for confirmation.

"No one with any sense would say it regardless," Laurence began, to be interrupted by Tharkay's short snorting laugh.

"On the contrary," he said. "They are more likely to think you an animal for speaking a tongue other than English; or at least a creature unworthy of notice: you would do better to cultivate an elevated tone," and his voice changed quite on the final words, taking on the drawling style favored by the too-fashionable set for a moment.

"That is a very strange way of speaking," Temeraire said dubiously, after he had tried it, repeating over the phrase a few times. "It seems very peculiar to me that it should make any difference how one says the words, and it must be a great deal of trouble to learn how to say them all over again. Can one hire a translator to say things properly?"

"Yes; they are called lawyers," Tharkay said, and laughed softly to himself.

"I would certainly not recommend you to imitate this particular style," Laurence said dryly, while Tharkay recovered from his amusement. "At best you might only impress some fellow on Bond Street, if he did not run away to begin with."

"Very true; you had much better take Captain Laurence as your model," Tharkay said, inclining his head. "Just how a gentleman ought to speak; I am sure any official would agree."

His expression was not visible in the shadows, but Laurence felt as though he were being obscurely mocked, perhaps without malice, but irritating to him nonetheless. "I see you have made a study of the subject, Mr. Tharkay," he said a little coldly. Tharkay shrugged.

"Necessity was a thorough teacher, if a hard one," he said. "I found men eager enough to deny me my rights, without providing them so convenient an excuse to dismiss me. You may find it slow going," he added to Temeraire, "if you mean to assert your own: men with powers and privileges rarely like to share them."

This was no more than Laurence had said, on many an occasion, but a vein of cynicism ran true and deep beneath Tharkay's words which perhaps made them the more convincing: "I am sure I do not see why they should not wish to be just," Temeraire said, but uncertainly, troubled, and so Laurence found he did not after all like to see Temeraire take his own advice to heart.

"Justice is expensive," Tharkay said. "That is why there is so little of it, and that reserved for those few with enough money and influence to afford it."

"In some corners of the world, perhaps," Laurence said, unable to tolerate this, "but thank God, we have a rule of law in Britain, and those checks upon the power of men which prevent any from becoming tyrannical."

"Or which spread the tyranny over more hands, piecemeal," Tharkay said. "I do not know that the Chinese system is any worse; there is a limit to the evil one despot alone can do, and if he is truly vicious he can be overthrown; a hundred corrupt members of Parliament may together do as much injustice or more, and be the less easy to uproot."

"And where on the scale would you rank Bonaparte?" Laurence demanded, growing too indignant to be polite: it was one thing to complain of corruption, or propose judicious reforms; quite another to lump the British system in with absolute despotism.

"As a man, a monarch, or a system of government?" Tharkay asked. "If there is more injustice in France than elsewhere, on the whole, I have not heard of it. It is quixotic of them to have chosen to be unjust to the noble and the rich, in favor of the common; but it does not seem to me naturally worse; or, for that matter, likely to last long. As for the rest, I will defer to your judgment, sir; who would you take on the battlefield: good King George or the second lieutenant of artillery from Corsica?"

"I would take Lord Nelson," Laurence said. "I do not believe anyone has ever suggested he likes glory less than Bonaparte, but he has put his genius in service to his country and his King, and graciously accepted what rewards they chose to give him, instead of setting himself up as a tyrant."

"So shining an example must vanquish any argument, and indeed I should be ashamed to be the cause of any disillusionment." Tharkay's faint half-smile was visible now: it was growing lighter outside. "We have a little break in the storm, I think; I will go and look in on the camels." He wrapped a veil of cotton several times around his face, pulling his hat firmly down over all, and drew on his gloves and cloak before ducking out through the flaps.

"Laurence, but the Government must listen in our case, because there are so many dragons," Temeraire said, interrogatively, when Tharkay had gone out, returning to the point of real concern to him.

"They shall listen," Laurence said, still smoldering and indignant, without thinking; and regretted it the next instant: Temeraire, only too willing to be relieved of doubt, brightened at once and said, "I was sure it must be so," and whatever good the conversation might have done, in lowering his expectations, was lost.

