Dark Hunger

Chapter 12

THEY DID NOT follow the usual curve of the river to Whampoa and Canton, but instead took an earlier eastern branch towards the city of Dongguan: now drifting with the wind, now rowing against the slow current, past the broad square-bordered rice fields on either side of the river, verdant green with the tops of the shoots beginning to protrude beyond the water's surface. The stench of manure hung over the river like a cloud.

Laurence drowsed nearly the entire journey, only vaguely conscious of the futile attempts made by the crew to be quiet, their hissing whispers causing instructions to be repeated three times, gradually increasing to the usual volume. Any occasional slip, such as dropping a coil of rope too heavily, or stumbling over one of the thwarts, brought forth a stream of invective and injunctions to be quiet that were considerably louder than the ordinary noise would have been. Nevertheless he slept, or something close to it; every so often he would open his eyes and look up, to be sure of Temeraire's form still pacing them overhead.

He woke from a deeper sleep only after dark: the sail was being furled, and a few moments later the launch bumped gently against a dock, followed by the quiet ordinary cursing of the sailors tying-up. There was very little light immediately at hand but the boat's lanterns, only enough to show a broad stairway leading down into the water, the lowest steps disappearing beneath the river's surface; to either side of these only the dim shadows of native junks drawn up onto the beach.

A parade of lanterns came towards them from further in on the shore, the locals evidently warned to expect their arrival: great glowing spheres of deep orange-red silk, stretched taut over thin bamboo frames, reflecting like flames in the water. The lamp-bearers spread out along the edges of the walls in careful procession, and suddenly a great many Chinese were climbing aboard the ship, seizing on the various parts of the baggage, and transferring these off without so much as a request for permission, calling out to one another cheerfully as they worked.

Laurence was at first disposed to complain, but there was no cause: the entire operation was being carried out with admirable efficiency. A clerk had seated himself at the base of the steps with something like a drawing-table upon his lap, making a tally of the different parcels on a paper scroll as they passed by him, and at the same time marking each one plainly. Instead Laurence stood up and tried to unstiffen his neck surreptitiously by small movements to either side, without any undignified stretching. Yongxing had already stepped off the boat and gone into the small pavilion on the shore; from inside, Liu Bao's booming voice could be heard calling for what even Laurence had come to recognize as the word for "wine," and Sun Kai was on the bank speaking with the local mandarin.

"Sir," Laurence said to Hammond, "will you be so good as to ask the local officials where Temeraire has come to ground?"

Hammond made some inquiries of the men on the bank, frowned, and said to Laurence in an undertone, "They say he has been taken to the Pavilion of Quiet Waters, and that we are to go elsewhere for the night; pray make some objection at once, loudly, so I may have an excuse to argue with them; we ought not set a precedent of allowing ourselves to be separated from him."

Laurence, who if not prompted would have at once made a great noise, found himself cast into confusion by the request to play-act; he stammered a little, and said in a raised but awkwardly tentative voice, "I must see Temeraire at once, and be sure he is well."

Hammond turned back at once to the attendants, spreading his hands in apology, and spoke urgently; under their scowls, Laurence did his best to look stern and unyielding, feeling thoroughly ridiculous and angry all at once, and eventually Hammond turned back with satisfaction and said, "Excellent; they have agreed to take us to him."

Relieved, Laurence nodded and turned back to the ship's crew. "Mr. Tripp, let these gentlemen show you and the men where to sleep; I will speak with you in the morning before you return to the Allegiance," he told the midshipman, who touched his hat, and then he climbed up onto the stairs.

Without discussion, Granby arranged the men in a loose formation around him as they walked along the broad, paved roads, following the guide's bobbing lantern; Laurence had the impression of many small houses on either side, and deep wheel-ruts were cut into the paving-stones, all sharp edges worn soft and curving with the impression of long years. He felt wide-awake after the long day drowsing, and yet there was something curiously dream-like about walking through the foreign dark, the soft black boots of the guide making hushing noises over the stones, the smoke of cooking fires drifting from the nearby houses, muted light filtering from behind screens and out of windows, and once a snatch of unfamiliar song in a woman's voice.

