Black Powder War

Chapter 6


Chapter 6

THE SMALL IVORY fountain, many-jetted, flung off a fine cooling mist that gathered upon the orange-tree leaves and fruit hanging low over the pool, ripe and fragrant and trembling. In the vast palatial gardens below the terrace railing, Temeraire lay sun-dappled and drowsy after his substantial meal, and the little runners, having cleaned him off, were sleeping tucked against his side. The chamber itself was fairytale-lovely, tiles of lapis-blue and white laid upon the walls from floor to gilt-painted ceiling, shutters inlaid with mother-of-pearl, velvet-cushioned window seats, thick carpets in a thousand shades of red heaped over the floors, and in the center of the room a tall painted vase half the height of a man stood upon a low table, full of a profusion of flowers and vines. Laurence could gladly have hurled it across the room.

"It is the outside of enough," Granby said, blazing away as he paced. "Fobbing us off with a pack of excuses, and then to heap on such vile insinuations, and as good as call this poor wretch Yarmouth a thief - "

Mustafa had been full of apology, of regret: the agreements had never been signed, he explained, fresh concerns having arisen to delay the matter; and as a consequence the payment had not yet been delivered when the ambassador had met with his accident. When Laurence had received these excuses with all the suspicion the circumstances commanded, and demanded at once to be taken to the ambassador's residence and to speak with his staff, Mustafa had with an air of faint discomfort confided that upon the ambassador's death, his servants had departed post-haste for Vienna, and one, his secretary James Yarmouth, had vanished entirely.

"I will not say I know any evil of him, but gold is the great tempter," Mustafa had said, spreading his hands wide, his implications plain. "I am sorry, Captain, but you must understand we cannot bear the responsibility."

"I do not believe a word of it; not a word," Granby went on, furiously, "the notion they would send to us, in China, to come here with an agreement only half-made - "

"No, it is absurd," Laurence agreed. "Lenton would have spoken quite differently in his orders, had the arrangement been uncertain in the least; they can only want to renege upon it, with as little embarrassment to themselves as possible."

Mustafa had smiled and smiled relentlessly in the face of all Laurence's objections, and repeated his apologies, and offered hospitality once again; with all the crewmen weary and thick with dust, and no alternative to hand, Laurence had accepted, supposing besides that they would only find it easier to work out the truth of the affair, and exert some influence to see matters set right, once ensconced in the city.

He and his crew had been settled into two elaborate kiosques upon the inner grounds, the buildings nestled amidst rich lawns vast enough for Temeraire to sleep in. The palace crowned the narrow spur of land where the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn together met the sea, and endless prospects showed in every direction during their descent: horizons full of ocean, and a great crowd of shipping on the water. Laurence only too late recognized that they had stepped into a gilded cage: the matchless views were so because the palace hill was encircled all around with high windowless walls that barred all communication with the outside world, and their quarters looked upon the sea through windows barred with iron.

From the air, the kiosques had seemed joined with the sprawling palace complex, but the connection proved only a roofed cloister, open to the air: all the doors and windows which might have led into the palace proper were locked and forbidding, black and shuttered against even the entry of their gaze. More of the black slaves stood guard at the foot of the terrace stairs, and in the gardens the Kazilik dragons lay in sinuously knotted heaps, their glittering yellow eyes slitted open and resting watchfully on Temeraire.

For all his genial welcome, Mustafa had vanished away as soon as he had seen them neatly locked up, with vague promises to return very soon. But the call to prayer had come thrice since then; they had explored the limits of their handsome prison twice over, and still there was no sign of his returning. The guards made no objections if any of them came down to speak with Temeraire, in the gardens just beneath the kiosques, but they shook their heads genially when Laurence pointed over their shoulders to the paved walkway that led towards the rest of the grounds.