The storm lingered another day, fierce enough to wear holes, after a while, in the leather of their pavilion; they patched it as best they could from inside, but dust crept in through all the cracks, into their garments and their food, gritty and unpleasant when they chewed the cold dried meat. Temeraire sighed and shivered his hide now and again, little cascades of sand running off his shoulders and wings onto the floor: they had already a layer of desert inside the tent with them.

Laurence did not know just when the storm ended: as the blessed silence began to fall, they all drifted into their first real sleep in days, and he woke to the sound of the eagle outside giving a red cry of satisfaction. Stumbling out of the tent, he found it tearing raw flesh from the corpse of a camel lying across the remains of the campfire pit, neck broken and white rib cage already half-stripped clean by the sands.

"One of the tents did not hold," Tharkay said, behind him. Laurence did not at once take his meaning: he turned and saw eight of the camels, tethered loosely near a heap of piled forage, swaying a little on legs grown stiff from their long confinement; the tent which had sheltered them was still up, leaning somewhat askew with a sand-drift piled up against one side. Of the second tent there was no sign except two of the iron stakes still planted deeply in the ground, and a few scraps of brown leather pinned down, fluttering with the breeze.

"Where are the rest of the camels?" Laurence said, in growing horror. He took Temeraire aloft at once, while the men spread out, calling, in every direction, in vain: the scouring wind had left no tracks, no signs, not so much as a scrap of bloody hide.

By mid-day they had given it up, and began in desolate spirits to pack up the camp; seven camels lost, and their water-casks with them, which had been left on to keep them weighted down and quiet. "Will we be able to buy more in Cherchen?" Laurence asked Tharkay, wearily, wiping a hand across his brow; he did not recall seeing many animals in the streets of the town, which they had left nearly three days before.

"Only with difficulty," Tharkay said. "Camels are very dear here, and men prize them highly; some may object to selling healthy beasts to be eaten. We ought not turn back, in my opinion." At Laurence's doubtful look, he added, "I set the number at thirty deliberately high, in case of accidents: this is worse than I had planned for, but we can yet manage until we reach the Keriya River. We will have to ration the camels, and refill Temeraire's water-casks as best we can at the oases, forgoing as much as we can ourselves; it will not be pleasant, but I promise you it can be done."

The temptation was very great: Laurence bitterly grudged the loss of more time. Three days back to Cherchen, and likely a long delay there acquiring new pack-animals, all the while having to manage food and water for Temeraire in a town unaccustomed to supporting any dragons at all, much less one of his size; a clear loss of more than a week, certainly. Tharkay seemed confident, and yet - and yet -

Laurence drew Granby behind the tents, to consult in privacy: considering it best to keep their mission secret, so far as possible, and not to spread any useless anxiety over the state of affairs in Europe, Laurence had not yet shared their purpose with the rest of the crew, and left them to believe they were returning overland only to avoid the long delay in port.

"A week is enough time to get the eggs to a covert somewhere," Granby said, urgently. "Gibraltar - the outpost on Malta - it might be the difference between success and failure. I swear to you there is not a man among us who would not go hungry and thirsty twice as long for the chance, and Tharkay is not saying there is a real risk we shall run dry."

Abruptly Laurence said, "And you are easy in your mind, trusting his judgment on the matter?"

"More than any of ours, surely," Granby said. "What do you mean?"

Laurence did not know quite how to put his unease into words; indeed he hardly knew what he feared. "I suppose I only do not like putting our lives so completely into his hands," he said. "Another few days of travel will put us out of reach of Cherchen, with our present supplies, and if he is mistaken - "

"Well, his advice has been good so far," Granby said, a little more doubtfully, "though I won't deny he has a damned queer way of going on, sometimes."

"He left the tent once, during the storm, for a long while," Laurence said quietly. "That was after the first day, halfway through - he said he went to look in on the camels."

They stood silently together. "I don't suppose we could tell by looking how long that camel has been dead?" Granby suggested. They went to try an inspection, but too late: Gong Su already had what was left of the dead beast jointed and spitted over a fire, browning to a turn, and offering no answers whatsoever.