They came at last to the end of the wide straight road, and the guide led them up the broad stairway of a pavilion and between massive round columns of painted wood, the roof so far overhead that its shape was lost in the darkness. The low rumbled breathing of dragons echoed loudly in the half-enclosed space, close all around them, and the tawny lantern-light gleamed on scales in every direction, like heaped mounds of treasure around the narrow aisle through the center. Hammond drew unconsciously closer to the center of their party, and caught his breath once, as the lantern reflected from a dragon's half-open eye, turning into a disk of flat, shining gold.

They passed through another set of columns and into an open garden, with water trickling somewhere in the darkness, and the whisper of broad leaves rubbing against one another overhead. A few more dragons lay sleeping here, one sprawled across the path; the guide poked him with the stick of the lantern until he grudgingly moved away, never even opening his eyes. They climbed more stairs up to another pavilion, smaller than the first, and here at last found Temeraire, curled up alone in the echoing vastness.

"Laurence?" Temeraire said, lifting his head as they came in, and nuzzled at him gladly. "Will you stay? It is very strange to be sleeping on land again. I almost feel as though the ground is moving."

"Of course," Laurence said, and the crew laid themselves down without complaint: the night was pleasantly warm, and the floor made of inlaid squares of wood, smoothed down by years, and not uncomfortably hard. Laurence took his usual place upon Temeraire's forearm; after sleeping through the journey, he was wakeful, and told Granby he would take the first watch. "Have you been given something to eat?" he asked Temeraire, once they were settled.

"Oh, yes," Temeraire said drowsily. "A roast pig, very large, and some stewed mushrooms. I am not at all hungry. It was not a very difficult flight, after all, and nothing very interesting either to see before the sun went down; except those fields were strange, that we came past, full of water."

"The rice fields," Laurence said, but Temeraire was already asleep, and shortly began to snore: the noise was decidedly louder in the confines of the pavilion even though it had no walls. The night was very quiet, and the mosquitoes were not too much of a torment, thankfully; they evidently did not care for the dry heat given off by a dragon's body. There was very little to mark the time, with the sky concealed by the roof, and Laurence lost track of the hours. No interruption in the stillness of the night, except that once a noise in the courtyard drew his attention: a dragon landing, turning a milky pearlescent gaze towards them, reflecting the moonlight very much like a cat's eyes; but it did not come near the pavilion, and only padded away deeper into the darkness.

Granby woke for his turn at watch; Laurence composed himself to sleep: he, too, felt the old familiar illusion of the earth shifting, his body remembering the movement of the ocean even now that they had left it behind.

He woke startled: the riot of color overhead was strange until he understood he was looking at the decoration upon the ceiling, every scrap of wood painted and enameled in brilliant peacocky colors and shining gilt. He sat up and looked about himself with fresh interest: the round columns were painted a solid red, set upon square bases of white marble, and the roof was at least thirty feet overhead: Temeraire would have had no difficulty coming in underneath it.

The front of the pavilion opened onto a prospect of the courtyard which he found interesting rather than beautiful: paved with grey stones around a winding path of reddish ones, full of queerly shaped rocks and trees, and of course dragons: there were five sprawled over the grounds in various attitudes of repose, except for one already awake and grooming itself fastidiously by the enormous pool which covered the northeast corner of the grounds. The dragon was a shade of greyish blue not very different from the present color of the sky, and curiously the tips of its four claws were painted a bright red; as Laurence watched it finished its morning ablutions and took to the air.

Most of the dragons in the yard seemed of a similar breed, though there was a great deal of variety among them in size, in the precise shade of their color, and in the number and placement of their horns; some were smooth-backed and others had spiked ridges. Shortly a very different kind of dragon came out of the large pavilion to the south: larger and crimson-red, with gold-tinted talons and a bright yellow crest running from its many-horned head and along its spine. It drank from the pool and yawned enormously, displaying a double row of small but wicked teeth, and a set of four larger curving fangs among them. Narrower halls, with walls interspersed with small archways, ran to east and west of the courtyard, joining the two pavilions; the red dragon went over to one of the archways now and yelled something inside.