Held at this remove, from the terraces and windows they could watch the life of the palace as much as they wished, a curious kind of frustration: other men walking about the grounds, busy and preoccupied; officials in high turbans, servants carrying trays, young pages darting back and forth with baskets and letters; once even a gentleman who looked like a medical man, long-bearded and in plain black clothing, who disappeared into a small kiosque of his own some distance away. Many looked over curiously at Laurence and his crew, the boys slowing in their progress to stare at the dragons sitting in the garden, but they made no answer if called-to, only hurrying on prudently.

"Look; do you suppose that is a woman, over there?" Dunne and Hackley and Portis were jostling one another for the glass, hanging nearly halfway over the terrace railing with twenty feet down to solid stone pavement, trying recklessly to peer across the garden: an official was speaking with a woman - or a man, or an orang-utang, so far as could be told from externals. She was wearing a veil not of heavy silk but dark, which was wrapped around her head and shoulders and left only her eyes uncovered; and despite the heat of the day her gown was covered with a long coat, reaching to her jewel-slippered feet, and a deep-slashed pocket in the front concealed even her hands from view.

"Mr. Portis," Laurence said sharply; the older midshipman was actually putting fingers to his lips to whistle, "as you have nothing better to do, you will go below and see to digging Temeraire a fresh necessary; and when he has done with it you may fill it in again; at once, if you please." Dunne and Hackley hastily lowered the glass as Portis slunk off abashed, attempting without much success an air of innocence; Tharkay silently relieved them of it, while Laurence added, "And you two gentlemen - "

He paused in mingled outrage and dismay to see Tharkay himself peering through the glass at the veiled woman; "Sir," Laurence said, against his teeth, "I will thank you not to ogle the palace women either."

"She is not a woman of the harem," Tharkay said. "The harem quarters are to the south, beyond those high walls, and the women are not permitted outside; I assure you, Captain, we would not be seeing nearly so much of her, were she an odalisque." He straightened away from the glass: the woman had turned to look at them, a pale narrow strip of skin all that the robes did not cover, only just large enough to leave her dark eyes exposed.

Thankfully she made no outcry, and in a moment she and the official had walked out of sight again. Tharkay shut up the glass and gave it to Laurence, and walked away, insouciant; Laurence closed his fist around the barrel. "You will go and ask Mr. Bell to find you some way to assist him with the newest leather he has to hand," he said to Dunne and Hackley, restraining himself from giving them a sharper punishment duty; he would not make them scapegoat for Tharkay.

They made their grateful escape, and Laurence paced the terrace length again, stopping at the far end to look out over the city and the Golden Horn; dusk was descending: Mustafa would surely not come today.

"And there is the day wasted," Granby said, joining him as the last call to prayer came: the raw straining voices of the muezzin mingled from distant minarets and near, one so close it might have been only on the other side of the high brick wall that divided their courtyard from the harem.

The call woke Laurence again at dawn: he had left the shutters all open for the breeze, and so that he might lift his head during the night and see Temeraire safe and asleep in the faint eldritch glow of the scattered lanterns hung on the palace walls. And once again they heard it five times over with still no communication: not a visit nor a word nor any sign that their existence was even acknowledged, beyond the meals which were brought them by a quick and silent handful of servants, there and gone before any questions could be asked them.

At Laurence's request, Tharkay tried to bespeak the guards in Turkish, but they only shrugged inarticulate and opened their mouths to show where their tongues had been cut out, a piece of barbarity. When asked to take a letter, they shook their heads firmly, whether from unwillingness to leave their posts for such a purpose, or perhaps under instructions to keep them incommunicado.

"Do you suppose we could bribe them?" Granby said, when night began to come on, and still no word had come. "If only we could get out, a few of us: someone in this damned city must know what has happened to the ambassador's staff; not all of them can have gone away."

"We might; if we had anything to bribe them with," Laurence said. "We are wretchedly short, John; I dare say they would sniff at what I can afford. I doubt it would see us out of the palace, when it would mean their positions if not their heads."

"Then we might have Temeraire knock down a wall to let us out; at least that might draw some notice," Granby said, not entirely joking, and flung himself down onto the nearest couch.

