Dark Hunger

Chapter 13

LAURENCE LATER LEARNED from Hammond that passage through the central gate was reserved for the use of the Imperial family, and dragons of that breed and the Celestials only, hence their refusal to let Laurence himself pass through. At the moment, however, Qian simply led Temeraire in a short flight over the gateway and into the central courtyard beyond, thus neatly severing the Gordian knot.

The problem of etiquette resolved, they were all ushered into an enormous banquet, held within the largest of the dragon pavilions, with two tables waiting. Qian was herself seated at the head of the first table, with Temeraire upon her left and Yongxing and Lien upon her right. Laurence was directed to sit some distance down the table, with Hammond across and several more seats down; the rest of the British party was placed at the second table. Laurence did not think it politic to object: the separation was not even the length of the room, and in any case Temeraire's attention was entirely engaged at present. He was speaking to his mother with an almost timid air, very unlike himself and clearly overawed: she was larger than he, and the faint translucence of her scales indicated a great age, as did her very grand manners. She wore no harness, but her ruff was adorned with enormous yellow topazes affixed to the spines, and a deceptively fragile neckpiece of filigree gold, studded with more topazes and great pearls.

Truly gigantic platters of brass were set before the dragons, each bearing an entire roasted deer, antlers intact: oranges stuck with cloves were impaled upon them, creating a fragrance not at all unpleasant to human senses, and their bellies were stuffed with a mixture of nuts and very bright red berries. The humans were served with a sequence of eight dishes, smaller though equally elaborate. After the dismal food along the course of the journey, even the highly exotic repast was very welcome, however.

Laurence had assumed there should be no one for him to talk to, as he sat down, unless he tried to shout across to Hammond, there being no translator present so far as he could tell. On his left side sat a very old mandarin, wearing a hat with a pearlescent white jewel perched on top and a peacock feather dangling down from the back over a truly impressive queue, still mostly black despite the profusion of wrinkles engraved upon his face. He ate and drank with single-minded intensity, never even trying to address Laurence at all: when the neighbor on his other side leaned over and shouted in the man's ear, Laurence realized that he was very deaf, as well as being unable to speak English.

But shortly after he had seated himself, he was taken aback to be addressed from his other side in English, heavy with French accents: "I hope you have had a comfortable journey," said the smiling, cheerful voice. It was the French ambassador, dressed in long robes in the Chinese style rather than in European dress; that and his dark hair accounted for Laurence not having distinguished him at once from the rest of the company.

"You will permit that I make myself known to you, I hope, despite the unhappy state of affairs between our countries," De Guignes continued. "I can claim an informal acquaintance, you see; my nephew tells me he owes his life to your magnanimity."

"I beg your pardon, sir, I have not the least notion to what you refer," Laurence said, puzzled by this address. "Your nephew?"

"Jean-Claude De Guignes; he is a lieutenant in our Armee de l'Air," the ambassador said, bowing, still smiling. "You encountered him this last November over your Channel, when he made an attempt to board you."

"Good God," Laurence said, exclaiming, distantly recalling the young lieutenant who had fought so vigorously in the convoy action, and he willingly shook De Guignes's hand. "I remember; most extraordinary courage. I am so very happy to hear that he has quite recovered, I hope?"

"Oh yes, in his letter he expected to rise from his hospital any day; to go to prison of course, but that is better than going to a grave," De Guignes said, with a prosaic shrug. "He wrote me of your interesting journey, knowing I had been dispatched here to your destination; I have been with great pleasure expecting you this last month since his letter arrived, with hopes of expressing my admiration for your generosity."

From this happy beginning, they exchanged some more conversation on neutral topics: the Chinese climate, the food, and the startling number of dragons. Laurence could not help but feel a certain kinship with him, as a fellow Westerner in the depths of the Oriental enclave, and though De Guignes was himself not a military man, his familiarity with the French aerial corps made him sympathetic company. They walked out together at the close of the meal, following the other guests into the courtyard, where most of these were being carried away by dragon in the same manner they had seen earlier in the city.

"It is a clever mode of transport, is it not?" De Guignes said, and Laurence, watching with interest, agreed wholeheartedly: the dragons, mostly of what he now considered the common blue variety, wore light harnesses of many silk straps draped over their backs, to which were hung numerous loops of broad silk ribbons. The passengers climbed up the loops to the topmost empty one, which they slid down over their arms and underneath the buttocks: they could then sit in comparative stability, clinging to the main strap, so long as the dragon flew level.

Hammond emerged from the pavilion and caught sight of them, eyes widening, and hastened to join them; he and De Guignes smiled and spoke with great friendliness, and as soon as the Frenchman had excused himself and departed in company with a pair of Chinese mandarins, Hammond instantly turned to Laurence and demanded, in a perfectly shameless manner, to have the whole of their conversation recounted.

"Expecting us for a month!" Hammond was appalled by the intelligence, and managed to imply without actually saying anything openly offensive that he thought Laurence had been a simpleton to take De Guignes at face value. "God only knows what mischief he may have worked against us in that time; pray have no more private conversation with him."

Laurence did not respond to these remarks as he rather wanted to, and instead went away to Temeraire's side. Qian had been the last to depart, taking a caressing leave of Temeraire, nudging him with her nose before leaping aloft; her sleek black form disappeared into the night quickly, and Temeraire stood watching after her very wistfully.

