Dark Hunger

Chapter 14

TEMERAIRE HIMSELF WAS quiet the day after their visit. Laurence went out to sit with him, and gazed at him with anxiety; but he did not know how to broach the subject of what distressed him, nor what to say. If Temeraire was grown discontented with his lot in England, and wished to stay, there was nothing to be done. Hammond would hardly argue, so long as he was able to complete his negotiations; he cared a good deal more for establishing a permanent embassy and winning some sort of treaty than for getting Temeraire home. Laurence was by no means inclined to force the issue early.

Qian had told Temeraire, on their departure, to make himself free of the palace, but the same invitation had not been extended to Laurence. Temeraire did not ask permission to go, but he looked wistfully into the distance, and paced the courtyard in circles, and refused Laurence's offer to read together. At last growing sick of himself, Laurence said, "Would you wish to go and see Qian again? I am sure she would welcome your visit."

"She did not ask you," Temeraire said, but his wings fanned halfway out, irresolute.

"There can be no offense intended in a mother liking to see her offspring privately," Laurence said, and this excuse was sufficient; Temeraire very nearly glowed with pleasure and set off at once. He returned only late that evening, jubilant and full of plans to return.

"They have started teaching me to write," he said. "I have already learned twenty-five characters today; shall I show you?"

"By all means," Laurence answered, and not only to humor him; grimly he set himself to studying the symbols Temeraire laid down, and copying them down as best he could with a quill instead of a brush while Temeraire pronounced them for his benefit, though he looked rather doubtful at Laurence's attempts to reproduce the sounds. He did not make much progress, but the effort alone made Temeraire so very happy that he could not begrudge it, and concealed the intense strain which he had suffered under the entire seeming endless day.

Infuriatingly, however, Laurence had to contend not only with his own feelings, but with Hammond on the subject as well. "One visit, in your company, could serve as reassurance and give her the opportunity of making your acquaintance," the diplomat said. "But this continued solitary visiting cannot be allowed. If he comes to prefer China and agrees of his own volition to stay, we will lose any hope of success: they will pack us off at once."

"That is enough, sir," Laurence said angrily. "I have no intention of insulting Temeraire by suggesting that his natural wish to become acquainted with his kind in any way represents a lack of fidelity."

Hammond pressed the point, and the conversation grew heated; at last Laurence concluded by saying, "If I must make this plain, so be it: I do not consider myself as under your command. I have been given no instructions to that effect, and your attempt to assert an authority without official foundation is entirely improper."

Their relations had already been tolerably cool; now they became frigid, and Hammond did not come to have dinner with Laurence and his officers that night. The next day, however, he came early into the pavilion, before Temeraire had left on his visit, accompanied by Prince Yongxing. "His Highness has been kind enough to come and see how we do; I am sure you will join me in welcoming him," he said, with rather hard emphasis on the last words, and Laurence rather reluctantly rose to make his most formal leg.

"You are very kind, sir; as you see you find us very comfortable," he said, with stiff politeness, and wary; he still did not trust Yongxing's intentions in the least.

Yongxing inclined his head a very little, equally stiff and unsmiling, and then turned and beckoned to a young boy following him: no more than thirteen years of age, wearing wholly nondescript garments of the usual indigo-dyed cotton. Glancing up at him, the boy nodded and walked past Laurence, directly up to Temeraire, and made a formal greeting: he raised his hands up in front of himself, fingers wrapped over one another, and inclined his head, saying something in Chinese at the same time. Temeraire looked a little puzzled, and Hammond interjected hastily, "Tell him yes, for Heaven's sake."

"Oh," said Temeraire, uncertainly, but said something to the boy, evidently affirmative. Laurence was startled to see the boy climb up onto Temeraire's foreleg, and arrange himself there. Yongxing's face was as always difficult to read, but there was a suggestion of satisfaction to his mouth; then he said, "We will go inside and take tea," and turned away.

"Be sure not to let him fall," Hammond added hastily to Temeraire, with an anxious look at the boy, who was sitting cross-legged, with great poise, and seemed as likely to fall off as a Buddha statue to climb off its pediment.

"Roland," Laurence called; she and Dyer had been working their trigonometry in the back corner. "Pray see if he would like some refreshment."

She nodded and went to talk to the boy in her broken Chinese while Laurence followed the other men across the courtyard and into the residence. Already the servants had hastily rearranged the furniture: a single draped chair for Yongxing, with a footstool, and armless chairs placed at right angles to it for Laurence and Hammond. They brought the tea with great ceremony and attention, and throughout the process Yongxing remained perfectly silent. Nor did he speak once the servants had at last withdrawn, but sipped at his tea, very slowly.

