"I DO NOT mean to tell you your business," General Baird said, showing very little reluctance to do so. "But the winds to India are damned unpredictable this time of year, with the winter monsoon barely over. You are as likely to find yourselves blown straight back here. You had much better wait for Lord Caledon to arrive, especially after this news about Pitt."
He was a younger man, but long-faced and serious, with a very decided mouth; the high upstanding collar of his uniform pushed up his chin and gave his neck a stiff, elongated look. The new British governor not yet arrived, Baird was temporarily in command of the Capetown settlement, and ensconced in the great fortified castle in the midst of the town at the foot of the great flat-topped Table Mount. The courtyard was brilliant with sun, hazy glints cast off the bayonets of the troops drilling smartly on the grounds, and the encircling walls blocked the best part of the breeze which had cooled them on the walk up from the beach.
"We cannot be sitting in port until June," Hammond said. "It would be much better if we were to sail and be delayed at sea, with an obvious attempt to make haste, than to be idle in front of Prince Yongxing. He has already been asking me how much longer we expect the journey to take, and where else we may be stopping."
"I am perfectly happy to get under way as soon as we are resupplied, for my part," Riley said, putting down his empty teacup and nodding to the servant to fill it again. "She is not a fast ship by any means, but I would lay a thousand pounds on her against any weather we might meet."
"Not, of course," he said to Laurence later, somewhat anxiously, as they walked back to the Allegiance, "that I would really like to try her against a typhoon. I never meant anything of the sort; I was thinking only of ordinary bad weather, perhaps a little rain."
Their preparations for the long remaining stretch of ocean went ahead: not merely buying livestock, but also packing and preserving more salt meat, as there were no official naval provisions yet to be had from the port. Fortunately there was no shortage of supply; the settlers did not greatly resent the mild occupation, and they were happy enough to sell from their herds. Laurence was more occupied with the question of demand, for Temeraire's appetite was greatly diminished since he had been afflicted by the cold, and he had begun to pick querulously at his food, complaining of a lack of flavor.
There was no proper covert, but, alerted by Volly, Baird had anticipated their arrival and arranged the clearing of a large green space near the landing ground so the dragon could rest comfortably. Temeraire having flown to this stable location, Keynes could perform a proper inspection: the dragon was directed to lay his head flat and open his jaws wide, and the surgeon climbed inside with a lantern, picking his way carefully among the hand-sized teeth to peer down into Temeraire's throat.
Watching anxiously from outside with Granby, Laurence could see that Temeraire's narrow forked tongue, ordinarily pale pink, was presently coated thickly with white, mottled with virulent red spots.
"I expect that is why he cannot taste anything; there is nothing out of the ordinary in the condition of his passages," Keynes said, shrugging as he climbed out of Temeraire's jaws, to applause: a crowd of children, both settlers and natives, had gathered around the clearing's fence to watch, fascinated as if at a circus. "And they use their tongues for scent also, which must be contributing to the difficulties."
"Surely this is not a usual symptom?" Laurence asked.
"I don't recall ever seeing a dragon lose his appetite over a cold," Granby put in, worriedly. "In the ordinary line of things, they get hungrier."
"He is only pickier than most about his food," Keynes said. "You will just have to force yourself to eat until the illness has run its course," he added, to Temeraire, sternly. "Come, here is some fresh beef; let us see you finish the whole."
"I will try," Temeraire said, heaving a sigh that came rather like a whine through his stuffed nose. "But it is very tiresome chewing on and on when it does not taste like anything." He obediently if unenthusiastically downed several large hunks, but only mauled a few more pieces about without swallowing much of them, and then went back to blowing his nose into the small pit which had been dug for this purpose, wiping it against a heap of broad palm leaves.
Laurence watched silently, then took the narrow pathway winding from the landing grounds back to the castle: he found Yongxing resting in the formal guest quarters with Sun Kai and Liu Bao. Thin curtains had been pinned up to dim the sunlight instead of the heavy velvet drapes, and two servants were making a breeze by standing at the full-open windows and waving great fans of folded paper; another stood by unobtrusively, refilling the envoys' cups with tea. Laurence felt untidy and hot in contrast, his collar wet and limp against his neck after the day's exertions, and dust thick on his boots, spattered also with blood from Temeraire's unfinished dinner.