A few moments later a woman came stumbling out through the archway, rubbing her face and making wordless groaning noises. Laurence stared, then looked away, embarrassed, she was naked to the waist. The dragon nudged her hard and knocked her back entirely into the pond. It certainly had a reviving effect: she rose up spluttering and wide-eyed, and then yammered back at the grinning dragon in a passion before going back inside the hall. She came out again a few minutes later, now fully dressed in what seemed to be a sort of padded jerkin, dark blue cotton edged with broad bands of red, with wide sleeves, and carrying a rig made also of fabric: silk, Laurence thought. This she threw upon the dragon all by herself, still talking loudly and obviously disgruntled all the while; Laurence was irresistibly reminded of Berkley and Maximus, even though Berkley had never spoken so many words together in his life: something in the irreverent quality of their relations.

The rig secured, the Chinese aviator scrambled aboard and the two went aloft with no further ceremony, disappearing from the pavilion to whatever their day's duties might be. All the dragons were now beginning to stir, another three of the big scarlet ones coming out of the pavilion, and more people to come from the halls: men from the east, and a few more women from the west.

Temeraire himself twitched under Laurence, and then opened his eyes. "Good morning," he said, yawning, then, "Oh!" his eyes wide as he looked around, taking in the opulent decoration and the bustle going on in the courtyard. "I did not realize there were so many other dragons here, or that it was so grand," he said, a little nervously. "I hope they are friendly."

"I am sure they cannot but be gracious, when they realize you have come from so far," Laurence said, climbing down so Temeraire could stand. The air was close and heavy with moisture, the sky remaining uncertain and grey; it would be hot again, he thought. "You ought to drink as much as you can," he said. "I have no notion how often they will want to stop and rest along the way today."

"I suppose," Temeraire said, reluctantly, and stepped out of the pavilion and into the court. The increasing hubbub came to an abrupt and complete halt; the dragons and their companions alike stared openly, and then there was a general movement back and away from him. Laurence was for a moment shocked and offended; then he saw that they were all, men and dragons, bowing themselves very low to the ground. They had only been opening a clear path to the pond.

There was perfect silence. Temeraire uncertainly walked through the parted ranks of the other dragons to the pond, rather hastily drank his fill, and retreated to the raised pavilion; only when he had gone again did the general activity resume, with much less noise than earlier, and a good deal of peering into the pavilion, while pretending to do nothing of the sort. "They were very nice to let me drink," Temeraire said, almost whispering, "but I wish they would not stare so."

The dragons seemed disposed to linger, but one after another they all set off, except for a few plainly older ones, their scales faded at the edges, who returned to basking upon the courtyard stones. Granby and the rest of the crew had woken over the intervening time, sitting up to watch the spectacle with as much interest as the other dragons had taken in Temeraire; now they roused fully, and began to straighten their clothing. "I suppose they will send someone for us," Hammond was saying, brushing futilely at his wrinkled breeches; he had been dressed formally, rather than in the riding gear which all the aviators had put on. At that very moment, Ye Bing, one of the young Chinese attendants from the ship, came through the courtyard, waving to draw their attention.

Breakfast was not what Laurence was used to, being a sort of thin rice porridge mixed with dried fish and slices of horrifically discolored eggs, served with greasy sticks of crisp, very light bread. The eggs he pushed to the side, and forced himself to eat the rest, on the same advice which he had given to Temeraire; but he would have given a great deal for some properly cooked eggs and bacon. Liu Bao poked Laurence in the arm with his chopsticks and pointed at the eggs with some remark: he was eating his own with very evident relish.

"What do you suppose is the matter with them?" Granby asked in an undertone, prodding his own eggs doubtfully.

Hammond, inquiring of Liu Bao, said just as doubtfully, "He says they are thousand-year eggs." Braver than the rest of them, he picked one of the slices up and ate it; chewed, swallowed, and looked thoughtful while they waited his verdict. "It tastes almost pickled," he said. "Not rotten, at any rate." He tried another piece, and ended by eating the whole serving; for his own part, Laurence left the lurid yellow-and-green things alone.