Hammond at length broke the silence with polite thanks for the comfort of their residence, and the attentions which they had received. "The tour of the city, in particular, was a great kindness; may I ask, sir, if it was your doing?"

Yongxing said, "It was the Emperor's wish. Perhaps, Captain," he added, "you were favorably impressed?"

It was very little a question, and Laurence said, shortly, "I was, sir; your city is remarkable." Yongxing smiled, a small dry twist of the lips, and did not say anything more, but then he scarcely needed to; Laurence looked away, all the memory of the coverts in England and the bitter contrast fresh in his mind.

They sat in dumb-show a while longer; Hammond ventured again, "May I inquire as to the Emperor's health? We are most eager, sir, as you can imagine, to pay the King's respects to His Imperial Majesty, and to convey the letters which I bear."

"The Emperor is in Chengde," Yongxing said dismissively. "He will not return to Peking soon; you will have to be patient."

Laurence was increasingly angry. Yongxing's attempt to insinuate the boy into Temeraire's company was as blatant as any of the previous attempts to separate the two of them, and yet now Hammond was making not the least objection, and still trying to make polite conversation in the face of insulting rudeness. Pointedly, Laurence said, "Your Highness's companion seems a very likely young man; may I inquire if he is your son?"

Yongxing frowned at the question and said only, "No," coldly.

Hammond, sensing Laurence's impatience, hastily intervened before Laurence could say anything more. "We are of course only too happy to attend the Emperor's convenience; but I hope we may be granted some additional liberty, if the wait is likely to be long; at least as much as has been given the French ambassador. I am sure, sir, you have not forgotten their murderous attack upon us, at the outset of our journey, and I hope you will allow me to say, once again, that the interests of our nations march far more closely together than yours with theirs."

Unchecked by any reply, Hammond went on; he spoke passionately and at length about the dangers of Napoleon's domination of Europe, the stifling of the trade which should otherwise bring great wealth to China, and the threat of an insatiable conqueror spreading his empire ever wider - perhaps, he added, ending on their very doorstep, "For Napoleon has already made one attempt, sir, to come at us in India, and he makes no secret that his ambition is to exceed Alexander. If he should ever be successful, you must realize his rapacity will not be satisfied there."

The idea that Napoleon should subdue Europe, conquer the Russian and the Ottoman Empires both, cross the Himalayas, establish himself in India, and still have energy left to wage war on China, was to Laurence a piece of exaggeration that would hardly convince anyone; and as for trade, he knew that argument carried no weight at all with Yongxing, who had so fervently spoken of China's self-sufficiency. Nevertheless the prince did not interrupt Hammond at all from beginning to end, listened to the entire long speech frowning, and then at the end of it, when Hammond concluded with a renewed plea to be granted the same freedoms as De Guignes, Yongxing received it in silence, sat a long time, and then said only, "You have as much liberty as he does; anything more would be unsuitable."

"Sir," Hammond said, "perhaps you are unaware that we have not been permitted to leave the island, nor to communicate with any official even by letter."

"Neither is he permitted," Yongxing said. "It is not proper for foreigners to wander through Peking, disrupting the affairs of the magistrates and the ministers: they have much to occupy them."

Hammond was left baffled by this reply, confusion writ plain on his face, and Laurence, for his part, had sat through enough; plainly Yongxing meant nothing but to waste their time, while the boy flattered and fawned over Temeraire. As the child was not his own son, Yongxing had surely chosen him from his relations especially for great charm of personality and instructed him to be as insinuating as ever he might. Laurence did not truly fear that Temeraire would take a preference to the boy, but he had no intention of sitting here playing the fool for the benefit of Yongxing's scheming.

"We cannot be leaving the children unattended this way," he said abruptly. "You will excuse me, sir," and rose from the table already bowing.

As Laurence had suspected, Yongxing had no desire to sit and make conversation with Hammond except to provide the boy an open field, and he rose also to take his leave of them. They returned all together to the courtyard, where Laurence found, to his private satisfaction, that the boy had climbed down from Temeraire's arm and was engaged in a game of jacks with Roland and Dyer, all of them munching on ship's biscuit, and Temeraire had wandered out to the pier, to enjoy the breeze coming off the lake.

Yongxing spoke sharply, and the boy sprang up with a guilty expression; Roland and Dyer looked equally abashed, with glances towards their abandoned books. "We thought it was only polite to be hospitable," Roland said hurriedly, looking to see how Laurence would take this.