After the translator was summoned and some pleasantries exchanged, he explained the situation and said, as gracefully as he could manage, "I would be grateful if you would lend me your cooks to make some dish for Temeraire, in your style, which might have some stronger flavor than fresh meat alone."
He had scarcely finished asking before Yongxing was giving orders in their language; the cooks were dispatched to the kitchens at once. "Sit and wait with us," Yongxing said, unexpectedly, and had a chair brought for him, draped over with a long narrow silk cloth.
"No, thank you, sir; I am all over dirt," Laurence said, eyeing the beautiful drapery, pale orange and patterned with flowers. "I do very well."
But Yongxing only repeated the invitation; yielding, Laurence gingerly sat down upon the very edge of the chair, and accepted the cup of tea which he was offered. Sun Kai nodded at him, in an odd approving fashion. "Have you heard anything from your family, Captain?" he inquired through the translator. "I hope all is well with them."
"I have had no fresh news, sir, though I thank you for the concern," Laurence said, and passed another quarter of an hour in further small talk of the weather and the prospects for their departure, wondering a little at this sudden change in his reception.
Shortly a couple of lamb carcasses, on a bed of pastry and dressed with a gelatinous red-orange sauce, emerged from the kitchens and were trundled along the path to the clearing on great wooden trays. Temeraire brightened at once, the intensity of the spice penetrating even his dulled senses, and made a proper meal. "I was hungry after all," he said, licking sauce from his chops and putting his head down to be cleaned off more thoroughly. Laurence hoped he was not doing Temeraire some harm by the measure: some traces of the sauce got on his hand as he wiped Temeraire clean, and it literally burnt upon the skin, leaving marks. But Temeraire seemed comfortable enough, not even asking more water than usual, and Keynes opined that keeping him eating was of the greater importance.
Laurence scarcely needed to ask for the extended loan of the cooks; Yongxing not only agreed but made it a point to supervise and press them to do more elaborate work, and his own physician was called for and recommended the introduction of various herbs into the dishes. The poor servants were sent out into the markets - silver the only language they shared with the local merchants - to collect whatever ingredients they could find, the more exotic and expensive the better.
Keynes was skeptical but unworried, and Laurence, being more conscious of owing gratitude than truly grateful, and guilty over his lack of sincerity, did not try to interfere with the menus, even as the servants daily trooped back from the markets with a succession of increasingly bizarre ingredients: penguins, served stuffed with grain and berries and their own eggs; smoked elephant meat brought in by hunters willing to risk the dangerous journey inland; shaggy, fat-tailed sheep with hair instead of wool; and the still-stranger spices and vegetables. The Chinese insisted on these last, swearing they were healthy for dragons, though the English custom had always been to feed them a steady diet of meat alone. Temeraire, for his part, ate the complicated dishes one after another with no ill-effects other than a tendency to belch foully afterwards.
The local children had become regular visitors, emboldened by seeing Dyer and Roland so frequently climbing on and about Temeraire; they began to view the search for ingredients as a game, cheering every new dish, or occasionally hissing those they felt insufficiently imaginative. The native children were members of the various tribes which lived about the region. Most lived by herding, but others by foraging in the mountains and the forests beyond, and these in particular joined in the fun, daily bringing items which their older relations had found too bizarre for their own consumption.
The crowning triumph was a misshapen and overgrown fungus brought back to the clearing by a group of five children with an air of triumph, its roots still covered with wet black dirt: mushroom-like, but with three brown-spotted caps instead of one, arranged one atop the other along the stem, the largest nearly two feet across, and so fetid they carried it with faces averted, passing it among one another with much shrieking laughter.
The Chinese servants took it back to the castle kitchens with great enthusiasm, paying the children with handfuls of colored ribbons and shells. Only shortly thereafter, General Baird appeared in the clearing, to complain: Laurence followed him back to the castle and understood the objections before he had fairly entered the complex. There was no visible smoke, but the air was suffused with the cooking smell, something like a mixture of stewed cabbage and the wet green mold which grew on the deck beams in humid weather; sour, cloying, and lingering upon the tongue. The street on the other side of the wall from the kitchens, ordinarily thronged with local merchants, was deserted; and the halls of the castle were nearly uninhabitable from the miasma. The envoys were quartered in a different building, well away from the kitchens, and so had not been personally affected, but the soldiers were quartered directly by and could not possibly be asked to eat in the repulsive atmosphere.