They had been brought to a sort of guest hall not far from the dragon pavilion for the meal; the sailors were there waiting and joined them for the breakfast, grinning rather maliciously. They were no more pleased at being left out of the adventure than the rest of the aviators had been, and not above making remarks about the quality of food which the party could expect for the rest of their journey. Afterwards, Laurence took his final parting from Tripp. "And be sure you tell Captain Riley that all is ship-shape, in those exact words," he said; it had been arranged between them that any other message, regardless how reassuring, would mean something had gone badly wrong.

A couple of mule-led carts were waiting for them outside, rather rough-hewn and clearly without springs; their baggage had gone on ahead. Laurence climbed in and held on grimly to the side as they rattled along down the road. The streets at least were not more impressive by daylight: very broad, but paved with old rounded cobblestones, whose mortar had largely worn away. The wheels of the cart ran along in deep sloping ruts between stones, bumping and leaping over the uneven surface.

There was a bustle of people all around, who stared with great curiosity at them, often putting down their work to follow after them for some short distance. "And this is not even a city?" Granby looked around with interest, making some attempt to tally the numbers. "There seem to be a great many people, for only a town."

"There are some two hundred millions of people in the country, by our latest intelligence," Hammond said absently, himself busy taking down notes in a journal; Laurence shook his head at the appalling number, more than ten times the size of England's population.

Laurence was more startled for his part to see a dragon come walking down the road in the opposite direction. Another of the blue-grey ones; it was wearing a queer sort of silk harness with a prominent breast-pad, and when they had passed it by, he saw that three little dragonets, two of the same variety and one of the red color, were tramping along behind, each attached to the harness also as if on leading-strings.

Nor was this dragon the only one in the streets: they shortly passed by a military station, with a small troop of blue-clad infantrymen drilling in its courtyard, and a couple of the big red dragons were sitting outside the gate talking and exclaiming over a dice game which their captains were playing. No one seemed to take any particular notice of them; the hurrying peasants carrying their loads went by without a second glance, occasionally climbing over one of the splayed-out limbs when other routes were blocked.

Temeraire was waiting for them in an open field, with two of the blue-grey dragons also on hand, wearing mesh harnesses which were being loaded up with baggage by attendants. The other dragons were whispering amongst themselves and eyeing Temeraire sidelong. He looked uncomfortable, and greatly relieved to see Laurence.

Having been loaded, the dragons now crouched down onto all fours so the attendants could climb aloft and raise small pavilions on their backs: very much like the tents which were used for long flights among British aviators. One of the attendants spoke to Hammond, and gestured to one of the blue dragons. "We are to ride on that one," Hammond said to Laurence aside, then asked something else of the attendant, who shook his head, and answered forcefully, pointing again to the second dragon.

Before the reply could even be translated, Temeraire sat up indignantly. "Laurence is not riding any other dragon," he said, putting out a possessive claw and nearly knocking Laurence off his feet, herding him closer; Hammond scarcely had to repeat the sentiments in Chinese.

Laurence had not quite realized the Chinese did not mean for even him to ride with Temeraire. He did not like the idea of Temeraire having to fly with no company on the long trip, and yet he could not help but think the point a small one; they would be flying in company, in sight of one another, and Temeraire could be in no real danger. "It is only for the one journey," he said to Temeraire, and was surprised to find himself overruled at once not by Temeraire, but by Hammond.

"No; the suggestion is unacceptable, cannot be entertained," Hammond said.

"Not at all," Temeraire said, in perfect agreement, and actually growled when the attendant tried to continue the argument.

"Mr. Hammond," Laurence said, with happy inspiration, "pray tell them, if it is the notion of harness which is at issue, I can just as easily lock on to the chain of Temeraire's pendant; as long as I do not need to go climbing about it will be secure enough."

"They cannot possibly argue with that," Temeraire said, pleased, and interrupted the argument immediately to make the suggestion, which was grudgingly accepted.

"Captain, may I have a word?" Hammond drew him aside. "This attempt is of a piece with last night's arrangements. I must urge you, sir, by no means agree to continue on should we somehow come to be parted; and be on your guard if they should make further attempts to separate you from Temeraire."