The island had been prepared for their residence as a compromise measure; the property of the Emperor, it possessed several large and elegant dragon pavilions, with establishments intended for human use conjoined to these. Laurence and his party were allowed to establish themselves in a residence attached to the largest of the pavilions, facing across a broad courtyard. The building was a handsome one, and large, but the upper floor was wholly taken up by a host of servants greatly exceeding their needs; although seeing how these ranged themselves almost underfoot throughout the house, Laurence began to suspect they were intended equally as spies and guards.

His sleep was heavy, but broken before dawn by servants poking their heads in to see if he were awake; after the fourth such attempt in ten minutes, Laurence yielded with no good grace and rose with a head still aching from the previous day's free flow of wine. He had little success in conveying his desire for a washbasin, and at length resorted to stepping outside into the courtyard to wash in the pond there. This posed no difficulty, as there was an enormous circular window little less than his height set in the wall, the lower sill barely off the ground.

Temeraire was sprawled luxuriously across the far end, lying flattened upon his belly with even his tail stretched out to its full extent, still fast asleep and making occasional small pleased grunts as he dreamed. A system of bamboo pipes emerged from beneath the pavement, evidently used to heat the stones, and these spilled a cloud of hot water into the pond, so Laurence could make more comfortable ablutions than he had expected. The servants hovered in visible impatience all the time, and looked rather scandalized at his stripping to the waist to wash. When at last he came back in, they pressed Chinese dress upon him: soft trousers and the stiff-collared gown which seemed nearly universal among them. He resisted a moment, but a glance over at his own clothes showed them sadly wrinkled from the travel; the native dress was at least neat, if not what he was used to, and not physically uncomfortable, though he felt very nearly indecent without a proper coat or neckcloth.

A functionary of some sort had come to breakfast with them and was already waiting at table, which was evidently the source of the servants' urgency. Laurence bowed rather shortly to the stranger, named Zhao Wei, and let Hammond carry the conversation while he drank a great deal of the tea: fragrant and strong, but not a dish of milk to be seen, and the servants only looked blank when the request was translated for them.

"His Imperial Majesty has in his benevolence decreed you are to reside here for the length of your visit," Zhao Wei was saying; his English was by no means polished, but understandable; he had a rather prim and pinched look, and eyed Laurence's still-unskilled use of the chopsticks with an expression of disdain hovering about his mouth. "You may walk in the courtyard as you desire, but you are not to leave the residence without making a formal request and receiving permission."

"Sir, we are most grateful, but you must be aware that if we are not to be allowed free movement during the day, the size of this house is by no means adequate to our needs," Hammond said. "Why, only Captain Laurence and myself had private rooms last night, and those small and ill-befitting our standing, while the rest of our compatriots were housed in shared quarters and very cramped."

Laurence had noticed no such inadequacy, and found both the attempted restrictions on their movement and Hammond's negotiations for more space mildly absurd, the more so as it transpired, from their conversation, that the whole of the island had been vacated in deference to Temeraire. The complex could have accommodated a dozen dragons in extreme comfort, and there were sufficient human residences that every man of Laurence's crew might have had a building to himself. Still, their residence was in perfectly good repair, comfortable, and far more spacious than their shipboard quarters for the last seven months; he could not see the least reason for desiring additional space any more than for denying them the liberty of the island. But Hammond and Zhao Wei continued to negotiate the matter with a measured gravity and politeness.

Zhao Wei at length consented to their being allowed to take walks around the island in the company of the servants, "so long as you do not go to the shores or the docks, and do not interfere in the patrols of the guardsmen." With this Hammond pronounced himself satisfied. Zhao Wei sipped at his tea, and then added, "Of course, His Majesty wishes Lung Tien Xiang to see something of the city. I will conduct him upon a tour after he has eaten."

"I am certain Temeraire and Captain Laurence will find it most edifying," Hammond said immediately, before Laurence could even draw breath. "Indeed, sir, it was very kind of you to arrange for native clothing for Captain Laurence, so he will not suffer from excessive curiosity."

Zhao Wei only now took notice of Laurence's clothing, with an expression that made it perfectly plain he was nothing whatsoever involved; but he bore his defeat in reasonably good part. He said only, "I hope you will be ready to leave shortly, Captain," with a small inclination of the head.

"And we may walk through the city itself?" Temeraire asked, with much excitement, as he was scrubbed and sluiced clean after his breakfast, holding out his forehands one at a time with the talons outspread to be brushed vigorously with soapy water. His teeth even received the same treatment, a young serving-maid ducking inside his mouth to scrub the back ones.

"Of course?" Zhao Wei said, showing some sincere puzzlement at the question.

"Perhaps you may see something of the training grounds of the dragons here, if there are any within the city bounds," Hammond suggested: he had accompanied them outside. "I am sure you would find it of interest, Temeraire."

"Oh, yes," Temeraire said; his ruff was already up and half-quivering.

Hammond gave Laurence a significant glance, but Laurence chose to ignore it entirely: he had little desire to play the spy, or to prolong the tour, however interesting the sights might be. "Are you quite ready, Temeraire?" he asked instead.