The laboring cooks, whose sense of smell, Laurence could only think, had been dulled by the week of producing successively more pungent dishes, protested through the interpreter that the sauce was not done, and all the persuasion Laurence and Baird together could muster was required to make them surrender the great stew-pot. Baird shamelessly ordered a couple of unlucky privates to carry it over to the clearing, the pot suspended between them on a broad tree branch. Laurence followed after them, trying to breathe shallowly.
However, Temeraire received it with enthusiasm, far more pleased that he could actually perceive the smell than put off by its quality. "It seems perfectly nice to me," he said, and nodded impatiently for it to be poured over his meat. He devoured an entire one of the local humpbacked oxen slathered in the stuff, and licked the insides of the pot clean, while Laurence watched dubiously from as far a distance as was polite.
Temeraire sprawled into a blissful somnolence after his meal, murmuring approval and hiccoughing a little between words, almost drunkenly. Laurence came closer, a little alarmed to see him so quickly asleep, but Temeraire roused at the prodding, beaming and enthusiastic, and insisted on nuzzling at Laurence closely. His breath had grown as unbearable as the original stench; Laurence averted his face and tried not to retch, very glad to escape when Temeraire fell asleep again and he could climb out of the affectionate embrace of the dragon's forelegs.
Laurence had to wash and shift his clothes before he could consider himself presentable. Even afterwards, he could still catch the lingering odor in his hair; too much to bear, he thought, and felt himself justified in carrying the protest back to the Chinese. It gave no offense, but it was not received with quite the gravity he had hoped for: indeed Liu Bao laughed uproariously when Laurence had described the effects of the mushroom; and when Laurence suggested that perhaps they might organize a more regular and limited set of dishes, Yongxing dismissed the notion, saying, "We cannot insult a tien-lung by offering him the same day in and day out; the cooks will just have to be more careful."
Laurence left without managing to carry his point, and with the suspicion that his control over Temeraire's diet had been usurped. His fears were soon confirmed. Temeraire woke the next day after an unusually long sleep, much improved and no longer so congested. The cold vanished entirely after a few days more, but though Laurence hinted repeatedly that there was no further need for assistance, the prepared dishes continued to come. Temeraire certainly made no objections, even as his sense of smell began to be restored. "I think I am beginning to be able to tell the spices from one another," he said, licking his claws daintily clean: he had taken to picking up the food in his forelegs to eat, rather than simply feeding from the tubs. "Those red things are called hua jiao, I like them very much."
"So long as you are enjoying your meals," Laurence said. "I can hardly say anything more without being churlish," he confided to Granby later that evening, over their own supper in his cabin. "If nothing else at least their efforts made him more comfortable, and kept him eating healthily; I cannot now say thank you, no, especially when he likes it."
"If you ask me, it is still nothing less than interference," Granby said, rather disgruntled on his behalf. "And however are we to keep him fed in this style, when we have taken him back home?"
Laurence shook his head, both at the question and at the use of when; he would gladly have accepted uncertainty on the former point, if he might have had any assurance of the latter.
The Allegiance left Africa behind sailing almost due east with the current, which Riley thought better than trying to beat up along the coast into the capricious winds that still blew more south than north for the moment, and not liking to strike out across the main body of the Indian Ocean. Laurence watched the narrow hook of the land darken and fade into the ocean behind them; four months into the journey, and they were now more than halfway to China.
A similarly disconsolate mood prevailed among the rest of the ship's company as they left behind the comfortable port and all its attractions. There had been no letters waiting in Capetown, as Volly had brought their mail with him, and little prospect of receiving any word from home ahead, unless some faster-sailing frigate or merchantman passed them by; but few of those would be sailing to China so early in the season. They thus had nothing to anticipate with pleasure, and the ghost still loomed ominously in all their hearts.