When consulted, Temeraire said, "It seems a very great pity to turn around to me also. I do not mind eating every other day," and added under his breath, "especially if it must be camel."

"Very well; we continue on," Laurence said, despite his misgivings, and when Temeraire had eaten, they trudged onward through a landscape rendered even more drear by the storm, scrub and vegetation torn away, even the scattering of colorful pebbles blown away, leaving no relief to the eye. They would have gladly welcomed even one of the grisly trail-markers, but there was nothing to guide their steps but the compass and Tharkay's instincts.

The rest of the long dry day passed by, as terrible and monotonous in its turn as the storm, miles of desert grinding slowly away under their feet; there was no sign of life, nor even one of the old crumbling wells. Most of the crew were riding on Temeraire now, trailing the sad little string of camels remaining; as the day wore on, even Temeraire's head drooped: he, too, had only had half his usual ration of water.

"Sir," Digby said through cracked lips, pointing, "I see something dark over there, though it's not very big."

Laurence saw nothing; it was late in the day, with the sun beginning to make queer long shadows out of the small twisted rocks and stumps of the desert landscape, but Digby had the sharp eyes of youth and was the most reliable of his lookouts, not given to exaggeration. So they went on towards it: soon they could all see the round dark patch, but it was too small to be the mouth of a well. Tharkay stopped the camels beside it, looking down, and Laurence slid down from Temeraire's neck to walk over: it was the lid of one of the lost water-casks, lying incongruously all alone atop the sand, thirty miles of empty desert away from the morning's camp.

"Eat your ration," Laurence said sternly, when he saw Roland and Dyer putting down their strips of meat half-eaten: they were all hungry, but the long chewing was painful in a dry mouth, and every sip of water now had to be stolen from Temeraire's casks; another long day had gone, and still they had found no well. Temeraire had eaten his camel raw, so as not to lose any of the moisture in cooking: only seven left, now.

Two days later they stumbled across a dry, cracked irrigation channel, and on Tharkay's advice turned northward to follow its path, hoping to find some water still at its source. The wizened and twisted remains of dead fruit-trees still overhung the sides, their small gnarled branches dry as paper to the touch, and as light, reaching for the vanished water. The city took shape out of the desert haze as they rode onwards: shattered timbers jutting out of the sand, sharpened by years of wind into pointed stakes; broken pieces of mud-and-wattle bricks; the last remnants of buildings swallowed by the desert. The bed of the river that had once given life to the city was filled with fine dust; there was nothing living in sight but some brown desert grass clinging to the tops of dunes, which the camels hungrily devoured.

Another day's journey would put them beyond the hope of turning back. "I am afraid this is a bad part of the desert, but we will find water soon," Tharkay said, bringing an armful of old broken timbers to the campfire. "It is just as well we have found the city; we must be on an old caravan route now."

Their fire leapt and crackled brightly, the dry seasoned wood going up hot and quick; the warmth and light was comforting in the midst of the ashes and broken relics of the city, but Laurence walked away brooding. His maps were useless: there were no marked roads, nothing to be seen in any direction for miles; and his patience was badly frayed at seeing Temeraire go hungry and thirsty. "Pray do not worry, Laurence, I am very well," Temeraire had assured him; but he had not been able to keep his eyes from lingering on the remaining camels, and it hurt Laurence to see how quickly he tired, each day, with his tail now often dragging upon the sand: he did not wish to fly, but plodded along in the wake of the camels, and lay down often to rest.

If they turned back in the morning, Temeraire could eat and drink his fill; they might even load two of the water-casks upon him, slaughter an additional camel for him to carry, and try to make Cherchen by air. Laurence thought two days' flight would see them there, if Temeraire went lightly burdened and had food and water enough. He would take the youngest of the crew: Roland and Dyer and the ensigns, who would slow the others down on the ground and need less water and food for Temeraire to carry; though he would not like leaving the rest of the men, by his calculation the water carried by the last four camels would be just sufficient to see them back to Cherchen by land, if they could manage twenty miles in a day.