They were transported to the shore by an elaborate but awkward barge, which wallowed uncertainly under Temeraire's weight even in the placidity of the tiny lake; Laurence kept close to the tiller and watched the lubberly pilot with a grim and censorious eye: he would dearly have loved to take her away from the fellow. The scant distance to shore took twice as long to cover as it ought to have. A substantial escort of armed guards had been detached from their patrols on the island to accompany them on the tour. Most of these fanned out ahead to force a clear path through the streets, but some ten kept close on Laurence's heels, jostling one another out of any kind of formation in what seemed to be an attempt to keep him blocked almost by a human wall from wandering away.

Zhao Wei took them through another of the elaborate red-and-gold gateways, this one set in a fortified wall and yielding onto a very broad avenue. It was manned by several guards in the Imperial livery, as well as by two dragons also under gear: one of the by-now-familiar red ones, and the other a brilliant green with red markings. Their captains were sitting together sipping tea under an awning, their padded jerkins removed against the day's heat, and both were women.

"I see you have women captains also," Laurence said to Zhao Wei. "Do they serve with particular breeds, then?"

"Women are companions to those dragons who go into the army," Zhao Wei said. "Naturally only the lower breeds would choose to do that sort of work. Over there, that green one is one of the Emerald Glass. They are too lazy and slow to do well on the examinations, and the Scarlet Flower breed all like fighting too much, so they are not good for anything else."

"Do you mean to say that only women serve in your aerial corps?" Laurence asked, sure he had misunderstood; yet Zhao Wei only nodded a confirmation. "But what reason can there be for such a policy; surely you do not ask women to serve in your infantry, or navy?" Laurence protested.

His dismay was evident, and Zhao Wei, perhaps feeling a need to defend his nation's unusual practice, proceeded to narrate the legend which was its foundation. The details were of course romanticized: a girl had supposedly disguised herself as a man to fight in her father's stead, had become companion to a military dragon and saved the empire by winning a great battle; as a consequence, the Emperor of the time had pronounced girls acceptable for service with dragons.

But these colorful exaggerations aside, it seemed that the nation's policy itself was accurately described: in times of conscription, the head of each family had at one time been required to serve or send a child in his stead. Girls being considerably less valued than boys, they had become the preferred choice to fill out the quota when possible. As they could only serve in the aerial corps, they had come to dominate this branch of the service until eventually the force became exclusive.

The telling of the legend, complete with recitation of its traditional poetic version, which Laurence suspected lost a great deal of color in the translation, carried them past the gate and some distance along the avenue towards a broad grey-flagged plaza set back from the road itself, and full of children and hatchlings. The boys sat cross-legged on the floor in front, the hatchlings coiled up neatly behind, and all together in a queer mixture of childish voices and the more resonant draconic tones were parroting a human teacher who stood on a podium in front, reading loudly from a great book and beckoning the students to repeat after every line.

Zhao Wei waved his hand towards them. "You wanted to see our schools. This is a new class, of course; they are only just beginning to study the Analects."

Laurence was privately baffled at the notion of subjecting dragons to study and written examinations. "They do not seem paired off," he said, studying the group.

Zhao Wei looked blankly at him, and Laurence clarified, "I mean, the boys are not sitting with their own hatchlings, and the children seem rather young for them, indeed."

"Oh, those dragonets are much too young to have chosen any companions yet," Zhao Wei said. "They are only a few weeks old. When they have lived fifteen months, then they will be ready to choose, and the boys will be older."

Laurence halted in surprise, and turned to stare at the little hatchlings again; he had always heard that dragons had to be tamed directly at hatching, to keep them from becoming feral and escaping into the wild, but this seemed plainly contradicted by the Chinese example. Temeraire said, "It must be very lonely. I would not have liked to be without Laurence when I hatched, at all." He lowered his head and nudged Laurence with his nose. "And it would also be very tiresome to have to hunt all the time for yourself when you are first hatched; I was always hungry," he added, more prosaically.

"Of course the hatchlings do not have to hunt for themselves," Zhao Wei said. "They must study. There are dragons who tend the eggs and feed the young. That is much better than having a person do it. Otherwise a dragonet could not help but become attached, before he was wise enough to properly judge the character and virtues of his proposed companion."

This was a pointed remark indeed, and Laurence answered it coolly, "I suppose that may be a concern, if you have less regulation of how men are to be chosen for such an opportunity. Among us, of course, a man must ordinarily serve for many years in the Corps before he can be considered worthy even to be presented to a hatchling. In such circumstances, it seems to me that an early attachment such as you decry may be instead the foundation of a lasting deeper affection, more rewarding to both parties."

They continued on into the city proper, and now with a view of his surroundings from a more ordinary perspective than from the air, Laurence was struck afresh by the great breadth of the streets, which seemed to almost have been designed with dragons in mind. They gave the city a feeling of spaciousness altogether different from London; though the absolute number of people was, he guessed, nearly equal. Temeraire was here more staring than stared-at; the populace of the capital were evidently used to the presence of the more exalted breeds, while he had never been out into a city before, and his head craned nearly in a loop around his own neck as he tried to look in three directions at once.

Guards roughly pushed ordinary travelers out of the way of green sedan-chairs, carrying mandarins on official duties. Along one broad way a wedding procession brilliant with scarlet and gold were winding their shouting, clapping way through the streets, with musicians and spitting fireworks in their train and the bride well-concealed in a draped chair: a wealthy match to judge by the elaborate proceedings. Occasional mules plodded along under cartloads, inured to the presence of the dragons, their hooves clopping along the stones; but Laurence did not see any horses on the main avenues, nor carriages: likely they could not be tamed to bear the presence of so many dragons. The air smelled quite differently: none of the sour grassy stench of manure and horse piss inescapable in London, but instead the faintly sulfurous smell of dragon waste, more pronounced when the wind blew from the northeast; Laurence suspected some larger cesspools lay in that quarter of the city.