Preoccupied by their superstitious fears, the sailors were not as attentive as they ought to have been. Three days out of port, Laurence woke before dawn out of an uneasy sleep to the sound, penetrating easily through the bulkhead that separated his quarters from the next cabin, of Riley savaging poor Lieutenant Beckett, who had been on the middle watch. The wind had shifted and risen during the night, and in confusion Beckett had put them on the wrong heading and neglected to reef the main and mizzen: ordinarily his mistakes were corrected by the more experienced sailors, who would cough meaningfully until he hit upon the right order to give, but more anxious to avoid the ghost and stay out of the rigging, no one had on this occasion given him warning, and now the Allegiance had been blown far north out of her course.
The swell was rising some fifteen feet in height under a lightening sky, the waves pale, green-tinted, and translucent as glass under their soapy white lather, leaping up into sharp peaks and spilling down again over themselves in great clouds of spray. Climbing to the dragondeck, Laurence pulled the hood of his sou'wester further forward, lips already dry and stiff with salt. Temeraire was curled tightly in upon himself, as far from the edge of the deck as he could manage, his hide wet and glossy in the lantern-light.
"I do not suppose they could build up the fires a little in the galley?" Temeraire asked, a little plaintively, poking his head out from under his wing, eyes squinted down to slits to avoid the spray; he coughed a little for emphasis. This was quite possibly a piece of dramatics, for Temeraire had otherwise thoroughly recovered from his cold before their leaving port, but Laurence had no desire to risk its recurrence. Though the water was bathwater-warm, the wind still gusting erratically from the south had a chill. He marshaled the crew to collect oilskins to cover Temeraire and had the harness-men stitch them together so they would stay.
Temeraire looked very odd under the makeshift quilt, only his nose visible, and shuffling awkwardly like an animated heap of laundry whenever he wished to change position. Laurence was perfectly content so long as he was warm and dry, and ignored the muffled sniggering from the forecastle; also Keynes, who made noises about coddling patients and encouraging malingering. The weather precluded reading on deck, so he climbed a little way under the covers himself to sit with Temeraire and keep him company. The insulation kept in not only the heat from the galley below but the steady warmth of Temeraire's own body as well; Laurence soon needed to shed his coat, and grew drowsy against Temeraire's side, responding only vaguely and without much attention to the conversation.
"Are you asleep, Laurence?" Temeraire asked; Laurence roused with the question, and wondered if he had indeed been asleep a long time, or whether perhaps a fold of the oilskin quilt had fallen down to obscure the opening: it was grown very dark.
He pushed his way out from under the heavy oilskins; the ocean had smoothed out almost to a polished surface, and directly ahead a solid bank of purple-black clouds stretched across the whole expanse of the eastern horizon, its puffy, windswept fringe lit from behind by the sunrise into thick red color; deeper in the interior, flashes of sudden lightning briefly limned the edges of towering cloud masses. Far to the north, a ragged line of clouds was marching to join the greater multitude ahead of them, curving across the sky to a point just past the ship. The sky directly above was still clear.
"Pray have the storm-chains fetched, Mr. Fellowes," Laurence said, putting down his glass. The rigging was already full of activity.
"Perhaps you should ride the storm out aloft," Granby suggested, coming to join him at the rail. It was a natural suggestion to make: though Granby had been on transports before, he had served at Gibraltar and the Channel almost exclusively and did not have much experience of the open sea. Most dragons could stay aloft a full day, if only coasting on the wind, and well-fed and watered beforehand. It was a common way to keep them out of the way when a transport came into a thunderstorm or a squall: this was neither.
In answer, Laurence only shook his head briefly. "It is just as well we have put together the oilskins; he will be much easier with them beneath the chains," he said, and saw Granby take his meaning.
The storm-chains were brought up piecemeal from below, each iron link as thick around as a boy's wrist, and laid over Temeraire's back in crosswise bands. Heavy cables, wormed and parceled to strengthen them, were laced through all the chain links and secured to the four double-post bitts in the corners of the dragondeck. Laurence inspected all the knots anxiously, and had several redone before he pronounced himself satisfied.
"Do the bonds catch you anywhere?" he asked Temeraire. "They are not too tight?"
