Dark Hunger

Chapter 15

SUN KAI FOUND THEM scarcely more than dead themselves, an hour later; he had come warily into the courtyard from the pier with a small group of armed men: perhaps ten or so and formally dressed in guard uniforms, unlike the scruffy and unkempt members of the gang. The smoldering bonfires had gone out of their own accord, for lack of fuel; the British were dragging the corpses into the deepest shade, so they would putrefy less horribly.

They were all of them half-blind and numb with exhaustion, and could offer no resistance; helpless to account for Temeraire's absence and with no other idea of what to do, Laurence submitted to being led to the boat, and thence to a stuffy, enclosed palanquin, whose curtains were drawn tight around him. He slept instantly upon the embroidered pillows, despite the jostling and shouts of their progress, and knew nothing more until at last the palanquin was set down, and he was shaken back to wakefulness.

"Come inside," Sun Kai said, and pulled on him until he rose; Hammond and Granby and the other crewmen were emerging in similarly dazed and battered condition from other sedan-chairs behind him. Laurence followed unthinking up the stairs into the blessedly cool interior of a house, fragrant with traces of incense; along a narrow hallway and to a room which faced onto the garden courtyard. There he at once surged forward and leapt over the low balcony railing: Temeraire was lying curled asleep upon the stones.

"Temeraire," Laurence called, and went towards him; Sun Kai exclaimed in Chinese and ran after him, catching his arm before he could touch Temeraire's side; then the dragon raised up his head and looked at them, curiously, and Laurence stared: it was not Temeraire at all.

Sun Kai tried to drag Laurence down to the ground, kneeling down himself; Laurence shook him off, managing with difficulty to keep his balance. He noticed only then a young man of perhaps twenty, dressed in elegant silk robes of dark yellow embroidered with dragons, sitting on a bench.

Hammond had followed Laurence and now caught at his sleeve. "For God's sake, kneel," he whispered. "This must be Prince Mianning, the crown prince." He himself went down to both knees, and pressed his forehead to the ground just as Sun Kai was doing.

Laurence stared a little stupidly down at them both, looked at the young man, and hesitated; then he bowed deeply instead, from the waist: he was mortally certain he could not bend a single knee without falling down to both, or more ignominiously upon his face, and he was not yet willing to perform the kowtow to the Emperor, much less the prince.

The prince did not seem offended, but spoke in Chinese to Sun Kai; he rose, and Hammond also, very slowly. "He says we can rest here safely," Hammond said to Laurence. "I beg you to believe him, sir; he can have no need to deceive us."

Laurence said, "Will you ask him about Temeraire?" Hammond looked at the other dragon blankly. "That is not him," Laurence added. "It is some other Celestial, it is not Temeraire."

Sun Kai said, "Lung Tien Xiang is in seclusion in the Pavilion of Endless Spring. A messenger is waiting to bring him word, as soon as he emerges."

"He is well?" Laurence asked, not bothering to try and make sense of this; the most urgent concern was to understand what might have kept Temeraire away.

"There is no reason to think otherwise," Sun Kai said, which seemed evasive. Laurence did not know how to press him further; he was too thick with fatigue. But Sun Kai took pity on his confusion and added more gently, "He is well. We cannot interrupt his seclusion, but he will come out sometime today, and we will bring him to you then."

Laurence still did not understand, but he could not think of anything else to do at the moment. "Thank you," he managed. "Pray thank His Highness for his hospitality, for us; pray convey our very deep thanks. I beg he will excuse any inadequacy in our address."

The prince nodded and dismissed them with a wave. Sun Kai herded them back over the balcony into their rooms, and stood watching over them until they had collapsed upon the hard wooden bed platforms; perhaps he did not trust them not to leap up and go wandering again. Laurence almost laughed at the improbability of it, and fell asleep mid-thought.

"Laurence, Laurence," Temeraire said, very anxiously; Laurence opened his eyes and found Temeraire's head poked in through the balcony doors, and a darkening sky beyond. "Laurence, you are not hurt?"

"Oh!" Hammond had woken, and fallen off his bed in startlement at finding himself cheek-to-jowl with Temeraire's muzzle. "Good God," he said, painfully climbing to his feet and sitting back down upon the bed. "I feel like a man of eighty with gout in both legs."

Laurence sat up with only a little less effort; every muscle had stiffened up during his rest. "No, I am quite well," he said, reaching out gratefully to put a hand on Temeraire's muzzle and feel the reassurance of his solid presence. "You have not been ill?"