And everywhere, everywhere dragons: the blue ones, most common, were engaged in the widest variety of tasks. In addition to those Laurence saw ferrying people about with their carrying harnesses, others bore loads of freight; but a sizable number also seemed to be traveling alone on more important business, wearing collars of varying colors, much like the different colors of the mandarins' jewels. Zhao Wei confirmed that these were signifiers of rank, and the dragons so adorned members of the civil service. "The Shen-lung are like people, some are clever and some are lazy," he said, and added, to Laurence's great interest, "Many superior breeds have risen from the best of them, and the wisest may even be honored with an Imperial mating." Dozens of other breeds also were to be seen, some with and others without human companions, engaged on many errands. Once two Imperial dragons came by going in the opposite direction, and inclined their heads to Temeraire politely as they passed; they were adorned with scarves of red silk knotted and wrapped in chains of gold and sewn all over with small pearls, very elegant, to which Temeraire gave a sidelong covetous eye.

They came shortly into a market district, the stores lavishly decorated with carving and gilt, and full of goods. Silks of glorious color and texture, some of much finer quality than anything Laurence had ever seen in London; great skeins and wrapped yards of the plain blue cotton as yarn and cloth, in different grades of quality both by thickness and by the intensity of the dye. And porcelain, which in particular caught Laurence's attention; unlike his father, he was no connoisseur of the art, but the precision in the blue-and-white designs seemed also superior to those dishes which he had seen imported, and the colored dishes particularly lovely.

"Temeraire, will you ask if he would take gold?" he asked; Temeraire was peering into the shop with much interest, while the merchant eyed his looming head in the doorway anxiously; this at least seemed one place even in China where dragons were not quite welcome. The merchant looked doubtful, and addressed some questions to Zhao Wei; after this, he consented at least to take a half-guinea and inspect it. He rapped it on the side of the table and then called in his son from a back room: having few teeth left himself, he gave it to the younger man to bite upon. A woman seated in the back peeped around the corner, interested by the noise, and was admonished loudly and without effect until she stared her fill at Laurence and withdrew again; but her voice came from the back room stridently, so she seemed also to be participating in the debate.

At last the merchant seemed satisfied, but when Laurence picked up the vase which he had been examining, he immediately jumped forward and took it away, with a torrent of words; motioning Laurence to stay, he went into the back room. "He says that is not worth so much," Temeraire explained.

"But I have only given him half a pound," Laurence protested; the man came back carrying a much larger vase, in a deep, nearly glowing red, shading delicately to a pure white at the top, and with an almost mirrored gloss. He put it down on the table and they all looked at it with admiration; even Zhao Wei did not withhold a murmur of approval, and Temeraire said, "Oh, that is very pretty."

Laurence pressed another few guineas on the shopkeeper with some difficulty, and still felt guilty at carrying it away, swathed in many protective layers of cotton rags; he had never seen a piece so lovely before, and he was already anxious for its survival through the long journey. Emboldened by this first success, he embarked on other purchases, of silk and other porcelain, and after that a small pendant of jade, which Zhao Wei, his façade of disdain gradually yielding to enthusiasm for the shopping expedition, pointed out to him, explaining that the symbols upon it were the start of the poem about the legendary woman dragon-soldier. It was apparently a good-luck symbol often bought for a girl about to embark upon such a career. Laurence rather thought Jane Roland would like it, and added it to the growing pile; very soon Zhao Wei had to detail several of his soldiers to carry the various packages: they no longer seemed so concerned about Laurence's potential escape as about his loading them down like cart-horses.

Prices for many of the goods seemed considerably lower than Laurence was used to, in general; more than could be accounted for by the cost of freight. This alone was not a surprise, after hearing the Company commissioners in Macao talk about the rapacity of the local mandarins and the bribes they demanded, on top of the state duties. But the difference was so high that Laurence had to revise significantly upwards his guesses of the degree of extortion. "It is a great pity," Laurence said to Temeraire, as they came to the end of the avenue. "If only the trade were allowed to proceed openly, I suppose these merchants could make a much better living, and the craftsmen, too; having to send all their wares through Canton is what allows the mandarins there to be so unreasonable. Probably they do not even want to bother, if they can sell the goods here, so we receive only the dregs of their market."

"Perhaps they do not want to sell the nicest pieces so far away. That is a very pleasant smell," Temeraire said, approvingly, as they crossed a small bridge into another district, surrounded by a narrow moat of water and a low stone wall. Open shallow trenches full of smoldering coals lined the street to either side, with animals cooking over them, spitted on metal spears and being basted with great swabs by sweating, half-naked men: oxen, pigs, sheep, deer, horses, and smaller, less-identifiable creatures; Laurence did not look very closely. The sauces dripped and scorched upon the stones, raising thick wafting clouds of aromatic smoke. Only a handful of people were buying here, nimbly dodging among the dragons who made up the better part of the clientele.