"I cannot move with all of these chains upon me," Temeraire said, trying the narrow limits of his movement, the end of his tail twitching back and forth uneasily as he pushed against the restraints. "It is not at all like the harness; what are these for? Why must I wear them?"
"Pray do not strain the ropes," Laurence said, worried, and went to look: fortunately none had frayed. "I am sorry for the need," he added, returning, "but if the seas grow heavy, you must be fast to the deck: else you could slide into the ocean, or by your movement throw the ship off her course. Are you very uncomfortable?"
"No, not very," Temeraire said, but unhappily. "Will it be for long?"
"While the storm lasts," Laurence said, and looked out past the bow: the cloudbank was fading into the dim and leaden mass of the sky, the newly risen sun swallowed up already. "I must go and look at the glass."
The mercury was very low in Riley's cabin: empty, and no smell of breakfast beyond the brewing coffee. Laurence took a cup from the steward and drank it standing, hot, and went back on deck; in his brief absence the sea had risen perhaps another ten feet, and now the Allegiance was showing her true mettle, her iron-bound prow slicing the waves cleanly, and her enormous weight pressing them away to either side.
Storm-covers were being laid down over the hatches; Laurence made a final inspection of Temeraire's restraints, then said to Granby, "Send the men below; I will take the first watch." He ducked under the oilskins by Temeraire's head again and stood by him, stroking the soft muzzle. "We are in for a long blow, I am afraid," he said. "Could you eat something more?"
"I ate yesterday late, I am not hungry," Temeraire said; in the dark recesses of the hood his pupils had widened, liquid and black, with only the thinnest crescent rims of blue. The iron chains moaned softly as he shifted his weight again, a higher note against the steady deep creaking of the timber, the ship's beams working. "We have been in a storm before, on the Reliant," he said. "I did not have to wear such chains then."
"You were much smaller, and so was the storm," Laurence said, and Temeraire subsided, but not without a wordless grumbling murmur of discontent; he did not pursue conversation, but lay silently, occasionally scraping his talons against the edges of the chains. He was lying with his head pointed away from the bow, to avoid the spray; Laurence could look out past his muzzle and watch the sailors, busy getting on the storm-lashings and taking in the topsails, all noise but the low metallic grating muffled by the thick layer of fabric.
By two bells in the forenoon watch, the ocean was coming over the bulwarks in thick overlapping sheets, an almost continuous waterfall pouring over the edge of the dragondeck onto the forecastle. The galleys had gone cold; there would be no fires aboard until the storm had blown over. Temeraire huddled low to the deck and complained no more but drew the oilskin more closely around them, his muscles twitching beneath the hide to shake off the rivulets that burrowed deep between the layers. "All hands, all hands," Riley was saying, distantly, through the wind; the bosun took up the call with his bellowing voice cupped in his hand, and the men came scrambling up onto the deck, thump-thump of many hurrying feet through the planking, to begin the work of shortening sail and getting her before the wind.
The bell was rung without fail at every turn of the half-hourglass, their only measure of time; the light had failed early on, and sunset was only an incremental increase of darkness. A cold blue phosphorescence washed the deck, carried on the surface of the water, and illuminated the cables and edges of the planks; by its weak glimmering the crests of the waves could be seen, growing steadily higher.
Even the Allegiance could not break the present waves, but must go climbing slowly up their faces, rising so steeply that Laurence could look straight down along the deck and see the bottom of the wave trenches below. Then at last her bow would get over the crest: almost with a leap she would tilt over onto the far side of the collapsing wave, gather herself, and plunge deep and with shattering force into the surging froth at the bottom of the trench. The broad fan of the dragondeck then rose streaming, scooping a hollow out of the next wave's face; and she began the slow climb again from the beginning, only the drifting sand in the glass to mark the difference between one wave and the next.
Morning: the wind as savage, but the swell a little lighter, and Laurence woke from a restless, broken sleep. Temeraire refused food. "I cannot eat anything, even if they could bring it me," he said, when Laurence asked, and closed his eyes again: exhausted more than sleeping, and his nostrils caked white with salt.