"I take your point, sir; and thank you for the advice," Laurence said, grimly, and looked narrowly at Yongxing; though the prince had never stooped to involve himself directly in any of the discussions, Laurence suspected his hand behind them, and he had hoped that the failure of the shipboard attempts to part them would at least have precluded these efforts.

After these tensions at the journey's outset, the long day's flight itself was uneventful, except for the occasional leap in Laurence's stomach when Temeraire would swoop down for a closer look at the ground: the breastplate did not keep entirely still throughout the flight, and shifted far more than harness. Temeraire was considerably quicker than the other two dragons, with more endurance, and could easily catch them up even if he lingered half-an-hour in sight-seeing at a time. The most striking feature, to Laurence, was the exuberance of the population: they scarcely passed any long stretch of land that was not under cultivation of some form, and every substantial body of water was crammed full of boats going either direction. And of course the real immensity of the country: they traveled from morning to night, with only an hour's pause for dinner each day at noon, and the days were long.

An almost endless expanse of broad, flat plains, checkered with rice fields and interspersed with many streams, yielded after some two days' travel to hills, and then to the slow puckering rise of mountains. Towns and villages of varying size punctuated the countryside below, and occasionally people working in the fields would stop and watch them flying overhead, if Temeraire came low enough to be recognized as a Celestial. Laurence at first thought the Yangtze another lake; one of respectable size but not extraordinary, being something less than a mile wide, with its east and west banks shrouded in a fine, grey drizzle; only when they had come properly overhead could he see the mighty river sprawling endlessly away, and the slow procession of junks appearing and vanishing through the mists.

After having passed two nights in smaller towns, Laurence had begun to think their first establishment an unusual case, but their residence that night in the city of Wuchang dwarfed it into insignificance: eight great pavilions arranged in a symmetric octagonal shape, joined by narrower enclosed halls, around a space deserving to be called a park more than a garden. Roland and Dyer made at first a game of trying to count the dragons inhabiting it, but gave up the attempt somewhere after thirty; they lost track of their tally when a group of small purple dragons landed and darted in a flurry of wings and limbs across the pavilion, too many and too quick to count.

Temeraire drowsed; Laurence put aside his bowl: another plain dinner of rice and vegetables. Most of the men were already asleep, huddled in their cloaks, the rest silent; rain still coming down in a steady, steaming curtain beyond the walls of the pavilion, the overrun clattering off the upturned corners of the tiled roof. Along the slopes of the river valley, faintly visible, small yellow beacons burnt beneath open-walled huts to mark the way for dragons flying through the night. Soft grumbling breath echoing from the neighboring pavilions, and far away a more piercing cry, ringing clear despite the muffling weight of the rain.

Yongxing had been spending his nights apart from the rest of the company, in more private quarters, but now he came out of seclusion and stood at the edge of the pavilion looking out into the valley: in another moment the call came again, nearer. Temeraire lifted up his head to listen, the ruff around his neck rising up alertly; then Laurence heard the familiar leathery snapping of wings, mist and steam rolling away from the stones for the descending dragon, a white ghostly shadow coalescing from the silver rain. She folded great white wings and came pacing towards them, her talons clicking on the stones; the attendants going between pavilions shrank away from her, averting their faces, hurrying by, but Yongxing walked down the steps into the rain, and she lowered her great, wide-ruffed head towards him, calling his name in a clear, sweet voice.

"Is that another Celestial?" Temeraire asked him, hushed and uncertain; Laurence only shook his head and could not answer: she was a shockingly pure white, a color he had never before seen in a dragon even in spots or streaks. Her scales had the translucent gleam of fine, much-scraped vellum, perfectly colorless, and the rims of her eyes were a glassy pink mazed with blood vessels so engorged as to be visible even at a distance. Yet she had the same great ruff, and the long narrow tendrils fringing her jaws, just as Temeraire did: the color alone was unnatural. She wore a heavy golden torque set with rubies around the base of her neck, and gold talon-sheaths tipped with rubies upon all of her foreleg claws, the deep color echoing the hue of her eyes.