Temeraire had eaten heartily that morning: a couple of young venison, with some stuffed ducks as a relish; he did not ask to eat, but looked a little wistfully at a smaller purple dragon eating roast suckling pigs off a skewer. But down a smaller alley Laurence also saw a tired-looking blue dragon, his hide marked with old sores from the silk carrying-harness he wore, turning sadly away from a beautifully roasted cow and pointing instead at a small, rather burnt sheep left off to the side: he took it away to a corner and began eating it very slowly, stretching it out, and he did not disdain the offal or the bones.

It was natural that if dragons were expected to earn their bread, there should be some less fortunate than others; but Laurence felt it somehow criminal to see one going hungry, particularly when there was so much extravagant waste at their residence and elsewhere. Temeraire did not notice, his gaze fixed on the displays. They came out of the district over another small bridge which led them back onto the broad avenue where they had begun. Temeraire sighed deeply with pleasure, releasing the aroma only slowly from his nostrils.

Laurence, for his part, was fallen quiet; the sight had dispelled his natural fascination with all the novelty of their surroundings and the natural interest inherent in a foreign capital of such extents, and without such distraction he was inescapably forced to recognize the stark contrast in the treatment of dragons. The city streets were not wider than in London by some odd coincidence, or a question of taste, or even for the greater grandeur which they offered; but plainly designed that dragons might live in full harmony with men, and that this design was accomplished, to the benefit of all parties, he could not dispute: the case of misery which he had seen served rather to illustrate the general good.

The dinner-hour was hard upon them, and Zhao Wei turned their route back towards the island; Temeraire also grown quieter as they left the market precincts behind, and they walked along in silence until they reached the gateway; there pausing he looked back over his shoulder at the city, its activity undiminished. Zhao Wei caught the look and said something to him in Chinese. "It is very nice," Temeraire answered him, and added, "but I cannot compare it: I have never walked in London, or even in Dover."

They took their leave from Zhao Wei briefly, outside the pavilion, and went in again together. Laurence sat heavily down upon a wooden bench, while Temeraire began to pace restlessly back and forth, his tail-tip switching back and forth with agitation. "It is not true, at all," he burst out at last. "Laurence, we have gone everywhere we liked; I have been in the streets and to shops, and no one has run away or been frightened: not in the south and not here. People are not afraid of dragons, not in the least."

"I must beg your pardon," Laurence said quietly. "I confess I was mistaken: plainly men can be accustomed. I expect with so many dragons about, all men here are raised with close experience of them, and lose their fear. But I assure you I have not lied to you deliberately; the same is not true in Britain. It must be a question of use."

"If use can make men stop being afraid, I do not see why we should be kept penned up so they may continue to be frightened," Temeraire said.

To this Laurence could make no answer, and did not try; instead he retreated to his own room to take a little dinner; Temeraire lay down for his customary afternoon nap in a brooding, restless coil, while Laurence sat alone, picking unenthusiastically over his plate. Hammond came to inquire after what they had seen; Laurence answered him as briefly as he could, his irritation of spirit ill-concealed, and in short order Hammond went away rather flushed and thin-lipped.

"Has that fellow been pestering you?" Granby said, looking in.

"No," Laurence said tiredly, getting up to rinse his hands in the basin he had filled from the pond. "Indeed, I am afraid I was plainly rude to him just now, and he did not deserve it in the least: he was only curious how they raise the dragons here, so he could argue with them that Temeraire's treatment in England has not been so ill."

"Well, as far as I am concerned he deserved a trimming," Granby said. "I could have pulled out my hair when I woke up and he told me smug as a deacon that he had packed you off alone with some Chinaman; not that Temeraire would let any harm come to you, but anything could happen in a crowd, after all."

"No, nothing of the kind was attempted at all; our guide was a little rude to begin, but perfectly civil by the end." Laurence glanced over at the bundles stacked in the corner, where Zhao Wei's men had left them. "I begin to think Hammond was right, John; and it was all old-maid flutters and imagination," he said, unhappily; it seemed to him, after the long day's tour, that the prince hardly needed to stoop to murder, with the many advantages of his country to serve as gentler and no less persuasive arguments.

"More likely Yongxing gave up trying aboard ship, and has just been waiting to get you settled in under his eyes," Granby said pessimistically. "This is a nice enough cottage, I suppose, but there are a damned lot of guards skulking about."

"All the more reason not to fear," Laurence said. "If they meant to kill me, they could have done so by now, a dozen times over."

"Temeraire would hardly stay here if the Emperor's own guards killed you, and him already suspicious," Granby said. "Most like he would do his best to kill the lot of them, and then I hope find the ship again and go back home; though it takes them very hard, losing a captain, and he might just as easily go and run into the wild."

"We can argue ourselves in circles this way forever." Laurence lifted his hands impatiently and let them drop again. "At least today, the only wish which I saw put in action was to make a desirable impression upon Temeraire." He did not say that this goal had been thoroughly accomplished and with little effort; he did not know how to draw a contrast against the treatment of dragons in the West without sounding at best a complainer and at worst nearly disloyal: he was conscious afresh that he had not been raised an aviator, and he was unwilling to say anything that might wound Granby's feelings.

"You are a damned sight too quiet," Granby said, unexpectedly, and Laurence gave a guilty start: he had been sitting and brooding in silence. "I am not surprised he took a liking to the city, he is always on fire for anything new; but is it that bad?"