Money would then present difficulties: he did not have so much silver he could afford to purchase another great string of camels even if the beasts could be found, but perhaps someone might be found who would take the risk of accepting a note on the strength of his word, offered at an exorbitant rate; or they might exchange some labor: there did not seem to be dragons living in the desert towns, and Temeraire's strength could accomplish many tasks quickly. In the worst case, he might pry the gold and gems off the hilt of his sword, to be later replaced, and sell the porcelain vase if he could find a taker. God only knew how much delay it would all mean: weeks if not a month, and many fresh risks taken; Laurence took his turn at watch and went to sleep still undecided, unhappy, and woke with Granby shaking him in the early morning, before dawn: "Temeraire hears something: horses, he thinks."

The light crept along the crests of the low dunes just outside the town: a knot of men on shaggy, short-legged ponies, keeping a good distance; even as Laurence and Granby watched, another five or six rode up onto the top of the dune to join them, carrying short curved sabers, and some others with bows. "Strike the tents, and get the camels hobbled," Laurence said grimly. "Digby, take Roland and Dyer and the other ensigns and stay by them: you must not let them run off. Have the men form up around the supplies; backs to that wall, over there, the broken one," he added to Granby.

Temeraire was sitting up on his haunches. "Are we going to have a battle?" he asked, with less alarm than eager anticipation. "Those horses look tasty."

"I mean to be ready, and let them see it, but we are not going to strike first," Laurence said. "They have not threatened us yet; and in any case, we had much better buy their help than fight them. We will send to them under a flag of truce. Where is Tharkay?"

Tharkay was gone: the eagle also, and one of the camels, and no one remembered seeing him go. Laurence was conscious at first of only shock, more profound than he ought to have felt, having been suspicious. The sensation yielded to a cold savage anger, and dread: they had been drawn just far enough that the camel stolen meant they could not turn back to Cherchen, and the bright beacon of the fire, last night, perhaps had drawn down this hostile attention.

With an effort he said, "Very well; Mr. Granby, if any of the men know a little Chinese, let them come with me under the flag; we will see if we can manage to make ourselves understood."

"You cannot go yourself," Granby said, instantly protective; but events obviated any need for debate on the matter: abruptly the horsemen wheeled around as one and rode away, vanishing into the dunes, the ponies whinnying with relief.

"Oh," Temeraire said, disappointed, and drooped back down onto all fours; the rest of them stood uncertainly awhile, still alert, but the horsemen did not reappear.

"Laurence," Granby said quietly, "they know this ground, I expect, and we do not; if they mean to have at us and they have any sense, they will go away and wait for tonight. Once we have encamped, they can be on us before we know they are there, and maybe even do Temeraire some mischief. We oughtn't let them just slip away."

"And more to the point," Laurence said, "those horses were not carrying any great deal of water."

The soft dented hoofprints led them a wary trail west- and southward, climbing over a series of hills; a little hot wind came into their faces as they walked, and the camels made low, eager moaning noises and quickened their pace unasked: over the next rise the narrow green tops of poplar-trees came unexpectedly into view, waving, beckoning them on over the rise.

The oasis, hidden in a sheltered cleft, looked only another small brackish pool, mostly mud, but desperately welcome for all that. The horsemen were there gathering on the far edge, their ponies milling around nervously and rolling their eyes as Temeraire approached, and among them was Tharkay, with the missing camel. He rode up to them as if unconscious of any wrong, and said to Laurence, "They told me of having seen you; I am glad you thought to follow."

"Are you?" Laurence said.

That stopped him a moment; he looked at Laurence, and the corner of his mouth twisted upwards a little; then he said, "Follow me," and led them, their hands still full of pistols and swords, around the edges of the meandering pond: clinging to the side of one grassy dune was a great domed structure built of long narrow mud bricks, the same pale straw color as the yellowed grass, with a single arched opening looking in, and a small window in the opposite wall which presently let in a shaft of sunlight to play upon the dark and shining pool of water that filled the interior. "You can widen the sardoba opening for him to drink, only be careful you do not bring down the roof," Tharkay said.