"I hope he has enjoyed the visit," Laurence said, mildly, to their relief. "Back to your work, now." They hurried back to their books, and, the boy called to heel, Yongxing swept away with a dissatisfied mien, exchanging a few words with Hammond in Chinese; Laurence gladly watched him go.

"At least we may be grateful that De Guignes is as restricted in his movements as we are," Hammond said after a moment. "I cannot think Yongxing would bother to lie on the subject, though I cannot understand how - " He stopped in puzzlement and shook his head. "Well, perhaps I may learn a little more tomorrow."

"I beg your pardon?" Laurence said, and Hammond absently said, "He said he would come again, at the same time; he means to make a regular visit of it."

"He may mean whatever he likes," Laurence said, angrily, at finding Hammond had thus meekly accepted further intrusions on his behalf, "but I will not be playing attendance on him; and why you should choose to waste your time cultivating a man you know very well has not the least sympathy for us is beyond me."

Hammond, answered with some heat, "Of course Yongxing has no natural sympathy for us; why should he or any other man here? Our work is to win them over, and if he is willing to give us the chance to persuade him, it is our duty to try, sir; I am surprised that the effort of remaining civil and drinking a little tea should so try your patience."

Laurence snapped, "And I am surprised to find you so unconcerned over this attempt at supplanting me, after all your earlier protests."

"What, with a twelve-year-old boy?" Hammond said, so very incredulous it was nearly offensive. "I, sir, in my turn, am astonished at your taking alarm now; and perhaps if you had not been so quick to dismiss my advice before, you should not have so much need to fear."

"I do not fear in the least," Laurence said, "but neither am I disposed to tolerate so blatant an attempt, or to have us submit tamely to a daily invasion whose only purpose is to give offense."

"I will remind you, Captain, as you did me not so very long ago, that just as you are not under my authority, I am not under yours," Hammond said. "The conduct of our diplomacy has very clearly been placed in my hands, and thank Heaven: if we were relying upon you, by now I dare say you would be blithely flying back to England, with half our trade in the Pacific sinking to the bottom of the ocean behind you."

"Very well; you may do as you like, sir," Laurence said, "but you had best make plain to him that I do not mean to leave this protege of his alone with Temeraire anymore, and I think you will find him less eager to be persuaded afterwards; and do not imagine," he added, "that I will tolerate having the boy let in when my back is turned, either."

"As you are disposed to think me a liar and an unscrupulous schemer, I see very little purpose in denying I should do any such thing," Hammond said angrily, coloring up.

He departed instantly, leaving Laurence still angry but ashamed and conscious of having been unfair; he would himself have called it grounds for a challenge. By the next morning, when from the pavilion he saw Yongxing going away with the boy, having evidently cut short the visit on being denied access to Temeraire, his guilt was sharp enough that he made some attempt to apologize, with little success: Hammond would have none of it.

"Whether he took offense at your refusing to join us, or whether you were correct about his aims, can make no difference now," he said, very coldly. "If you will excuse me, I have letters to write," and so quitted the room.

Laurence gave it up and instead went to say farewell to Temeraire, only to have his guilt and unhappiness both renewed at seeing in Temeraire's manner an almost furtive excitement, a very great eagerness to be gone. Hammond was hardly wrong: the idle flattery of a child was nothing to the danger of the company of Qian and the Imperial dragons, no matter how devious Yongxing's motives or how sincere Qian's; there was only less honest excuse for complaining of her.

Temeraire would be gone for hours, but the house being small and the chambers separated mainly by screens of rice paper, Hammond's angry presence was nearly palpable inside, so Laurence stayed in the pavilion after he had gone, attending to his correspondence: unnecessarily, as it was now five months since he had received any letters, and little of any interest had occurred since the welcoming dinner party, now two weeks old; he was not disposed to write of the quarrel with Hammond.

He dozed off over the writing, and woke rather abruptly, nearly knocking heads with Sun Kai, who was bending over him and shaking him. "Captain Laurence, you must wake up," Sun Kai was saying.

Laurence said automatically, "I beg your pardon; what is the matter?" and then stared: Sun Kai had spoken in quite excellent English, with an accent more reminiscent of Italian than Chinese. "Good Lord, have you been able to speak English all this time?" he demanded, his mind leaping to every occasion on which Sun Kai had stood on the dragondeck, privy to all their conversations, and now revealed as having understood every word.

"There is no time at present for explanations," Sun Kai said. "You must come with me at once: men are coming here to kill you, and all your companions also."