"It is not only the city," Laurence said finally. "It is the respect which is given to dragons; and not only to himself: they all of them have a great deal of liberty, as a matter of course. I think I saw a hundred dragons at least today, wandering through the streets, and no one took any notice of them."

"And God forbid we should take a flight over Regent's Park but we have shrieks of murder and fire and flood all at once, and ten memoranda sent us from the Admiralty," Granby agreed, with a quick flash of resentment. "Not that we could set down in London if we wanted to: the streets are too narrow for anything bigger than a Winchester. From what we have seen even just from the air, this place is laid out with a good deal more sense. It is no wonder they have ten beasts to our one, if not more."

Laurence was deeply relieved to find Granby taking no offense against him, and so willing to discuss the subject. "John, do you know, here they do not assign handlers until the dragon is fifteen months of age; until then they are raised by other dragons."

"Well, that seems a rotten waste to me, letting dragons sit around nursemaiding," Granby said. "But I suppose they can afford it. Laurence, when I think what we could do with a round dozen of those big scarlet fellows that they have sitting around getting fat everywhere; it makes you weep."

"Yes; but what I meant to say was, they seem not to have any ferals at all," Laurence said. "Is it not one in ten that we lose?"

"Oh, not nearly so many, not in modern times," Granby said. "We used to lose Longwings by the dozen, until Queen Elizabeth had the bright idea of setting her serving-maid to one and we found they would take to girls like lambs, and then it turned out the Xenicas would, too. And Winchesters often used to nip off like lightning before you could get a stitch of harness on them, but nowadays we hatch them inside and let them flap about for a bit before bringing out the food. Not more than one in thirty, at the most, if you do not count the eggs we lose in the breeding grounds: the ferals already there hide them from us sometimes."

Their conversation was interrupted by a servant; Laurence tried to wave the man away, but with apologetic bows and a tug on Laurence's sleeve, he made clear he wished to lead them out to the main dining chamber: Sun Kai, unexpectedly, had come to take tea with them.

Laurence was in no mood for company, and Hammond, who joined them to serve as translator, as yet remained stiff and unfriendly; they made an awkward and mostly silent company. Sun Kai inquired politely about their accommodations, and then about their enjoyment of the country, which Laurence answered very shortly; he could not help some suspicion that this might be some attempt at probing Temeraire's state of mind, and still more so when Sun Kai at last came however to the purpose for his visit.

"Lung Tien Qian sends you an invitation," Sun Kai said. "She hopes you and Temeraire will take tea with her tomorrow in the Ten Thousand Lotus palace, in the morning before the flowers open."

"Thank you, sir, for bearing the message," Laurence said, polite but flat. "Temeraire is anxious to know her better." The invitation could hardly be refused, though he was by no means happy to see further lures thrown out to Temeraire.

Sun Kai nodded equably. "She, too, is anxious to know more of her offspring's condition. Her judgment carries much weight with the Son of Heaven." He sipped his tea and added, "Perhaps you will wish to tell her of your nation, and the respect which Lung Tien Xiang has won there."

Hammond translated this, and then added, quickly enough that Sun Kai might think it part of the translation of his own words, "Sir, I trust you see this is a tolerably clear hint. You must make every effort to win her favor."

"I cannot see why Sun Kai would give me any advice at all in the first place," Laurence said, after the envoy had left them again. "He has always been polite enough, but not what anyone would call friendly."

"Well, it's not much advice, is it?" Granby said. "He only said to tell her that Temeraire is happy: that's hardly something you couldn't have thought of alone, and it makes a polite noise."

"Yes; but we would not have known to value her good opinion quite so highly, or think this meeting of any particular importance," Hammond said. "No; for a diplomat, he has said a great deal indeed, as much as he could, I imagine, without committing himself quite openly to us. This is most heartening," he added, with what Laurence felt was excessive optimism, likely born of frustration: Hammond had so far written five times to the Emperor's ministers, to ask for a meeting where he might present his credentials: every note had been returned unopened, and a flat refusal had met his request to go out from the island to meet the handful of other Westerners in the town.

"She cannot be so very maternal, if she agreed to send him so far away in the first place," Laurence said to Granby, shortly after dawn the next morning; he was inspecting his best coat and trousers, which he had set out to air overnight, in the early light: his cravat needed pressing, and he thought he had noticed some frayed threads on his best shirt.

"They usually aren't, you know," Granby said. "Or at least, not after the hatching, though they get broody over the eggs when they are first laid. Not that they don't care at all, but after all, a dragonet can take the head off a goat five minutes after it breaks the shell; they don't need mothering. Here, let me have that; I can't press without scorching, but I can do up a seam." He took the shirt and needle from Laurence and set to repairing the tear in the cuff.

"Still, she would not care to see him neglected, I am sure," Laurence said. "Though I wonder that she is so deeply in the Emperor's counsel; I would have imagined that if they sent any Celestial egg away, it would only have been of a lesser line. Thank you, Dyer; set it there," he said, as the young runner came in bearing the hot iron from the stove.

His appearance polished so far as he could manage, Laurence joined Temeraire in the courtyard; the striped dragon had returned to escort them. The flight was only a short one, but curious: they flew so low they could see small clumps of ivy and rootlings that had managed to establish themselves upon the yellow-tiled roofs of the palace buildings, and see the colors of the jewels upon the mandarins' hats as the ministers went hurrying through the enormous courtyards and walkways below, despite the early hour of the morning.