Laurence kept a guard facing the horsemen across the oasis, with Temeraire at their backs, and set the armorer Pratt to work with a couple of the taller midwingmen to help. With his heavy mallet and some pry-bars they shortly had tapped away more bricks from the sides of the ragged opening: it was only just large enough before Temeraire had gratefully plunged in his snout to drink, great swallows going down his throat; he lifted his muzzle out dripping wet and licked even the drops away with his long, narrow forking tongue. "Oh, how very nice and cool it is," he said, with much relief.

"They are packed with snow during the winter," Tharkay said. "Most have fallen into disuse and are now left empty, but I hoped we might find one here. These men are from Yutien; we are on the Khotan road, and in four more days we will reach the city: Temeraire can eat as he likes, there is no more need to ration."

"Thank you; I prefer to yet exercise a little caution," Laurence said. "Pray ask those men if they will sell us some of their animals: I am sure Temeraire would enjoy a change from camel."

One of the ponies had gone lame, and the owner professed himself willing to accept in exchange five Chinese taels of silver. "It is an absurd amount," Tharkay commented, "when he cannot easily get the animal home again," but Laurence counted the money well-spent as Temeraire tore into the meal with a savage delight. The seller looked equally pleased with his end of the bargain, if less violently demonstrative, and climbed up behind one of the other riders; they and some four or five others at once left the oasis, riding away southward in a cloud of rising dust. The rest of the horsemen stayed on, boiling water for tea over small grass fires and sending sideways, covert looks across the pond at Temeraire, who now lay drowsy and limp in the shade of the poplars, snorting occasionally in his sleep and otherwise inert. They might only have been nervous for the sake of their mounts, but Laurence began to fear he had by his free-spending given the horsemen cause to think them rich and tempting prey, and he kept the men on close watch, letting them go to the sardoba only by twos.

To his relief, in the waning light the horsemen broke camp and left; their passage away could be followed by the dust which they kicked up, lingering like a mist against the deepening twilight. At last Laurence went himself to the sardoba and knelt by the edge to cup the cold water directly to his mouth: fresh and more pure than any he had tasted in the desert, only a faint earthen taste from lying sheltered inside the clay brick. He put his wet hands to his face and the back of his neck, coming away stained yellow and brown with the dust which had collected upon his skin, and drank another few handfuls, glad of every drop, before he rose again to oversee their making camp.

The water-casks were brimming again and heavy, which displeased only the camels, and even they were not unhappy; they did not spit and kick while being unloaded, as was their usual practice, but submitted quietly to the handling and to their tethers, and eagerly bent their heads to the tender green shrubs around the water-hole. The men's spirits all were high, the younger boys even playing a little in the cool evening at a makeshift bit of sport with a dead branch as bat and a rolled-up pair of stockings for a ball. Laurence felt certain that some of the flasks being passed from hand to hand held something considerably stronger than water, though he had ordered all liquor poured out and replaced with water before they entered the desert; and they made a merry dinner, the dried meat far more palatable for having been stewed with grain and some wild onions growing near the water's edge, which Gong Su had pointed out to them as fit for human consumption.

Tharkay took his portion and planted his small tent a little way off, speaking in low voice only to the eagle, resting hooded and silent on his hand after its own meal of a couple of plump and unwary rats. The isolation was not wholly self-imposed: Laurence had not spoken of his suspicions to the men, but his anger that morning at Tharkay's disappearance had transmitted itself without words, and in any case no-one thought much of his having gone off in such a manner. At worst he might have meant to strand them deliberately: certainly none of them would have been able to find the oasis alone, without the trail accidentally provided by the horsemen; or, only a little less bad, he might instead have chosen to abandon them to an uncertain fate, and to secure his own safety by taking a camel and water enough to last him a long time alone. He might have returned to them, having discovered the oasis, but that he had left them only to scout ahead, Laurence could not credit - without a word? with no companion? - if not entirely disprovable, still unsatisfying.