It was near on five o'clock in the afternoon, and the lake and trees, framed in the pavilion doors, were golden in the setting light; birds were speaking occasionally from up in the rafters where they nested. The remark, delivered in perfectly calm tones, was so ludicrous Laurence did not at first understand it, and then stood up in outrage. "I am not going anywhere in response to such a threat, with so little explanation," he said, and raised his voice. "Granby!"

"Everything all right, sir?" Blythe had been occupying himself in the neighboring courtyard on some busy-work, and now poked his head in, even as Granby came running.

"Mr. Granby, we are evidently to expect an attack," Laurence said. "As this house does not admit of much security, we will take the small pavilion to the south, with the interior pond. Establish a lookout, and let us have fresh locks in all the pistols."

"Very good," Granby said, and dashed away again; Blythe, in his customary silence, picked up the cutlasses he had been sharpening and offered Laurence one before wrapping up the others and carrying them with his whetstone to the pavilion.

Sun Kai shook his head. "This is great foolishness," he said, following after Laurence. "The very largest gang of hunhun are coming from the city. I have a boat waiting just here, and there is time yet for you and all your men to get your things and come away."

Laurence inspected the pavilion entryway; as he had remembered, the pillars were made of stone rather than wood, and nearly two feet in diameter, very sturdy, and the walls of a smooth grey brick under their layer of red paint. The roof was of wood, which was a pity, but he thought the glazed tile would not catch fire easily. "Blythe, will you see if you can arrange some elevation for Lieutenant Riggs and his riflemen out of those stones in the garden? Pray assist him, Willoughby; thank you."

Turning around, he said to Sun Kai, "Sir, you have not said where you would take me, nor who these assassins are, nor whence they have been sent; still less have you given us any reason to trust you. You have certainly deceived us so far as your knowledge of our language. Why you should so abruptly reverse yourself, I have no idea, and after the treatment which we have received, I am in no humor to put myself into your hands."

Hammond came with the other men, looking confused, and came to join Laurence, greeting Sun Kai in Chinese. "May I inquire what is happening?" he asked stiffly.

"Sun Kai has told me to expect another attempt at assassination," Laurence said. "See if you can get anything more clear from him; in the meantime, I must assume we are shortly to come under attack, and make arrangements. He can speak perfect English," he added. "You need not resort to Chinese." He left Sun Kai with a visibly startled Hammond, and joined Riggs and Granby at the entryway.

"If we could knock a couple of holes in this front wall, we could shoot down at any of them coming," Riggs said, tapping the brick. "Otherwise, sir, we're best off laying down a barricade mid-room, and shooting as they come in; but then we can't have fellows with swords at the entryway."

"Lay and man the barricade," Laurence said. "Mr. Granby, block as much of this entryway as you can, so they cannot come in more than three or four abreast if you can manage it. We will form up the rest of the men to either side of the opening, well clear of the field of fire, and hold the door with pistols and cutlasses between volleys while Mr. Riggs and his fellows reload."

Granby and Riggs both nodded. "Right you are," Riggs said. "We have a couple of spare rifles along, sir; we could use you at the barricade."

This was rather transparent, and Laurence treated it with the contempt which it deserved. "Use them for second shots as you can; we cannot waste the guns in the hands of any man who is not a trained rifleman."

Keynes came in almost staggering under a basket of sheets, with three of the elaborate porcelain vases from their residence laid on top. "You are not my usual kind of patients," he said, "but I can bandage and splint you, at any rate. I will be in the back by the pond. And I have brought these to carry water in," he added, sardonic, jerking his chin at the vases. "I suppose they would bring fifty pounds each in auction, so let that be an encouragement not to drop them."

"Roland, Dyer; which of you is the better hand at reloading?" Laurence asked. "Very well; you will both help Mr. Riggs for the first three volleys, then Dyer, you are to help Mr. Keynes, and run back and forth with the water jugs as that duty permits."

"Laurence," Granby said in an undertone, when the others had gone, "I don't see any sign of all those guards anywhere, and they have always been used to patrol at this hour; they must have been called away by someone."

Laurence nodded silently and waved him back to work. "Mr. Hammond, you will pray go behind the barricade," he said, as the diplomat came to his side, Sun Kai with him.

"Captain Laurence, I beg you to listen to me," Hammond said urgently. "We had much better go with Sun Kai at once. These attackers he expects are young bannermen, members of the Tartar tribes, who from poverty and lack of occupation have gone into a sort of local brigandage, and there may be a great many of them."

"Will they have any artillery?" Laurence asked, paying no attention to the attempt at persuasion.