"Mr. Tharkay, do you translate for me again," Laurence said, and went to address the guards once more; though at first they had tolerated their guest-prisoners with good humor, they were now grown visibly annoyed, this being the sixth time Laurence had accosted them over the course of the day. "Pray tell them we require some more oil for the lamps, and candles," Laurence said to Tharkay, "also perhaps some soap, and other toilet articles," improvising some small requests.

These presently, as he had hoped, brought one of the young pages they had seen from afar, to fetch and carry for them; the boy was sufficiently impressed at the offer of a silver coin to agree to convey a message to Mustafa. Having first sent him off to bring the candles and sundry, to forestall any suspicion on the part of the guards, Laurence sat down with pen and paper to compose as severe a formal letter as he could manage, which he hoped would convey to that smiling gentleman that he did not mean to sit quietly in this bower.

"I am not sure what you mean by the beginning of the third paragraph," Temeraire said doubtfully, when Laurence read over the letter, written in French, to him.

"'Whatever your design may be, in leaving unanswered all the questions which - '" Laurence began.

"Oh," Temeraire said, "I think you want conception instead of dessin. Also, Laurence, I do not think you want to say you are his obedient domestique."

"Thank you, my dear," Laurence said, correcting the words, and guessing at the spelling of heuroo, before he folded up the missive and handed it over to the boy, who had now returned with a basket of candles and of small cakes of soap, heavily perfumed.

"I only hope he will not throw it in the fire," Granby said, after the boy had trotted away, coin clutched in one fist, not very discreetly. "Or I suppose Mustafa might hurl it in himself."

"We will not hear anything tonight, regardless," Laurence said. "We had better sleep while we can. If we get no answer, we will have to think of making a dash for Malta tomorrow. They do not have much of a shore battery here, and I dare say they will answer us very differently if we come back with a first-rate and a couple of frigates behind us."

"Laurence," Temeraire called from outside, rousing him from a thick, too-real dream of sailing; Laurence sat up and rubbed his wet face: a change in the wind had carried the fountain-spray onto him during the night.

"Yes," he answered, and went to wash in the fountain, still half-asleep; he went down into the gardens, nodding civilly to the yawning guards, and Temeraire nudged at him with interest.

"That is a nice smell," he said, diverted, and Laurence realized he had washed with the perfumed soap.

"I will have to scrub it off later," he said, dismayed. "Are you hungry?"

"I would not mind something to eat," Temeraire said, "but I must tell you something: I have been talking to Bezaid and Sherazde, and they say their egg will hatch very soon."

"Who?" Laurence said, puzzled, then stared at the pair of Kazilik dragons, who blinked their glossy eyes at him in return, with mild interest. "Temeraire," he said, slowly, "do you mean that we are to have their egg?"

"Yes, and two others, but those have not started to harden," Temeraire said. "I think," he added. "They only know a little French, and a little of the dragon-language, but they have been telling me words in Turkish."

Laurence paid this no attention, too staggered by the news; very nearly since any organized sort of dragon-breeding had begun, Britain had been trying to acquire a line of fire-breathers. A few of the Flamme-de-Gloire had been brought over after Agincourt, but the last had died out scarcely a century later, and since then there had been only failure after failure: France and Spain had naturally denied them, too-close neighbors to wish to yield so great an advantage, and for a long while the Turks had been no more eager to deal with infidels than the British with heathen.

"And we were in negotiations with the Inca, not twelve years ago," Granby said, his face flushed bright with passionate excitement, "but it all came to nothing, in the end; we offered them a kingdom's ransom, and they seemed pleased, then overnight they returned us all the silk and tea and guns we had brought them, and ran us out of the place."

"How much did we offer to them, do you recall?" Laurence asked, and Granby named a sum which made him sit abruptly down. Sherazde, with an air of smugness, informed them in her broken French that her egg had commanded a higher price still, almost impossible to believe.