He did not mean it to sound accusing, but he could hardly imagine any other excuse for Temeraire's apparent desertion, and perhaps some of his feeling was clear in his tone. Temeraire's ruff drooped. "No," he said, miserably. "No, I am not sick at all."

He volunteered nothing more, and Laurence did not press him, conscious of Hammond's presence: Temeraire's shy behavior did not bode a very good explanation for his absence, and as little as Laurence might relish the prospect of confronting him, he liked the notion of doing so in front of Hammond even less. Temeraire withdrew his head to let them come out into the garden. No acrobatic leaping this time: Laurence levered himself out of bed and stepped slowly and carefully over the balcony rail. Hammond, following, was almost unable to lift his foot high enough to clear the rail, though it was scarcely two feet off the ground.

The prince had left, but the dragon, whom Temeraire introduced to them as Lung Tien Chuan, was still there. He nodded to them politely, without much interest, then went straight back to working upon a large tray of wet sand in which he was scratching symbols with a talon: writing poetry, Temeraire explained.

Having made his bow to Chuan, Hammond groaned again as he lowered himself onto a stool, muttering under his breath with a degree of profanity more appropriate to the seamen from whom he had likely first heard the oaths. It was not a very graceful performance, but Laurence was perfectly willing to forgive him that and more after the previous day's work. He had never expected Hammond to do as much, untrained, untried, and in disagreement with the whole enterprise.

"If I may be so bold, sir, allow me to recommend you take a turn around the garden instead of sitting," Laurence said. "I have often found it answer well."

"I suppose I had better," Hammond said, and after a few deep breaths heaved himself back up to his feet, not disdaining the offer of Laurence's hand, and walking very slowly at first. But Hammond was a young man: he was already walking more easily after they had gone halfway round. With the worst of his pain relieved, Hammond's curiosity revived: as they continued walking around the garden he studied the two dragons closely, his steps slowing as he turned first from one to the other and back. The courtyard was longer than it was wide. Stands of tall bamboo and a few smaller pine trees clustered at the ends, leaving the middle mostly open, so the two dragons lay opposite each other, head-to-head, making the comparison easier.

They were indeed as like as mirror images, except for the difference in their jewels: Chuan wore a net of gold draped from his ruff down the length of his neck, studded with pearls: very splendid, but it looked likely to be inconvenient in any sort of violent activity. Temeraire had also battle-scars, of which Chuan had none: the round knot of scales on his breast from the spiked ball, now several months old, and the smaller scratches from other battles. But these were difficult to see, and aside from these the only difference was a certain undefinable quality in their posture and expression, which Laurence could not have adequately described for another's interpretation.

"Can it be chance?" Hammond said. "All Celestials may be related, but such a degree of similarity? I cannot tell them apart."

"We are hatched from twin eggs," Temeraire said, lifting up his head as he overheard this. "Chuan's egg was first, and then mine."

"Oh, I have been unutterably slow," Hammond said, and sat down limply on the bench. "Laurence - Laurence - " His face was almost shining from within, and he reached out groping towards Laurence, and seized his hand and shook it. "Of course, of course: they did not want to set up another prince as a rival for the throne, that is why they sent away the egg. My God, how relieved I am!"

"Sir, I hardly dispute your conclusions, but I cannot see what difference it makes to our present situation," Laurence said, rather taken aback by this enthusiasm.

"Do you not see?" Hammond said. "Napoleon was only an excuse, because he is an emperor on the other side of the world, as far away as they could manage from their own court. And all this time I have been wondering how the devil De Guignes ever managed to approach them, when they would scarcely let me put my nose out of doors. Ha! The French have no alliance, no real understanding with them at all."

"That is certainly cause for relief," Laurence said, "but their lack of success does not seem to me to directly improve our position; plainly the Chinese have now changed their minds, and desire Temeraire's return."

"No, do you not see? Prince Mianning still has every reason to want Temeraire gone, if he could render another claimant eligible for the throne," Hammond said. "Oh, this makes all the difference in the world. I have been groping in the dark; now I have some sense of their motives, a great deal more comes clear. How much longer will it be until the Allegiance arrives?" he asked suddenly, looking up at Laurence.

"I know too little about the likely currents and the prevailing winds in the Bay of Zhitao to make any accurate estimate," Laurence said, taken aback. "A week at least, I should think."

"I wish to God Staunton were here already. I have a thousand questions and not enough answers," Hammond said. "But I can at least try and coax a little more information from Sun Kai: I hope he will be a little more forthright now. I will go and seek him; I beg your pardon."