"Cannon? No, of course not; they do not even have muskets," Sun Kai said, "but what does that matter? There may be one hundred of them or more, and I have heard rumors that some among them have even studied Shaolin Quan, in secret, though it is against the law."

"And some of them may be, however distantly, kin to the Emperor," Hammond added. "If we were to kill one, it could easily be used as a pretext for taking offense, and casting us out of the country; you must see we ought to leave at once."

"Sir, you will give us some privacy," Laurence said to Sun Kai, flatly, and the envoy did not argue, but silently bowed his head and moved some distance away.

"Mr. Hammond," Laurence said, turning to him, "you yourself warned me to beware of attempts to separate me from Temeraire, now only consider: if he should return here, to find us gone, with no explanation and all our baggage gone also, how should he ever find us again? Perhaps he might even be convinced that we had been given a treaty and left him deliberately behind, as Yongxing once desired me to do."

"And how will the case be improved if he returns and finds you dead, and all of us with you?" Hammond said impatiently. "Sun Kai has before now given us cause to trust him."

"I give less weight to a small piece of inconsequential advice than you do, sir, and more to a long and deliberate lie of omission; he has unquestionably spied on us from the very beginning of our acquaintance," Laurence said. "No; we are not going with him. It will not be more than a few hours before Temeraire returns, and I am confident in our holding out that long."

"Unless they have found some means of distracting him, and keeping him longer at his visit," Hammond said. "If the Chinese government meant to separate us from him, they could have done so by force at any time during his absence. I am sure Sun Kai can arrange to have a message sent to him at his mother's residence once we have gone to safety."

"Then let him go and send the message now, if he likes," Laurence said. "You are welcome to go with him."

"No, sir," Hammond said, flushing, and turned on his heel to speak with Sun Kai. The former envoy shook his head and left, and Hammond went to take a cutlass from the ready heap.

They worked for another quarter of an hour, hauling in three of the queer-shaped boulders from outside to make the barricade for the riflemen, and dragging over the enormous dragon-couch to block off most of the entryway. The sun had gone by now, but the usual lanterns did not make their appearance around the island, nor any signs of human life at all.

"Sir!" Digby hissed suddenly, pointing out into the grounds. "Two points to starboard, outside the doors of the house."

"Away from the entry," Laurence said; he could not see anything in the twilight, but Digby's young eyes were better than his. "Willoughby, douse that light."

The soft click-click of the guns being cocked, the echo of his own breath in his ears, the constant untroubled hum of the flies and mosquitoes outside; these were at first the only noise, until use filtered them out and he could hear the light running footsteps outside: a great many men, he thought. Abruptly there was a crash of wood, several yells. "They've broken into the house, sir," Hackley whispered hoarsely from the barricades.

"Quiet, there," Laurence said, and they kept a silent vigil while the sound of breaking furniture and shattering glass came from the house. The flare of torches outside cast shadows into the pavilion, weaving and leaping in strange angles as a search commenced. Laurence heard men calling to each other outside, the sound coming down from the eaves of the roof. He glanced back; Riggs nodded, and the three riflemen raised their guns.

The first man appeared in the entrance and saw the wooden slab of the dragon-couch blocking it. "My shot," Riggs said clearly, and fired: the Chinaman fell dead with his mouth open to shout.

But the report of the gun brought more cries from outside, and men came bursting in with swords and torches in their hands; a full volley fired off, killing another three, then one more shot from the last rifle, and Riggs called, "Prime and reload!"

The quick slaughter of their fellows had checked the advance of the larger body of men, and clustered them in the opening left in the doorway. Yelling "Temeraire!" and "England!" the aviators launched themselves from the shadows, and engaged the attackers close at hand.

The torchlight was painful to Laurence's eyes after the long wait in the dark, and the smoke of the burning wood mingled with that from the musketry. There was no room for any real swordplay; they were engaged hilt-to-hilt, except when one of the Chinese swords broke - they smelled of rust - and a few men fell over. Otherwise they were all simply heaving back against the pressure of dozens of bodies, trying to come through the narrow opening.

Digby, being too slim to be of much use in the human wall, was stabbing at the attackers between their legs, their arms, through any space left open. "My pistols," Laurence shouted at him; no chance to pull them free himself: he was holding his cutlass with two hands, one upon the hilt and another laid upon the flat of the blade, keeping off three men. They were packed so close together they could not move either way to strike at him, but could only raise and lower their swords in a straight line, trying to break his blade through sheer weight.