"Good God; how half such a sum was raised, I am at a loss to imagine," Laurence said. "They might build half-a-dozen first-rates for the same price, and a pair of dragon transports besides."

Temeraire was sitting up and very still, his tail wound tight around his body and his ruff bristling. "We are buying the eggs?" he said.

"Why - " Laurence was surprised; he had not before realized Temeraire did not understand the eggs were to be acquired for money. "We are, yes, but you see yourself that your acquaintances do not object to giving over their egg," he said, glancing anxiously at the Kazilik pair, who indeed seemed unconcerned at being parted from their offspring.

But Temeraire dismissed this with an impatient flick of his tail. "Of course they do not mind that, they know we will take care of the egg," he said. "But as you have told me yourself, if you buy a thing, then you own it, and may do as you like with it. If I buy a cow I may eat it, and if you buy an estate then we may live upon it, and if you buy me a jewel I may wear it. If eggs are property, then the dragons that hatch out of them are also, and it is no wonder that people treat us as though we are slaves."

There was very little way to answer this; raised in an abolitionist household, Laurence understood without question that men ought not be bought and sold, and when put on terms of principle he could hardly disagree; however, there was plainly a vast difference in the condition of dragons and the unfortunate wretches who lived in bondage.

"It's not as though we can make the dragonets do as we want, once they hatch," Granby offered, a useful inspiration. "You could say that we are only buying the chance to persuade them to go into harness with us."

But Temeraire said, with a militant gleam, "And if instead when hatched they wished to fly away, and come back here?"

"Oh, well," Granby said, lamely, and looked awkward; naturally in such a case, the feral dragonet would be taken to the breeding-grounds instead.

"At least consider that in this case, we are taking them away to England, where you will have the opportunity of improving their condition," Laurence tried as consolation, but Temeraire was not so easily mollified, and curled brooding in the garden to consider the problem.

"Well, he has taken the bit in his teeth and no mistake," Granby said to Laurence, with a worried querying note in his voice, as they went back inside.

"Yes," Laurence said dismally. He did have some expectation of winning real improvement in the comforts of the dragons, once back home; he was sure Admiral Lenton and the other senior admirals of the Corps would be quite willing to adopt all such measures which their authority should allow. Laurence had with him plans for a pavilion in the Chinese style, with the heating-stones beneath and the pipe-fed running fountains, which had been so much to Temeraire's liking; Gong Su might easily train others in the art of dragon cookery, and the Allegiance was carrying home besides the reading frames and sand writing tables, which surely could be adapted to Western usage. Privately Laurence doubted whether most dragons would have any interest; Temeraire was unique not only in his gift for language but his passion for books. But whatsoever interest there was could be satisfied easily and without great cost, and could hardly provoke any objections.

But beyond these measures, which might be undertaken within the discretion and the funds of the Corps, Government was hardly likely to go with a good-will, and the degree of coercion required to force anything more, Laurence could not bear to endorse. A mutiny of dragons would terrify all the country, and surely injure the cause as much as promote it; and fix the Ministry in the prejudice that dragons were not to be depended upon. The effects of such a conflict upon the prosecution of the war were hardly to be overstated, and as distraction alone might prove fatal: there were not enough dragons in England for those available to be worrying more about their pay and their rights in law than about their duty.

He could not help but wonder if another captain, a proper aviator and better-trained, might have kept Temeraire from growing so preoccupied and discontented, and channeled his energies better. He would have liked to ask Granby if such difficulties were at all common, if there were any advice to be had on the matter, but he could not be asking a subordinate for help in managing Temeraire; and in any case, he was not sure advice would be of use any longer. To call it slavery, when a dragon egg was purchased at a cost of half-a-million pounds, and the only change whether it should be hatched in England rather than in the Sublime Porte, was unreasonable as a practical matter, and all the philosophy in the world could not change that.

"If the egg has begun to harden, how long do you expect we have?" he asked Granby instead, putting his hand up to the wind that came in at the archway facing the sea, and calculating in his mind how long it should be to bring a ship from Malta; they could reach the island in three days' flying, he felt sure, if Temeraire was well-rested and well-fed beforehand.