At this, he turned and ducked back into the house. Laurence called after him belatedly, "Hammond, your clothes - !" for his breeches were unbuckled at the knee, they and his shirt hideously bloodstained besides, and his stockings thoroughly laddered: he looked a proper spectacle. But it was too late: he had gone.

Laurence supposed no one could blame them for their appearance, as they had been brought over without baggage. "Well, at least he is gone to some purpose; and we cannot but be relieved by this news that there is no alliance with France," he said to Temeraire.

"Yes," Temeraire said, but unenthusiastically. He had been quite silent all this time, brooding and coiled about the garden. The tip of his tail continued flicking back and forth restlessly at the edge of the nearer pond and spattering thick black spots onto the sun-heated flagstones, which dried almost as quickly as they appeared.

Laurence did not immediately press him for explanation, even now Hammond had gone, but came and sat by his head. He hoped deeply that Temeraire would speak of his own volition, and not require questioning.

"Are all the rest of my crew all right also?" Temeraire asked after a moment.

Laurence said, "Willoughby has been killed, I am very sorry to tell you. A few injuries besides, but nothing else mortal, thankfully."

Temeraire trembled and made a low keening sound deep in his throat. "I ought to have come. If I had been there, they could never have done it."

Laurence was silent, thinking of poor Willoughby: a damned ugly waste. "You did very wrong not to send word," he said finally. "I cannot hold you culpable in Willoughby's death. He was killed early, before you would ordinarily have come back, and I do not think I would have done anything differently, had I known you were not returning. But certainly you have violated your leave."

Temeraire made another small unhappy noise and said, low, "I have failed in my duty; have I not? So it was my fault, then, and there is nothing else to be said about it."

Laurence said, "No, if you had sent word, I would have thought nothing of agreeing to your extended absence: we had every reason to think our position perfectly secure. And in all justice, you have never been formally instructed in the rules of leave in the Corps, as they have never been necessary for a dragon, and it was my responsibility to be sure you understood.

"I am not trying to comfort you," he added, seeing that Temeraire shook his head. "But I wish you to feel what you have in fact done wrong, and not to distract yourself improperly with false guilt over what you could not have controlled."

"Laurence, you do not understand," Temeraire said. "I have always understood the rules quite well; that is not why I did not send word. I did not mean to stay so long, only I did not notice the time passing."

Laurence did not know what to say. The idea that Temeraire had not noticed the passage of a full night and day, when he had always been used to come back before dark, was difficult to swallow, if not impossible. If such an excuse had been given him by one of his men, Laurence would have outright called it a lie; as it was, his silence betrayed what he thought of it.

Temeraire hunched his shoulders and scratched a little at the ground, his claws scraping the stones with a noise that made Chuan look up and put his ruff back, with a quick rumble of complaint. Temeraire stopped; then all at once he said abruptly, "I was with Mei."

"With who?" Laurence said, blankly.

"Lung Qin Mei," Temeraire said, " - she is an Imperial."

The shock of understanding was near a physical blow. There was a mixture of embarrassment, guilt, and confused pride in Temeraire's confession which made everything plain.

"I see," Laurence said with an effort, as controlled as ever he had been in his life. "Well - " He stopped, and mastered himself. "You are young, and - and have never courted before; you cannot have known how it would take you," he said. "I am glad to know the reason; that is some excuse." He tried to believe his own words; he did believe them; only he did not particularly want to forgive Temeraire's absence on such grounds. Despite his quarrel with Hammond over Yongxing's attempts to supplant him with the boy, Laurence had never really feared losing Temeraire's affections; it was bitter, indeed, to find himself so unexpectedly with real cause for jealousy after all.

They buried Willoughby in the grey hours of the morning, in a vast cemetery outside the city walls, to which Sun Kai brought them. It was crowded for a burial place, even considering the extent, with many small groups of people paying respects at the tombs. These visitors' interest was caught by both Temeraire's presence and the Western party, and shortly something of a procession had formed behind them, despite the guards who pushed off any too-curious onlookers.

But though the crowd shortly numbered several hundreds of people, they maintained an attitude of respect, and fell to perfect silence while Laurence somberly spoke a few words for the dead and led his men in the Lord's Prayer. The tomb was above-ground, and built of white stone, with an upturned roof very like the local houses; it looked elaborate even in comparison with the neighboring mausoleums. "Laurence, if it wouldn't be disrespectful, I think his mother would be glad of a sketch," Granby said quietly.