The particular palace lay within the walls of the immense Forbidden City, easily identifiable from aloft: two huge dragon pavilions on either side of a long pond almost choked with water-lilies, the flowers still closed within their buds. Wide sturdy bridges spanned the pond, arched high for decoration, and a courtyard flagged with black marble lay to the south, just now being touched with first light.

The yellow-striped dragon landed here and bowed them along; as Temeraire padded by, Laurence could see other dragons stirring in the early light under the eaves of the great pavilions. An ancient Celestial was creeping stiffly out from the bay farthest to the southeast, the tendrils about his jaw long and drooping as mustaches. His enormous ruff was leached of color, and his hide gone so translucent the black was now redly tinted with the color of the flesh and blood beneath. Another of the yellow-striped dragons paced him carefully, nudging him occasionally with his nose towards the sun-drenched courtyard; the Celestial's eyes were a milky blue, the pupils barely visible beneath the cataracts.

A few other dragons emerged also: Imperials rather than Celestials, lacking the ruff and tendrils, and with more variety in their hue: some were as black as Temeraire, but others a deep indigo-washed blue; all very dark, however, except for Lien, who emerged at the same time out of a separate and private pavilion, set back and alone among the trees, and came to the pond to drink. With her white hide, she looked almost unearthly among the rest; Laurence felt it would be difficult to fault anyone for indulging in superstition towards her, and indeed the other dragons consciously gave her a wide berth. She ignored them entirely in return and yawned wide and red, shaking her head vigorously to scatter away the clinging drops of water, and then paced away into the gardens in solitary dignity.

Qian herself was waiting for them at one of the central pavilions, flanked by two Imperial dragons of particularly graceful appearance, all of them adorned with elaborate jewels. She inclined her head courteously and flicked a talon against a standing bell nearby to summon servants; the attending dragons shifted their places to make room for Laurence and Temeraire on her right, and the human servants brought Laurence a comfortable chair. Qian made no immediate conversation, but gestured towards the lake; the line of the morning sun was now traveling swiftly northward over the water as the sun crept higher, and the lotus buds were unfolding in almost balletic progression; they numbered literally in the thousands, and made a spectacle of glowing pink color against the deep green of their leaves.

As the last unfurled flowers came to rest, the dragons all tapped their claws against the flagstones in a clicking noise, a kind of applause. Now a small table was brought for Laurence and great porcelain bowls painted in blue and white for the dragons, and a black, pungent tea poured for them all. To Laurence's surprise the dragons drank with enjoyment, even going so far as to lick up the leaves in the bottom of their cups. He himself found the tea curious and over-strong in flavor: almost the aroma of smoked meat, though he drained his cup politely as well. Temeraire drank his own enthusiastically and very fast, and then sat back with a peculiar uncertain expression, as though trying to decide whether he had liked it or not.

"You have come a very long way," Qian said, addressing Laurence; an unobtrusive servant had stepped forward to her side to translate. "I hope you are enjoying your visit with us, but surely you must miss your home?"

"An officer in the King's service must be used to go where he is required, madam," Laurence said, wondering if this was meant as a suggestion. "I have not spent more than a sixmonth at my own family's home since I took ship the first time, and that was as a boy of twelve."

"That is very young, to go so far away," Qian said. "Your mother must have had great anxiety for you."

"She had the acquaintance of Captain Mountjoy, with whom I served, and we knew his family well," Laurence said, and seized the opening to add, "You yourself had no such advantage, I regret, on being parted from Temeraire; I would be glad to satisfy you on whatever points I might, if only in retrospect."

She turned her head to the attending dragons. "Perhaps Mei and Shu will take Xiang to see the flowers more closely," she said, using Temeraire's Chinese name. The two Imperials inclined their heads and stood up expectantly waiting for Temeraire.

Temeraire looked a little worriedly at Laurence, and said, "They are very nice from here?"

Laurence felt rather anxious himself at the prospect of a solitary interview, with so little sense of what might please Qian, but he mustered a smile for Temeraire and said, "I will wait here with your mother; I am sure you will enjoy them."

"Be sure not to bother Grandfather or Lien," Qian added to the Imperial dragons, who nodded as they led Temeraire away.

The servants refilled his cup and Qian's bowl from a fresh kettle, and she lapped at it in a more leisurely way. Presently she said, "I understand Temeraire has been serving in your army."

There was unmistakably a note of censure in her voice, which did not need translation. "Among us, all those dragons who can, serve in defense of their home: that is no dishonor, but the fulfillment of our duty," Laurence said. "I assure you we could not value him more highly. There are very few dragons among us: even the least are greatly prized, and Temeraire is of the highest order."

She rumbled low and thoughtfully. "Why are there so few dragons, that you must ask your most valued to fight?"

"We are a small nation, nothing like your own," Laurence said. "Only a handful of smaller wild breeds were native to the British Isles, when the Romans came and began to tame them. Since then, by cross-breeding our lines have multiplied, and thanks to careful tending of our cattle herds, we have been able to increase our numbers, but still we cannot support nearly so many as you here possess."

She lowered her head and regarded him keenly. "And among the French, how are dragons treated?"