"Well, certainly it is down to weeks, but whether it is three or ten I cannot tell you without I see the thing, and even then I could be wrong: you will have to ask Keynes for that," Granby said. "But it's not enough to lay our hands upon the egg at the last moment, you know. This dragonet shan't be like Temeraire and pop out knowing three tongues at once, I never heard of anything like; we must get hold of the egg and start it on English straight off."

"Oh, Hell," Laurence said, dismayed, and let fall his hand; he had not even considered the matter of language. He had captured Temeraire's egg scarcely a week before hatching, and had not known enough to be surprised to find him speaking English, more astonished that a new-hatched creature could speak at all. Yet another gap in his training; and another fresh source of urgency.

"It would give the Sultan a strange appearance among the ranks of rulers," Laurence said, only just contriving to present an appearance of equanimity, "to tolerate the disappearance of half-a-million pounds meant for his treasury and the death of an ambassador within his territory, with no inquiry; mere courtesy to an ally would dictate greater concern, sir, at the circumstances which you have described to me."

"But, Captain, I assure you, all inquiries are being made," Mustafa said, in great earnest, and tried to press a platter of honey-soaked pastry upon him.

Mustafa had at last appeared shortly after the hour of noon, pleading as excuse for his absence an unexpected affair of state which had drawn away his attention; by way of apology he had come accompanied by their dinner, and an extravagant entertainment besides. Two dozen servants or more bustled around with great noise, setting rugs and cushions for them upon the terrace, all around the marble pool, and ferrying great platters from the kitchens, laden with fragrant pilaff and heaps of mashed aubergines, cabbage leaves and green peppers stuffed with meat and rice, skewers and thin-sliced roasted meats redolent of rich smoke.

Temeraire, his head craned over the railing to observe the event, sniffed these with especial appreciation, and, despite having been well-fed on two tender lambs only an hour earlier, surreptitiously cleared in a few bites a serving-dish set down for a moment within his reach, and left the servants staring at the empty platter, its gold scraped and dented by his teeth.

In case this should have proved inadequate distraction, Mustafa had brought with him musicians, who at once set up a great noise, and a crowd of dancing-girls in loose and translucent pantaloons. Their gyrations were so plainly indecent, and so little concealed by the veils which they swung round themselves, that Laurence could only blush for them, though their performance was much applauded by many of his younger officers. The riflemen were the most outrageous: Portis had learnt his lesson, at least, but Dunne and Hackley, younger and more exuberant, were comporting themselves shamelessly, trying to catch at the trailing veils and whistling approval; Dunne even went so far as to get up onto one knee and reach out a hand before Lieutenant Riggs caught his ear smartly and pulled him down.

Laurence was in no danger of being so led astray; the women were beautiful, white-limbed and dark-eyed Circassians, but his wrath at these plain efforts to keep them from business was rather more in force than any other base emotion, and superseded any temptation he might otherwise have felt. But when he tried at first to speak to Mustafa, one went so far as to approach him more directly, her arms spread wide to display her lovely breasts to good effect, these being covered inadequately and moving in counter-point to her hips. Gracefully she seated herself upon his couch and stretched her slender arms out towards him in blatant invitation; an effective bar to any conversation, and it was no part of his character to thrust a woman forcibly away.

Fortunately, his virtue had an effective guardian: Temeraire put his head down to inspect her with jealous suspicion, eyes narrowing further at her many dazzling chains of gold, and snorted; the girl, unprepared for such a reception, sprang hurriedly up from the divan and back to the safety of her fellows.

At last Laurence was able to press Mustafa for some relief; only to have the pasha put him off with vague assurances that the investigations would bear fruit "soon, very soon, of course; although the labors of government are many, Captain, I am certain you understand."