"Yes, I ought to have thought of it myself," Laurence said. "Digby, do you think you could knock something together?"

"Please allow me to have an artist prepare one," Sun Kai interjected. "I am ashamed not to have offered before. And assure his mother that all the proper sacrifices will be made; a young man of good family has already been selected by Prince Mianning to carry out all the rites." Laurence assented to these arrangements without investigating further; Mrs. Willoughby was, as he recalled, a rather strict Methodist, and he was sure would be happier not to know more than that her son's tomb was so elegant and would be well-maintained.

Afterwards Laurence returned to the island with Temeraire and a few of the men to collect their possessions, which had been left behind in the hurry and confusion. All the bodies had been cleared away already, but the smoke-blackened patches remained upon the outer walls of the pavilion where they had sheltered, and dried bloodstains upon the stones; Temeraire looked at them a long time, silently, and then turned his head away. Inside the residence, furniture had been wildly overturned, the rice-paper screens torn through, and most of their chests smashed open, clothing flung onto the floor and trampled upon.

Laurence walked through the rooms as Blythe and Martin began collecting whatever they could find in good enough condition to bother with. His own chamber had been thoroughly pillaged, the bed itself flung up on its side against the wall, as if they had thought him maybe cowering underneath, and his many bundles from the shopping expedition thrown rudely about the room. Powder and bits of shattered porcelain trickled out across the floor behind some of them like a trail, strips of torn and frayed silk hanging almost decoratively about the room. Laurence bent down and lifted up the large shapeless package of the red vase, fallen over in a corner of the room, and slowly took off the wrappings; and then he found himself looking upon it through an unaccountable blurring of his vision: the shining surface wholly undamaged, not even chipped, and in the afternoon sun it poured out over his hands a living richness of deep and scarlet light.

The true heart of the summer had struck the city now: the stones grew hot as worked anvils during the day, and the wind blew an endless stream of fine yellow dust from the enormous deserts of the Gobi to the west. Hammond was engaged in a slow elaborate dance of negotiations, which so far as Laurence could see proceeded only in circles: a sequence of wax-sealed letters coming back and forth from the house, some small trinkety gifts received and sent in return, vague promises and less action. In the meantime, they were all growing short-tempered and impatient, except for Temeraire, who was occupied still with his education and his courting. Mei now came to the residence to teach him daily, elegant in an elaborate collar of silver and pearls; her hide was a deep shade of blue, with dapplings of violet and yellow upon her wings, and she wore many golden rings upon her talons.

"Mei is a very charming dragon," Laurence said to Temeraire after her first visit, feeling he might as well be properly martyred; it had not escaped his attention that Mei was very lovely, at least as far as he was a judge of draconic beauty.

"I am glad you think so also," Temeraire said, brightening; the points of his ruff raised and quivered. "She was hatched only three years ago, and has just passed the first examinations with honor. She has been teaching me how to read and write, and has been very kind; she has not at all made fun of me, for not knowing."

She could not have complained of her pupil's progress, Laurence was sure. Already Temeraire had mastered the technique of writing in the sand tray-tables with his talons, and Mei praised his calligraphy done in clay; soon she promised to begin teaching him the more rigid strokes used for carving in soft wood. Laurence watched him scribbling industriously late into the afternoon, while the light lasted, and often played audience for him in Mei's absence: the rich sonorous tones of Temeraire's voice pleasant though the words of the Chinese poetry were meaningless, except when he stopped in a particularly nice passage to translate.

The rest of them had little to occupy their time: Mianning occasionally gave them a dinner, and once an entertainment consisting of a highly unmusical concert and the tumbling of some remarkable acrobats, nearly all young children and limber as mountain goats. Occasionally they drilled with their small-arms in the courtyard behind the residence, but it was not very pleasant in the heat, and they were glad to return to the cool walks and gardens of the palace after.

Some two weeks following their remove to the palace, Laurence sat reading in the balcony overlooking the courtyard, where Temeraire slept, while Hammond worked on papers at the writing-desk within the room. A servant came bearing them a letter: Hammond broke the seal and scanned the lines, telling Laurence, "It is from Liu Bao, he has invited us to dine at his home."

"Hammond, do you suppose there is any chance he might be involved?" Laurence asked reluctantly, after a moment. "I do not like to suggest such a thing, but after all, we know he is not in Mianning's service, like Sun Kai is; could he be in league with Yongxing?"