Instinctively Laurence was certain British treatment of dragons was superior and more generous than that of any other Western nation; but he was unhappily aware he would have considered it also superior to China's, if he had not come and already seen plainly otherwise. A month before, he could easily have spoken with pride of how British dragons were cared for. Like all of them, Temeraire had been fed and housed on raw meat and in bare clearings, with constant training and little entertainment. Laurence thought he might as well brag of raising children in a pigsty to the Queen, as speak of such conditions to this elegant dragon in her flower-decked palace. If the French were no better, they were hardly worse; and he would have thought very little of anyone who covered the faults in his own service by blackening another's.

"In ordinary course, the practices in France are much the same as ours, I believe," he said at last. "I do not know what promises were made you, in Temeraire's particular case, but I can tell you that Emperor Napoleon himself is a military man: even as we left England he was in the field, and any dragon who was his companion would hardly remain behind while he went to war."

"You are yourself descended from kings, I understand," Qian said unexpectedly, and turning her head spoke to one of the servants, who hurried forward with a long rice-paper scroll and unrolled it upon the table: with amazement, Laurence saw it was a copy, in a much finer hand and larger, of the familial chart which he had drawn so long ago at the New Year banquet. "This is correct?" she inquired, seeing him so startled.

It had never occurred to him that the information would come to her ears, nor that she would find it of interest. But he at once swallowed any reluctance: he would puff off his consequence to her day and night if it would win her approval. "My family is indeed an old one, and proud; you see I myself have gone into service in the Corps, and count it an honor," he said, though guilt pricked at him; certainly no one in the circles of his birth would have called it as much.

Qian nodded, apparently satisfied, and sipped again at her tea while the servant carried the chart away again. Laurence cast about for something else to say. "If I may be so bold, I think I may with confidence say on behalf of my Government that we would gladly agree to whatever conditions the French accepted, on your first sending Temeraire's egg to them."

"Many considerations besides remain" was all she said in response to this overture, however.

Temeraire and the two Imperials were already coming back from their walk, Temeraire having evidently set a rather hurried pace; at the same time, the white dragon came walking past as she returned to her own quarters with Yongxing now by her side, speaking with her in a low voice, one hand affectionately resting upon her side. She walked slowly, so he could keep pace, and also the several attendants trailing reluctantly after burdened with large scrolls and several books: still the Imperials held well back and waited to let them pass before coming back into the pavilion.

"Qian, why is she that color?" Temeraire asked, peeking back out at Lien after she had gone by. "She looks so very strange."

"Who can understand the workings of Heaven?" Qian said repressively. "Do not be disrespectful. Lien is a great scholar; she was chuang-yuan, many years ago, though she did not need to submit to the examinations at all, being a Celestial, and also she is your elder cousin. She was sired by Chu, who was hatched of Xian, as was I."

"Oh," Temeraire said, abashed. More timidly he asked, "Who was my sire?"

"Lung Qin Gao," Qian said, and twitched her tail; she looked rather pleased by the recollection. "He is an Imperial dragon, and is at present in the south in Hangzhou: his companion is a prince of the third rank, and they are visiting the West Lake."

Laurence was startled to learn Celestials could so breed true with Imperials: but on his tentative inquiry Qian confirmed as much. "That is how our line continues. We cannot breed among ourselves," she said, and added, quite unconscious of how she was staggering him, "There are only myself and Lien now, who are female, and besides Grandfather and Chu, there are only Chuan and Ming and Zhi, and we are all cousins at most."

"Only eight of them, altogether?" Hammond stared and sat down blankly: as well he might.

"I don't see how they can possibly continue on like that forever," Granby said. "Are they so mad to keep them only for the Emperors, that they'll risk losing the whole line?"

"Evidently from time to time a pair of Imperials will give birth to a Celestial," Laurence said, between bites; he was sitting down at last to his painfully late dinner, in his bedroom: seven o'clock and full darkness outside, and he had swelled himself near to bursting with tea in an effort to stave off hunger over the visit which had stretched to many hours. "That is how the oldest fellow there now was born; and he is sire to the lot of them, going back four or five generations."

"I cannot make it out in the least," Hammond said, paying no attention to the rest of the conversation. "Eight Celestials; why on earth would they ever have given him away? Surely, at least for breeding - I cannot, I cannot credit it; Bonaparte cannot have impressed them so, not secondhand and from a continent away. There must be something else, something which I have not grasped. Gentlemen, you will excuse me," he added, distractedly, and rose and left them alone. Laurence finished his meal without much appetite and set down his chopsticks.

"She did not say no to our keeping him, at any rate," Granby said into the silence, but dismally.

Laurence said, after a moment, more to quell his own inner voices, "I could not be so selfish to even try and deny him the pleasure of making the better acquaintance of his own kindred, or learning about his native land."

"It is all stuff and nonsense in the end, Laurence," Granby said, trying to comfort him. "A dragon won't be parted from his captain for all the gems in Araby, and all the calves in Christendom, too, for that matter."

Laurence rose and went to the window. Temeraire had curled up for the night upon the heated courtyard stones once again. The moon had risen, and he was very beautiful to look at in the silver light, with the blossom-heavy trees on either side hanging low above him and a dappled reflection in the pond, all his scales gleaming.

"That is true; a dragon will endure a great deal sooner than be parted from his captain. It does not follow that a decent man would ask it of him," Laurence said, very low, and let the curtain fall.

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