"Sir," Laurence said bluntly, "I understand well enough you may drag things out to suit you; but when you have delayed too long and rendered all discussion moot, what hold you presently have on our patience will be gone, and you may find such treatment will merit an answer you will not enjoy receiving."

This pointed remark was as near as he felt he could come to a threat, or ought to; no minister of the Sultan's could fail to understand how very vulnerable the city was to blockade or even attack by sea, with the Navy in easy striking distance at Malta. Indeed, for once Mustafa was left without a ready answer, and his mouth was pressed tight.

"I am no diplomat, sir," Laurence added, "and I cannot wrap my meaning up in fine language. When you know as well as do I that time is of the essence, and yet I am left to cool my heels to no purpose, I do not know what to call it but deliberate; and I cannot easily believe that my ambassador dead and his secretary missing, all his staff should have unceremoniously departed, though knowing to expect us and with so vast a sum unaccounted for."

But to this, Mustafa sat up and spread his hands. "How may I convince you, Captain? Will you be satisfied to visit his residence, and inspect for yourself?"

Laurence paused, taken aback; his intention had been to press Mustafa for just such a liberty, and he had not expected to have it offered him unsolicited. "I would indeed be glad of the opportunity," he answered, "and to speak with whatever servants of his household remain in the neighborhood."

"I do not like it in the least," Granby said, when a pair of mute guards arrived shortly after their dinner, to escort Laurence on the foray. "You ought to remain here; let me go instead with Martin and Digby, and we will bring back anyone I can find."

"They are not likely to permit you to bring men freely into the palace; nor can they be so lost to reason as to murder us in the street, with Temeraire and two dozen men here to carry away the news," Laurence said. "We will do very well."

"I do not like your going away, either," Temeraire said discontentedly. "I do not see why I cannot come." He had grown used to walking about freely in Peking, and so long as they had been in the wilderness, of course, his movements also had not been restricted.

"I am afraid the conditions here are not as they were in China," Laurence said. "The streets of Istanbul will not admit of your passage, and if they did we would begin a panic among the populace. Now; where is Mr. Tharkay?"

There was a moment of general silence and confusion, heads turning all around: Tharkay was nowhere to be seen. A hurried questioning made sure that no one had seen him since the previous evening, and then Digby pointed out his small bedroll neatly tucked away and still bound up among their baggage, unused. Laurence regarded it with a tight-lipped expression. "Very well; we cannot delay in hopes he will come back. Mr. Granby, if he returns, you will put him under guard until I have opportunity to speak with him."

"Yes, sir," Granby said, darkly.

Certain phrases which might form a part of that conversation sprang forcefully to Laurence's mind, as he stood in bafflement outside the elegant ambassador's residence: the windows tight-shuttered, the door barred, dust and rat-droppings beginning to collect upon the front stoop. The guards only looked at him uncomprehendingly when he tried to make gestures suggesting the servants, and though he went so far as to apply at the neighboring houses, he found no one who understood a word of English or French, nor even his wretched gasping scraps of Latin.

"Sir," Digby said, low, when Laurence came back unsuccessful once more, from the third house, "I think that window on the side there is unlocked, and I dare say I could scramble in, if Mr. Martin would give me a leg up."

"Very good; only mind you do not break your neck," Laurence said; he and Martin together heaved Digby up close enough to reach the balcony. Squirreling up over an iron railing was no great difficulty for a boy raised to clamber all over a dragon's back in mid-flight, and though the window stuck halfway, the young ensign was still slim enough he could wriggle through.

The guards made an uneasy wordless protest when Digby opened the front door from within, but Laurence ignored them and went inside, Martin at his back. They stepped over straw and tracked dirt in the hallway, marks of bare dusty feet on the floor, signs of a hasty packing and departure. Inside the rooms were dark and echoing even when the shutters were thrown open, sheets draped across furnishings all left in place, the ghostly quality of a house abandoned and waiting, and the low muttering tick-tick of the great clock beside the staircase queerly loud in the hush.