What was to be done about him an equal puzzle: they could not manage without a guide, though Laurence could not see continuing with one untrustworthy; yet how another was to be found, he could not well conceive. At least any decision by necessity would be deferred to Yutien: he would not abandon the man alone in the desert, even if Tharkay had meant to do as much to them; at least not with so little proof. So Tharkay was left to sit alone untroubled for the moment, but as the men began to seek their beds, Laurence quietly arranged with Granby a doubled guard on the camels, and let the men think it was only for fear of the horsemen returning.

The mosquitoes sang loudly, all round them, after the sun had gone down; even hands pressed over the ears could not drown out their thin whining voices. The first sudden howling was at first almost a relief, a clear reasonable human noise; then the camels were bellowing and plunging as the horses came stampeding through the middle of the camp, their riders yelling loud enough to drown out any orders Laurence might shout, and scattering the embers of the campfire with long raking branches dragged along the ground.

Temeraire sat up from behind the tents and roared: the camels began struggling all the more wildly against their hobbles, and many of the ponies whinnying in terror bolted away; Laurence heard pistols going off in all directions, the white muzzle-flashes painfully bright in the dark. "Damn you; don't waste your shot," he bellowed, and seized young Allen, pale and frightened, as he stumbled backwards out of a tent with a pistol shaking in his hand. "Put that down, if you cannot - " Laurence said, and caught the pistol as it fell; the boy was sliding limp to the ground, blood spurting from a neat pistol-hole in his shoulder.

"Keynes!" Laurence shouted, and thrust the fainting boy into the dragon-surgeon's arms; he drew his own sword and dashed towards the camels, the guards all staggering uselessly to their feet, with the thick confused look of men woken from drunken slumber, a couple of hip-flasks rattling empty on the ground beside them. Digby was clinging to the animals' tethers, nearly dangling by them to keep the camels from rearing: the only one being of any use, even though his gangly young frame was hardly enough weight to keep their heads down, and he was nearly bouncing at the ends of the reins with his fair hair, grown long and unkempt, flopping wildly.

One of the raiders, thrown from his fear-maddened horse, gained his feet; if he could get at the tethers and cut them, the unleashed camels would do half the work, for they would surely bolt directly out of the camp in their present state of confusion and terror; on horseback the raiders could then herd them together and away, and vanish amongst the hills and valleys of the surrounding dunes.

Salyer, one of the midshipmen on watch, was fumbling his pistol one-handed, trying to cock the hammer and rub at his gummy eyes with the other, while the man bore down on him with saber raised; suddenly Tharkay was there, snatching the pistol from Salyer's slack grip. He fired into the raider's chest, dropping him to the ground, and drew in his other hand a long knife; another of the raiders swung at his head, from horseback, and Tharkay ducking underneath coolly slit open the animal's belly. It fell screaming and thrashing, the man pinned underneath and howling almost as loudly, and Laurence's naked sword swept down once, twice, and silenced them both.

"Laurence, Laurence, here!" Temeraire called, and lunged in the dark towards one of the supply-tents, the red scattered remnants of the fire giving off a little light, enough to see shadows moving around the edges, and the silhouettes of rearing, snorting horses. Temeraire struck with his talons, fabric ripping as the tent collapsed around the body of a man, and all the other horsemen were suddenly going, drumming hooves going quiet and muffled as they fled from the hard-packed campground onto loose sand, leaving only the mosquitoes behind to raise up their song again.

They had accounted for five men and two horses all told; their losses one of the midwingmen, Macdonaugh, who had taken a saber-thrust to the belly and now lay gasping quietly upon a makeshift cot; and young Allen: his tent-mate Harley, who had fired off the shot in panic as the horses went thundering by, wept quietly in a corner, until Keynes in his brusque way told the boy, "Cease to behave like a watering-pot, if you please; you had better practice your aim: a shot like that would not kill anyone," and set him to cutting up bandages for his fellow ensign.