Digby pulled one of the pistols out of its holster, and fired, taking the man directly before Laurence between the eyes. The other two involuntarily pulled back, and Laurence managed to stab one in the belly, then seized the other by the sword-arm and threw him to the ground; Digby put a sword into his back, and he lay still.

"Present arms!" Riggs yelled, from behind, and Laurence bellowed, "Clear the door!" He swung a cut at the head of the man engaged with Granby, making him flinch back, and they scrambled back together, the polished stone floor already slick under their bootheels. Someone pushed the dripping jug into his hand; he swallowed a couple of times and passed it on, wiping his mouth and his forehead against his sleeve. The rifles all fired at once, and another couple of shots after; then they were back into the fray.

The attackers had already learned to fear the rifles, and they had left a little clear space before the door, many milling about a few paces off under the torches; they nearly filled the courtyard before the pavilion: Sun Kai's estimate had not been exaggerated. Laurence shot a man six paces away, then flipped the pistol in his hand; as they came rushing back on, he clubbed another in the side of the head, and then he was again pushing back against the weight of the swords, until Riggs shouted again.

"Well done, gentlemen," Laurence said, breathing deeply. The Chinese had retreated at the shout and were not immediately at the door; Riggs had experience enough to hold the volley until they advanced again. "For the moment, the advantage is ours. Mr. Granby, we will divide into two parties. Stay back this next wave, and we shall alternate. Therrows, Willoughby, Digby, with me; Martin, Blythe, and Hammond, with Granby."

"I can go with both, sir," Digby said. "I'm not tired at all, truly; it's less work for me, since I can't help to hold them."

"Very well, but be sure to take water between, and stay back on occasion," Laurence said. "There are a damned lot of them, as I dare say you have all seen," he said candidly. "But our position is a good one, and I have no doubt we can hold them as long as ever need be, so long as we pace ourselves properly."

"And see Keynes at once to be tied up if you take a cut or a blow - we cannot afford to lose anyone to slow bleeding," Granby added to this, while Laurence nodded. "Only sing out, and someone will come to take your place in line."

A sudden feverish many-voiced yell rose from outside, the men working themselves up to facing the volley, then a pounding of running feet, and Riggs shouted, "Fire!" as the attackers stormed the entryway again.

The fighting at the door was a greater strain now with fewer of them to hand, but the opening was sufficiently narrow that they could hold it even so. The bodies of the dead were forming a grisly addition to their barrier, piled now two and even three deep, and some of the attackers were forced to stretch over them to fight. The reloading time seemed queerly long, an illusion; Laurence was very glad of the rest when at last the next volley was ready. He leaned against the wall, drinking again from the vase; his arms and shoulders were aching from the constant pressure, and his knees.

"Is it empty, sir?" Dyer was there, anxious, and Laurence handed him the vase: he trotted away back towards the pond, through the haze of smoke shrouding the middle of the room; it was drifting slowly upwards, into the cavernous emptiness above.

Again the Chinese did not immediately storm the door, with the volley waiting. Laurence stepped a little way back into the pavilion and tried to look out, to see if he could make anything out beyond the front line of the struggle. But the torches dazzled his eyes too much: nothing but an impenetrable darkness beyond the first row of shining faces staring intently towards the entryway, feverish with the strain of battle. The time seemed long; he missed the ship's glass, and the steady telling of the bell. Surely it had been an hour or two, by now; Temeraire would come soon.

A sudden clamor from outside, and a new rhythm of clapping hands. His hand went without thought to the cutlass hilt; the volley went off with a roar. "For England and the King!" Granby shouted, and led his group into the fray.

But the men at the entry were drawing back to either side, Granby and his fellows left standing uneasily in the opening. Laurence wondered if maybe they had some artillery after all. But instead abruptly a man came running at them down the open aisle, alone, as if intent on throwing himself onto their swords: they stood set, waiting. Not three paces distant he leapt into the air, landed somehow sideways against the column, and sprang off it literally over their heads, diving, and tucked himself neatly into a rolling somersault along the stone floor.

The maneuver defied gravity more thoroughly than any skylarking Laurence had ever seen done; ten feet into the air and down again with no propulsion but his own legs. The man leapt up at once, unbruised, now at Granby's back with the main wave of attackers charging the entryway again. "Therrows, Willoughby," Laurence bellowed to the men in his group, unnecessarily: they were already running to hold him back.

The man had no weapon, but his agility was beyond anything; he jumped away from their swinging swords in a manner that made them seem accomplices in a stage play rather than in deadly earnest, trying to kill him; and from his greater distance, Laurence could see he was drawing them steadily back, towards Granby and the others, where their swords could only become dangers to their comrades.