She nudged Yongxing caressingly back into the shelter of the temple and came in after him, first shivering her wings quickly to let cascades of rain roll away in streams; she alloted them barely a glance, her eyes flickering rapidly over them and away, before she jealously coiled herself around Yongxing, to murmur quietly with him in the far corner of the pavilion. Servants came bringing her some dinner, but dragging their heels, uneasily, though they had shown no such similar reluctance around any of the other dragons, and indeed visible satisfaction in Temeraire's presence. She did not seem to merit their fear; she ate quickly and daintily, not letting so much as a drop spill out of the dish, and otherwise paid them no mind.

The next morning Yongxing briefly presented her to them as Lung Tien Lien, and then led her away to breakfast in private; Hammond had made quiet inquiries enough to tell them a little more over their own meal: "She is certainly a Celestial," he said. "I suppose it is a kind of albinism; I have no idea why it should make them all so uneasy."

"She was born in mourning colors, of course she is unlucky," Liu Bao said, when he was cautiously applied to for information, as if this were self-evident, and he added, "The Qianlong Emperor was going to give her to a prince out in Mongolia, so her bad luck wouldn't hurt any of his sons, but Yongxing insisted on having her himself instead of letting a Celestial go outside the Imperial family. He could have been Emperor himself, but of course you couldn't have an Emperor with a cursed dragon, it would be a disaster for the State. So now his brother is the Jiaqing Emperor. Such is the will of Heaven!" With this philosophical remark, he shrugged and ate another piece of fried bread. Hammond took this news bleakly, and Laurence shared his dismay: pride was one thing; principle implacable enough to sacrifice a throne for, something else entirely.

The two bearer dragons accompanying them had been changed for another one of the blue-grey breed and one of a slightly larger kind, deep green with blue streaks and a sleek hornless head; they still regarded Temeraire with the same staring awe, however, and Lien with nervous respect, and kept well to themselves. Temeraire had by now reconciled himself to the state of majestic solitude; and in any case he was thoroughly occupied in glancing sidelong at Lien with fascinated curiosity, until she turned to stare pointedly at him in return and he ducked his head, abashed.

She wore this morning an odd sort of headdress, made of thin silk draped between gold bars, which stood out over her eyes rather like a canopy and shaded them; Laurence wondered that she should find it necessary, with the sky still unrelieved and grey. But the hot, sullen weather broke almost abruptly during their first few hours of flight, through gorges winding among old mountains: their sloping southern faces lush and green, and the northern almost barren. A cool wind met their faces as they came out into the foothills, and the sun breaking from the clouds was almost painfully bright. The rice fields did not reappear, but long expanses of ripening wheat took their place, and once they saw a great herd of brown oxen creeping slowly across a grassy plain, heads to the ground as they munched away.

A little shed was planted on a hill, overlooking the herd, and beside it several massive spits turned, entire cows roasting upon them, a fragrant smoky smell rising upwards. "Those look tasty," Temeraire observed, a little wistfully. He was not alone in the sentiment: as they approached, one of their companion dragons put on a sudden burst of speed and swooped down. A man came out of the shed and held a discussion with the dragon, then went inside again; he came out carrying a large plank of wood and laid it down before the dragon, which carved a few Chinese symbols into the plank with its talon.

The man took away the plank, and the dragon took away a cow: plainly it had been making a purchase. It lifted back up into the air at once to rejoin them, crunching its cow happily as it flew: it evidently did not think it necessary to let its passengers off for any of the proceedings. Laurence thought he could see poor Hammond looking faintly green as it slurped the intestines up with obvious pleasure.

"We could try to purchase one, if they will take guineas," Laurence offered to Temeraire, a little dubiously; he had brought gold rather than paper money with him, but had no idea if the herdsman would accept it.

"Oh, I am not really hungry," Temeraire said, preoccupied by a wholly different thought. "Laurence, that was writing, was it not? What he did on the plank?"

"I believe so, though I do not set myself up as an expert on Chinese writing," Laurence said. "You are more likely to recognize it than I."

"I wonder if all Chinese dragons know how to write," Temeraire said, dismal at the notion. "They will think me very stupid if I am the only one who cannot. I must learn somehow; I always thought letters had to be made with a pen, but I am sure I could do that sort of carving."