"Macdonaugh is a strong fellow," Keynes said to Laurence quietly, "but I will not give you false hope," and a few hours before morning, he gave a choked rattling sigh and died. Temeraire dug him a grave in the dry earth some little distance from the watering-pool, in the shade of the poplars; very deep, so that sandstorms would not expose the body. The bodies of the other men they buried more shallowly, in a mass grave. The raiders had carried off very little in exchange for their blood: a few cooking pots, a bag of grain, some blankets; and one of the tents had been ruined by Temeraire's attack.

"I doubt they will make another attempt, but we had better move on as quickly as we can," Tharkay said. "If they choose to carry a false report of us back to Khotan, we might find an unpleasant welcome there."

Laurence did not know what to make of Tharkay: if he were the most brazen traitor alive, or the most inconsistent; or his own suspicions wholly unjust. That had been no coward standing up beside him during the fight, with the panicked animals on every side and the attackers intent only on gain: easy enough for Tharkay to duck away quietly, or even to let the bandits have their way and snatch a camel for himself in the confusion. Still, a man might be brave enough with swords drawn and that say nothing for his character otherwise, though Laurence felt awkward and ungrateful for entertaining the thought.

He would not take further chances, however, at least none unnecessary: if four days' time brought them safely to Yutien, as Tharkay had promised, well and good; but Laurence would not put them in a position to starve if the promise did not hold true. Fortunately, having gorged himself on the two dead horses, Temeraire was able now without pain to leave the remaining camels unmolested for a couple of days: and at evening on the third he took Laurence aloft, and in the distance they saw the narrow ribbon of the Keriya River shining silver-white in the sunset, interrupting the desert and garlanded with a swath of thick and verdant green.

Temeraire ate his camel that night with pleasure, and they all drank their fill; the next morning they soon came to farmland, bordered on all sides by tall swaying stands of cannabis plants growing higher than a man's head, planted in perfectly squared rows to anchor the dunes; and vast groves of mulberry-trees, leaves rustling against one another in the whisper of breeze, on the approach to the great desert city.

The marketplace was divided into separate quarters, one full of gaily painted waggons that were both transport and shop, drawn by mules or the small shaggy ponies, many of them adorned also with waving colored plumes; in the other, tents of breezy cotton were set up on frameworks of poplar-branches to provide a kind of storefront, and smallish dragons in bright spangly jewelry curled around them in company with the traders, raising their heads curiously to watch Temeraire go by; he eyed them with equal interest, and some covetous gleam. "It is only tin and glass," Laurence said hurriedly, hoping to forestall any desire Temeraire might have to deck himself out in similar wise. "It is not worth anything."

"Oh; it is very pretty, though," Temeraire said regretfully, lingering on a dramatic ensemble rather like a tiara of purple and crimson and brass, with long swooping chains of glass beads draped down the neck.

Like the horsemen they had met, the faces were more Turkish than Oriental, nut-brown in the desert sun, but for the heavily veiled Mahommedan women of whom only their hands and feet could be seen; other women did not cover their faces, but wore only the same four-cornered caps as the men, embroidered lavishly in dyed silks, and watched them with open curious dark eyes: interest returned in at least full measure by the men. Laurence turned to give Dunne and Hackley, the rather exuberant young riflemen, a hard look: they started guiltily and dropped their hands, which they had raised to kiss to a pair of young women across the road.

Trade goods were laid out in every corner of the bazaar: sturdy sacks of cotton canvas standing upon the ground full of grains and rare spices and dried fruit; bolts of silks in queer many-colored patterns of no meaning, neither flowers nor any other image; gleaming treasure-vault walls of stacked chests, with strips of brass hammered on like gilding; bright copper jugs hanging and white conical jars half-buried in the ground, for keeping water cool; and notably many wooden stands displaying an impressive array of knives, their hilts cunningly worked, some inlaid and jeweled, and the blades long and curving and wicked.

They went at first warily through the streets of the bazaar, keeping their eyes on the shadows, but their fears of another ambush proved unfounded: the natives only smiled and beckoned from the stalls, even the dragons themselves calling out invitations to come and buy, some in clear fluting song which Temeraire paused now and again to try and answer with snatches of the dragon language that Tharkay had begun to teach him. Here and there a merchant of Chinese ancestry came out of his stall and bowed low to the ground as Temeraire went by, in respect, and stared in puzzlement at the rest of them.