"It is true we cannot rule out his possible involvement," Hammond said. "As a Tartar himself, Liu Bao would likely have been able to organize the attack upon us. Still, I have learned he is a relation of the Emperor's mother, and an official in the Manchu White Banner; his support would be invaluable, and I find it hard to believe he would openly invite us if he meant anything underhanded."

They went warily, but their plans for caution were thoroughly undermined as they arrived, met unexpectedly at the gates by the rich savory smell of roasted beef. Liu Bao had ordered his now well-traveled cooks to prepare a traditional British dinner for them, and if there was rather more curry than one would expect in the fried potatoes, and the currant-studded pudding inclined to be somewhat liquid, none of them found anything to complain of in the enormous crown roast, the upstanding ribs jeweled with whole onions, and the Yorkshire pudding was improbably successful.

Despite their very best efforts, the last plates were again carried away almost full, and there was some doubt whether a number of the guests would not have to be carted off in the same manner, including Temeraire. He had been served with plain, freshly butchered prey, in the British manner, but the cooks could not restrain themselves entirely and had served him not merely a cow or sheep, but two of each, as well as a pig, a goat, a chicken, and a lobster. Having done his duty by each course, he now crawled out into the garden uninvited with a little moan and collapsed into a stupor.

"That is all right, let him sleep!" Liu Bao said, waving away Laurence's apology. "We can sit in the moon-viewing terrace and drink wine."

Laurence girded himself, but for once Liu Bao did not press the wine on them them too enthusiastically. It was quite pleasant to sit, suffused with the steady genial warmth of inebriation, the sun going down behind the smoke-blue mountains and Temeraire drowsing in an aureate glow before them. Laurence had entirely if irrationally given up the idea of Liu Bao's involvement: it was impossible to be suspicious of a man while sitting in his garden, full of his generous dinner; and even Hammond was half-unwillingly at his ease, blinking with the effort of keeping awake.

Liu Bao expressed some curiosity as to how they had come to take up residence with Prince Mianning. For further proofs of his innocence, he received the news of the gang attack with real surprise, and shook his head sympathetically. "Something has to be done about these hunhun, they are really getting out of hand. One of my nephews got involved with them a few years ago, and his poor mother worried herself almost to death. But then she made a big sacrifice to Guanyin and built her a special altar in the nicest place in their south garden, and now he has married and taken up studying." He poked Laurence in the side. "You ought to try studying yourself! It will be embarrassing for you if your dragon passes the examinations and you don't."

"Good God, could that possibly make a difference in their minds, Hammond?" Laurence asked, sitting up appalled. For all his efforts, Chinese remained to him as impenetrable as if it were enciphered ten times over, and as for sitting examinations next to men who had been studying for them since the age of seven -

But, "I am only teasing you," Liu Bao said good-humoredly, much to Laurence's relief. "Don't be afraid. I suppose if Lung Tien Xiang really wants to stay companion to an unlettered barbarian, no one can argue with him."

"He is joking about calling you that, of course," Hammond added to the translation, but a little doubtfully.

"I am an unlettered barbarian, by their standards of learning, and not stupid enough to make pretensions to be anything else," Laurence said. "I only wish that the negotiators took your view of it, sir," he added to Liu Bao. "But they are quite fixed that a Celestial may only be companion to the Emperor and his kin."

"Well, if the dragon will not have anyone else, they will have to live with it," Liu Bao said, unconcerned. "Why doesn't the Emperor adopt you? That would save face for everyone."

Laurence was disposed to think this a joke, but Hammond stared at Liu Bao with quite a different expression. "Sir, would such a suggestion be seriously entertained?"

Liu Bao shrugged and filled their cups again with wine. "Why not? The Emperor has three sons to perform the rites for him, he doesn't need to adopt anyone; but another doesn't hurt."

"Do you mean to pursue the notion?" Laurence asked Hammond, rather incredulous, as they made their staggering way out to the sedan-chairs waiting to bear them back to the palace.

"With your permission, certainly," Hammond said. "It is an extraordinary idea to be sure, but after all it would be understood on all sides as only a formality. Indeed," he continued, growing more enthusiastic, "I think it would answer in every possible respect. Surely they would not lightly declare war upon a nation related by such intimate ties, and only consider the advantages to our trade of such a connection."

Laurence could more easily consider his father's likely reaction. "If you think it a worthwhile course to pursue, I will not forestall you," he said reluctantly, but he did not think the red vase, which he had been hoping to use as something of a peace-offering, would be in any way adequate to mend matters if Lord Allendale should learn that Laurence had given himself up for adoption like a foundling, even to the Emperor of China.

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