Laurence went upstairs and through the chambers; but though there were some papers scattered and left here and there, these were little more than scraps left from packing: torn rags and fragments of kindling paper. One leaf he found beneath the writing-desk in a large bedchamber, in a lady's hand, an excerpt of a cheerful and ordinary letter home, full of news of her small children and curious stories of the foreign city, broken off mid-page and never finished; he put it down again, sorry to have intruded.

A smaller chamber down the hall, Laurence thought must have been Yarmouth's; it seemed as though the occupant had stepped out only for an hour: two coats hanging with a clean shirt, a suit of evening wear, a pair of buckled shoes; a bottle of ink and a pen lying trimmed upon the desk, with books left on the shelves and a small cameo left inside the desk: a young woman's face. But the papers had been taken away: or at least, there were none left which had any useful intelligence.

He went down again none the wiser; and Digby and Martin had met with no better luck belowstairs. At the least there was no sign of foul play, or of looting, though everywhere an untidy mess and all the furniture left behind; they had gone in a great hurry, certainly, but not it seemed by force. Her husband so suddenly dead and his secretary vanished, under such irregular circumstances and with so vast a sum of gold involved: caution alone might have reasonably driven the ambassador's wife to take her children and the remains of her household and retreat, rather than remain alone and friendless in a city so foreign and far away from allies.

But a letter to Vienna might take weeks to go and bring back a reply; they would not have time to learn the truth, not before the egg was irretrievably lost to them, and there was certainly nothing here to disprove Mustafa's story. Disheartened, Laurence left the house, the guards beckoning them impatiently on, and Digby barred the door again from within and scrambled down from the balcony to rejoin them.

"Thank you, gentlemen, I think we have learned all we can," Laurence said; there was no sense in letting Martin and Digby share in his own sense of dismay, and as best he could he concealed his anxiety as they followed in the guards' train back towards the river. Yet he was deep in a brown study, and gave little attention to their surroundings but to watch they did not lose the guards in the enormous crowd. The ambassador's residence had stood in the Beyoglu quarter across the Golden Horn, full of foreigners and tradesmen; there was a great press of people in the streets, strangely narrow after the broad avenues of Peking, and a din of voices calling: merchants outside their storefronts beckoning the instant they caught the eye of any passerby, trying to draw them inside.

But the crowd fell abruptly off, and the noise with it, as they came nearer to the shore: houses and shops all shuttered together, though now and again Laurence saw a face look out momentarily from behind a curtain, peering up at the sky, then vanish again as quickly. Above them broad shadows flickered by, blotting out for a moment the sun: dragons wheeling overhead, so near their bellmen could be counted by the head. The guards looked up apprehensively, and hurried them onward, though Laurence would have liked to stop for a better look, to see what they were about, lingering over so populous an area, and so crushing all the commerce of the day. Only a handful of men were to be seen in the streets beneath the shadows of the dragons, and those hurrying by anxious and quick; one dog stood barking with more courage than sense, its piercing voice carrying across the expanse of the harbor; the dragons paid it no more notice than a man might a buzzing fly, calling to one another aloft.

Their chief ferryman was waiting uneasily, passing the end of his anchor-cable through his hands, on the verge perhaps of abandoning them; he beckoned hurriedly while they came down the hill. Laurence turned himself around in the boat to see, as they drew away across the river: at first he thought the dragons, perhaps half-a-dozen of them, were only sporting in the air. But then he saw there were thick cables stretching down over the harbor, and the dragons were hauling upon these, drawing up whole waggons which carried, unmistakable, the barrels of long guns.

When they had reached the far shore of the river, Laurence leapt out ahead of the guards and went to the dockside to look more closely: already he could tell these were no trivial works. A host of low-bellied barges stood in the harbor, swarmed with some hundreds of men arranging the next waggon-loads, and a crowd of horses and mules somehow being kept obedient despite the dragons so nearby; perhaps because the dragons were above and out of their direct sight. Not only guns, but cannonballs, barrels of powder, heaps of brick; such a mass of materiel Laurence would have allowed weeks to shift it up the steep hill, all of it traveling upwards quick as winking. And higher upon the hillside itself, the dragons were lowering the massive cannon-barrels into their waiting wooden cradles, as easily as a pair of men might move a plank of wood.