Laurence clapped on to his pistol and drew it out, his hands following the practiced sequence despite the dark and the furor; in his head he listened to the chant of the great-gun exercise, so nearly parallel. Ramrod down the muzzle with a rag, twice, and then he pulled back the hammer to half-cocked, groping after the paper cartridge in his hip pouch.

Therrows suddenly screamed and fell, clutching his knee. Willoughby's head turned to look; his sword was held defensively, at the level of his chest, but in that one moment of incaution the Chinese man leapt again impossibly high and struck him full on the jaw with both feet. The sound of his neck snapping was grisly; he was lifted an inch straight up off the ground, arms splaying out wide, and then collapsed into a heap, his head lolling side-to-side upon the ground. The Chinese man tumbled to the ground from his leap, landed on his shoulder, rolling lightly back up, and turned to look at Laurence.

Riggs was yelling from behind him, "Make ready! Faster, damn you, make ready!"

Laurence's hands were still working. Tearing open the cartridge of black powder with his teeth, a few grains like sand bitter on his tongue. Powder straight down the muzzle, then the round lead ball after, the paper in for wadding, rammed down hard; no time to check the primer, and he raised the gun and blew out the man's brains, barely more than arm's reach away.

Laurence and Granby dragged Therrows back over to Keynes while the Chinese backed away from the waiting volley. He was sobbing quietly, his leg dangling useless; "I'm sorry, sir," he kept saying, choked.

"For Heaven's sake, enough moan," Keynes said sharply, when they put him down, and slapped Therrows across the face with a distinct lack of sympathy. The young man gulped, but stopped, and hastily scrubbed an arm across his face. "The kneecap is broken," Keynes said, after a moment. "A clean enough break, but he won't be standing again for a month."

"Get over to Riggs when you have been splinted, and reload for them," Laurence told Therrows, then he and Granby dashed back to the entryway.

"We'll take rest by turns," Laurence said, kneeling down by the others. "Hammond, you first; go and tell Riggs to keep one rifle back, loaded, at all times, if they should try and send another fellow over that way."

Hammond was visibly heaving for breath, his cheeks marked with spots of bright red; he nodded and said hoarsely, "Leave your pistols, I will reload."

Blythe, gulping water from the vase, abruptly choked, spat out a fountain, and yelled, "Sweet Christ in Heaven!" and made them all jump. Laurence looked around wildly: a bright orange goldfish two fingers long was wriggling on the stones in the puddled water. "Sorry," Blythe said, panting. "I felt the bugger squirming in my mouth."

Laurence stared, then Martin started laughing, and for a moment they were all grinning at one another; then the rifles cracked off, and they were back to the door.

The attackers made no attempt at setting the pavilion on fire, which surprised Laurence; they had torches enough, and wood was plentiful around the island. They did try smoke, building small bonfires to either side of the building under the eaves, but through either some trick of the pavilion's design, or simply the prevailing wind, a drifting air current carried the smoke up and out through the yellow-tiled roof. It was unpleasant enough, but not deadly, and near the pond the air was fresh. Each round the one man resting would go back there, to drink and clear his lungs, and have the handful of scratches they had all by now accumulated smeared with salve and bound up if still bleeding.

The gang tried a battering ram, a fresh-cut tree with the branches and leaves still attached, but Laurence called, "Stand aside as they come, and cut at their legs." The bearers ran themselves directly onto the blades with great courage, trying to break through, but even the three steps that led up to the pavilion door were enough to break their momentum. Several at the head fell with gashes showing bone, to be clubbed to death with pistol-butts, and then the tree itself toppled forward and halted their progress. The British had a few frantic minutes of hacking off the branches, to clear the view for the riflemen; by then the next volley was more than ready, and the attackers gave up the attempt.

After this the battle settled into a sort of grisly rhythm; each round of fire won them even more time to rest now, the Chinese evidently disheartened by their failure to break in through the small British line, and by the very great slaughter. Every bullet found its mark; Riggs and his men had been trained to make shots from the back of a dragon, flying sometimes at thirty knots in the heat of battle, and with less than thirty yards to the entryway, they could scarcely miss. It was a slow, grinding way to fight, every minute seeming to consume five times its proper length; Laurence began to count the time by volleys.

"We had better go to three shots only a volley, sir," Riggs said, coughing, when Laurence knelt to speak with him, his next rest spell. "It'll hold them all the same, now they've had a taste, and though I brought all the cartridges we had, we're not bloody infantry. I have Therrows making us more, but we have enough powder for another thirty rounds at most, I think."