Perhaps in courtesy to Lien, who seemed to dislike bright sunlight, they now paused during the heat of the day at another wayside pavilion for some dinner and for the dragons to rest, and flew on into the evening instead; beacons upon the ground lit their way at irregular intervals, and in any case Laurence could chart their course by the stars: turning now more sharply to the northeast, with the miles slipping quickly past. The days continued hot, but no longer so extraordinarily humid, and the nights were wonderfully cool and pleasant; signs of the force of the northern winters were apparent, however: the pavilions were walled on three sides, and set up from the ground on stone platforms which held stoves so the floors could be heated.

Peking sprawled out a great distance from beyond the city walls, which were numerous and grand, with many square towers and battlements not unlike the style of European castles. Broad streets of grey stone ran in straight lines to the gates and within, so full of people, of horses, of carts, all of them moving, that from above they seemed like rivers. They saw many dragons also, both on the streets and in the sky, leaping into the air for short flights from one quarter of the city to another, sometimes with a crowd of people hanging off them and evidently traveling in this manner. The city was divided with extraordinary regularity into square sections, except for the curving sprawl of four small lakes actually within the walls. To the east of these lay the great Imperial palace itself, not a single building but formed of many smaller pavilions, walled in and surrounded by a moat of murky water: in the setting sun, all the roofs within the complex shone as if gilded, nestled among trees with their spring growth still fresh and yellow-green, throwing long shadows into the plazas of grey stone.

A smaller dragon met them in mid-air as they drew near: black with canary-yellow stripes and wearing a collar of dark green silk, he had a rider upon his back, but spoke to the other dragons directly. Temeraire followed the other dragons down, to a small round island in the southernmost lake, less than half-a-mile from the palace walls. They landed upon a broad pier of white marble which jutted out into the lake, for the convenience of dragons only, as there were no boats in evidence.

This pier ended in an enormous gateway: a red structure more than a wall and yet too narrow to be considered a building, with three square archways as openings, the two smallest many times higher than Temeraire's head and wide enough for four of him to walk abreast; the central was even larger. A pair of enormous Imperial dragons stood at attention on either side, very like Temeraire in conformity but without his distinctive ruff, one black and the other a deep blue, and beside them a long file of soldiers: infantrymen in shining steel caps and blue robes, with long spears.

The two companion dragons walked directly through the smaller archways, and Lien paced straightaway through the middle, but the yellow-striped dragon barred Temeraire from following, bowed low, and said something in apologetic tones while gesturing to the center archway. Temeraire answered back shortly, and sat down on his haunches with an air of finality, his ruff stiff and laid back against his neck in obvious displeasure. "Is something wrong?" Laurence asked quietly; through the archway he could see a great many people and dragons assembled in the courtyard beyond, and obviously some ceremony was intended.

"They want you to climb down, and go through one of the small archways, and for me to go through the large one," Temeraire said. "But I am not putting you down alone. It sounds very silly to me, anyway, to have three doors all going to the same place."

Laurence wished rather desperately for Hammond's advice, or anyone's for that matter; the striped dragon and his rider were equally nonplussed at Temeraire's recalcitrance, and Laurence found himself looking at the other man and meeting with an almost identical expression of confusion. The dragons and soldiers in the archway remained as motionless and precise as statues, but as the minutes passed those assembled on the other side must have come to realize something was wrong. A man in richly embroidered blue robes came hurrying through the side corridor, and spoke to the striped dragon and his rider; then looked askance at Laurence and Temeraire and hurried back to the other side.

A low murmur of conversation began, echoing down the archway, then was abruptly cut off; the people on the far side parted, and a dragon came through the archway towards them, a deep glossy black very much like Temeraire's own coloring, with the same deep blue eyes and wing-markings, and a great standing ruff of translucent black stretched among ribbed horns of vermilion, another Celestial. She stopped before them and spoke in deep resonant tones; Laurence felt Temeraire first stiffen and then tremble, his own ruff rising slowly up, and Temeraire said, low and uncertainly, "Laurence, this is my mother."

Copyright © novelfull thefreeonlinenovel.com All Rights Reserved.