Laurence was by no means the only curious observer; a great press of natives of the city were gathered along the docks, staring at the scene, and whispering amongst themselves doubtfully; a company of Janissaries, in their plumed helmets, stood frowning not a dozen yards away, with their hands restless and toying with their carbines. One enterprising young man was going about offering the use of a glass to the onlookers, for a small fee; it was not very powerful, and the lenses mazed, but good enough for a closer look.

"Ninety-six-pounders, unless I quite mistake it, maybe so many as twenty of them, and I think there were as many more already ensconced on the Asian coast. This harbor will be a death-trap for any ship that comes in range," Laurence said grimly to Granby, as he washed the dust of the streets from his face and hands in the basin set on the wall, and ducked his head in the water for good measure, wringing his hair out with some savagery: soon he would resort to hacking off the ends with his sword, he thought, if he did not come to a barber; it had always refused to grow long enough for a proper queue, only enough to be an irritation and drip endlessly when wet. "And they were not at all sorry to let me see it; those guards were urging us along all the day, but they were pleased enough for me to stop and stare as long as I liked."

"Mustafa might as well have thumbed his nose at us," Granby agreed. "And Laurence, I am afraid that is not the only - well, you will see for yourself," and together they went around to the garden-side: the Kazilik dragons had gone, but in their stead another dozen dragons had been set around Temeraire, so that the garden was grown crowded, and a couple of them were obliged even to perch atop the backs of others.

"Oh, no; they are all quite friendly, and have only come to talk," Temeraire said earnestly; he was already making himself understood somehow in a melange of French scattered with Turkish and the dragon-language, and with some labor and repetition he presented Laurence to the Turkish dragons, who all nodded their heads to him politely.

"They will still give us no end of difficulty if we need to leave with any haste," Laurence said, eyeing them sidelong; Temeraire was fast, very fast, for a dragon of his size; but the couriers at least could certainly outdistance him, and Laurence rather thought a couple of the middle-weight beasts might be able to match his speed long enough to slow him for a dragon more up to his fighting-weight.

But they were at least not unpleasant guard-dogs, and proved informative. "Yes; some of them have been telling me about the harbor works, they are here in the city helping," Temeraire said, when the operations Laurence had seen were described to him; and the visiting dragons willingly confirmed a good deal of what Laurence had surmised: they were fortifying the harbor, with a great many cannon. "It sounds very interesting; I would like to go and see, if we might."

"I would dearly like a closer look myself," Granby said. "I have no idea how they are managing it with horses involved. It is the very devil of a time having cattle around dragons; we count ourselves lucky not to stampede them, much less to get any useful work out of them. It is not enough to keep them out of sight; a horse can smell a dragon more than a mile off."

"I doubt Mustafa will be inclined to let us inspect their works very closely," Laurence said. "To let us have a glimpse across the harbor to impress upon us the futility of attack is one thing; to show all his hand would be something else. Has there been any word from him, any further explanation?"

"Not a peep, and neither hide nor hair of Tharkay, either, since you left," Granby said.

Laurence nodded, and sat down heavily upon the stairs. "We cannot keep going through all these ministers and official channels," he said finally. "Time is too short. We must demand an audience with the Sultan; his intercession must be the surest way to gain their quick cooperation."

"But if he has let them put us off, this far - "

"I cannot credit an intention on his part to wreck all relations," Laurence said, "not with Bonaparte nearer his doorstep than ever, since Austerlitz; and if he would be as pleased to keep the eggs, that is not as much to say he would choose them over an open and final breach. But so long as his ministers serve as intercessionaries, he has not committed himself and his state: he can always blame it upon them; if indeed it is not some sort of private political tangle behind these delays to begin with."

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