Tharkay led them unerringly through the dragon quarter and skirting a small mosque beautifully painted, the square before it full of men and even a handful of dragons prostrating themselves on soft woven prayer-rugs; on the outskirts of the market they came to a comfortable pavilion large enough to accommodate even Temeraire, tall slim wooden columns holding up a roof of canvas, with poplar-trees shading the square all around. A little of Laurence's dwindling supply of silver bought them sheep for Temeraire's dinner, and a rich pilaf of mutton and onion and moist sweet sultanas for their own, with flat rounds of roasted bread and juicy watermelons to eat in thick slices down to the pale green rind.

"Tomorrow we can sell the rest of the camels," Tharkay said, after the scant leavings had been carried away and the men had disposed themselves around the pavilion, to drowse upon comfortable rugs and cushions; he was feeding the eagle on scraps of sheep's liver, discarded by Gong Su from the preparations for Temeraire's meal. "From here to Kashgar the oases are not so far apart, and we need only carry enough water for a day."

No news could have been more welcome; comfortable again in body and spirit, and greatly relieved by their safe crossing, Laurence was inclined to make allowances. To find another guide would take time, and the poplar-trees murmuring together around the clearing said that time was short: their leaves had begun to turn gold, early heralds of autumn. "Walk with me a moment," he said to Tharkay, when the guide had settled the eagle back into its cage and draped it for the night; together they went a little distance back into the lanes of the marketplace, the tradesmen beginning to pack their things away, rolling up the lips of the sacks to cover their dry goods.

The street was busy and crowded, but English was enough privacy; Laurence stopped in the nearest shade and turned to Tharkay, whose face was all polite untroubled inquiry. "I hope you have some notion already what I wish to say to you," Laurence began.

"I am sorry it is not so, Captain, and I must put you to the trouble of explication," Tharkay said. "But perhaps that is best: misunderstandings shall be thus avoided; and I am sure I know of no reason why you should scruple to be frank with me."

Laurence paused; this sounded to him again more sly half-mockery, for Tharkay was no fool, and he had not spent four days nearly shunned by all their company without noticing. "Then I will oblige you," Laurence said, more sharply. "You have brought us so far successfully, and I am not ungrateful for your efforts; but I am very heartily displeased with your conduct in having abandoned us unannounced in the midst of the desert.

"I do not want excuses," he added, seeing Tharkay's brow lift. "I count them useless, when I cannot know whether to believe them. But I will have your promise that you will not again leave our camp without permission: I want no more of these unannounced departures."

"Well, I am sorry not to have given satisfaction," Tharkay said thoughtfully, after a moment. "And I would never wish to keep you to what now seems to you a bad bargain, out of some sense of obligation. I am perfectly willing we should part ways here if you like. You will be able to find a local guide, in a week or two, perhaps three; but I am sure that cannot mean very much: you will certainly still arrive home in Britain quicker than the Allegiance should have brought you there."

This answer neatly evaded the required promise, and brought Laurence up directly: they could not easily give up three weeks or one - if that were not an optimistic estimate to begin with, as they knew neither the local language, which seemed closer to Turkish than Chinese, nor the customs. Laurence was not even sure they were still in territory claimed by China, or in some smaller principality.

He swallowed anger, renewed suspicion, and a hasty reply, though all three stuck unpleasantly in his throat. "No," he said, grimly. "We have no time to waste; as I think you know very well," he added: Tharkay's tone had been bland, unreadable, but a little too much so; and there was something knowing in his look, as though he understood their special urgency. Laurence still had the letter from Admiral Lenton secure in his baggage, but now he recalled the smudged softness of the red wax seal, when the letter had first been given him: easy enough, bringing the letter across all these miles, to have pried it open and then sealed it up again.

But Tharkay's expression did not change at the hint of accusation; he only bowed and said mildly, "As you wish," and turning went back to the pavilion.

Copyright © novelfull All Rights Reserved.