"That will have to do," Laurence said. "We will try and hold them longer between volleys. Start resting one man every other round, also." He emptied his own cartridge box and Granby's into the general pile: only another seven, but that meant two rounds more at least, and the rifles were of more value than the pistols.

He splashed his face with water at the pond, smiling a little at the darting fish which he could see more clearly now, his eyes perhaps adjusting to the dark. His neckcloth was soaked quite through with sweat; he took it off and wrung it out over the stones, then could not bring himself to put it back on once he had exposed his grateful skin to the air. He rinsed it clean and left it spread out to dry, then hurried back.

Another measureless stretch of time, the faces of the attackers growing blurry and dim in the doorway. Laurence was struggling to hold off a couple of men, shoulder-to-shoulder with Granby, when he heard Dyer's high treble cry out, "Captain! Captain!" from behind. He could not turn and look; there was no opportunity for pause.

"I have them," Granby panted, and kicked the man in front in the balls with his heavy Hessian boot; he engaged the other hilt-to-hilt, and Laurence pulled away and turned hurriedly around.

A couple of men were standing dripping on the edge of the pond, and another pulling himself out: they had somehow found whatever reservoir fed the pond, and swum through it underneath the wall. Keynes was sprawled unmoving on the floor, and Riggs and the other riflemen were running over, still reloading frantically as they went. Hammond had been resting: he was swinging furiously at the two other men, pushing them back towards the water, but he did not have much science: they had short knives, and would get under his guard in a moment.

Little Dyer seized one of the great vases and flung it, still full of water, into the man bending over Keynes's body with his knife; it shattered against his head and knocked him down to the floor, dazed and slipping in the water. Roland, running over, snatched up Keynes's tenaculum, and dragged the sharp hooked end across the man's throat before he could arise, blood spurting in a furious jet from the severed vein, through his grasping fingers.

More men were coming out of the pond. "Fire at will," Riggs shouted, and three went down, one of them shot with only his head protruding from the water, sinking back down below the surface in a spreading cloud of blood. Laurence was up beside Hammond, and together they forced the two he was struggling against back into the water: while Hammond kept swinging, Laurence stabbed one with the point of his cutlass, and clubbed the other with the hilt; he fell unconscious into the water, open-mouthed, and bubbles rose in a profusion from his lips.

"Push them all into the water," Laurence said. "We must block up the passage." He climbed into the pond, pushing the bodies against the current; he could feel a greater pressure coming from the other side, more men trying to come through. "Riggs, get your men back to the front and relieve Granby," he said. "Hammond and I can hold them here."

"I can help also," Therrows said, limping over: he was a tall fellow, and could sit down on the edge of the pond and put his good leg against the mass of bodies.

"Roland, Dyer, see if there is anything to be done for Keynes," Laurence said over his shoulder, and then looked when he did not hear a response immediately: they were both being sick in the corner, quietly.

Roland wiped her mouth and got up, looking rather like an unsteady-legged foal. "Yes, sir," she said, and she and Dyer tottered over to Keynes. He groaned as they turned him over: there was a great clot of blood on his head, above the eyebrow, but he opened his eyes dazedly as they bound it up.

The pressure on the other side of the mass of bodies weakened, and slowly ceased; behind them the guns spoke again and again with suddenly quickened pace, Riggs and his men firing almost at the rate of redcoats. Laurence, trying to look over his shoulder, could not see anything through the haze of smoke.

"Therrows and I can manage, go!" Hammond gasped out. Laurence nodded and slogged out of the water, his full boots dragging like stones; he had to stop and pour them out before he could run to the front.

Even as he came, the shooting stopped: the smoke so thick and queerly bright they could not see anyone through it, only the broken heap of bodies around the floor at their feet. They stood waiting, Riggs and his men reloading more slowly, their fingers shaking. Then Laurence stepped forward, using a hand on the column for balance: there was nowhere to stand but on the corpses.

They came out blinking through the haze, into the early-morning sunlight, startling up a flock of crows that lifted from the bodies in the courtyard and fled shrieking hoarsely over the water of the lake. There was no one left moving in sight: the rest of the attackers had fled. Martin abruptly fell over onto his knees, his cutlass clanging un-musically on the stones; Granby went to help him up and ended by falling down also. Laurence groped to a small wooden bench before his own legs gave out; not caring very much that he was sharing it with one of the dead, a smooth-faced young man with a trail of red blood drying on his lips and a purpled stain around the ragged bullet wound in his chest.

There was no sign of Temeraire. He had not come.

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