Granby had relieved him on watch; he and a couple of the crew were on deck, huddled against Temeraire's other side. Laurence called Martin over and sent him to fetch some rags. The present rain was too mixed with spray to be fresh, but fortunately they were not short of water, and the fore scuttlebutt had been full before the storm. Clinging with both hands to the life-lines stretched fore and aft the length of the deck, Martin crept slowly along to the barrel, and brought the rags dripping back. Temeraire barely stirred as Laurence gently wiped the salt rims away from his nose.
A strange, dingy uniformity above with neither clouds nor sun visible; the rain came only in short drenching bursts flung at them by the wind, and at the summit of the waves the whole curving horizon was full of the heaving, billowing sea. Laurence sent Granby below when Ferris came up, and took some biscuit and hard cheese himself; he did not care to leave the deck. The rain increased as the day wore on, colder now than before; a heavy cross-sea pounded the Allegiance from either side, and one towering monster broke its crest nearly at the height of the foremast, the mass of water coming down like a blow upon Temeraire's body and jarring him from his fitful sleep with a start.
The flood knocked the handful of aviators off their feet, sent them swinging wildly from whatever hold they could get upon the ship. Laurence caught Portis before the midwingman could be washed off the edge of the dragondeck and tumbled down the stairs; but then he had to hold on until Portis could grip the life-line and steady himself. Temeraire was jerking against the chains, only half-awake and panicked, calling for Laurence; the deck around the base of the bitts was beginning to warp under his strength.
Scrambling over the wet deck to lay hands back on Temeraire's side, Laurence called reassurance. "It was only a wave; I am here," he said urgently. Temeraire stopped fighting the bonds and lowered himself panting to the deck: but the ropes had been stretched. The chains were looser now just when they were needed most, and the sea was too violent for landsmen, even aviators, to be trying to resecure the knots.
The Allegiance took another wave on her quarter and leaned alarmingly; Temeraire's full weight slid against the chains, further straining them, and instinctively he dug his claws into the deck to try and hold on; the oak planking splintered where he grasped at it. "Ferris, here; stay with him," Laurence bellowed, and himself struck out across the deck. Waves flooding the deck in succession now; he moved from one line to the next blindly, his hands finding purchase for him without conscious direction.
The knots were soaked through and stubborn, drawn tight by Temeraire's pulling against them. Laurence could only work upon them when the ropes came slack, in the narrow spaces between waves; every inch gained by hard labor. Temeraire was lying as flat as he could manage, the only help he could provide; all his other attention was given to keeping his place.
Laurence could see no one else across the deck, obscured by flying spray, nothing solid but the ropes burning his hands and the squat iron posts, and Temeraire's body a slightly darker region of the air. Two bells in the first dog watch: somewhere behind the clouds, the sun was setting. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a couple of shadows moving nearby; in a moment Leddowes was kneeling beside him, helping with the ropes. Leddowes hauled while Laurence tightened the knots, both of them clinging to each other and the iron bitts as the waves came, until at last the metal of the chains was beneath their hands: they had taken up the slack.
Nearly impossible to speak over the howl; Laurence simply pointed at the second larboard bitt, Leddowes nodded, and they set off. Laurence led, staying by the rail; easier to climb over the great guns than keep their footing out in the middle of the deck. A wave passed by and gave them a moment of calm; he was just letting go the rail to clamber over the first carronade when Leddowes shouted.
Turning, Laurence saw a dark shape coming at his head and flung up a protective hand only from instinct: a terrific blow like being struck with a poker landed on his arm. He managed to get a hand on the breeching of the carronade as he fell; he had only a confused impression of another shadow moving above him, and Leddowes, terrified and staring, was scrambling back away with both hands raised. A wave crashed over the side and Leddowes was abruptly gone.
Laurence clung to the gun and choked on salt water, kicking for some purchase: his boots were full of water and heavy as stone. His hair had come loose; he threw his head back to get it out of his eyes, and managed to catch the descending pry-bar with his free hand. Behind it he saw with a shock of recognition Feng Li's face looming white, terrified and desperate. Feng Li tried to pull the bar away for another attempt, and they wrestled it back and forth, Laurence half-sprawling on the deck with his boot-heels skidding over the the wet planks.
The wind was a third party to the battle, trying to drive them apart, and ultimately victorious: the bar slipped from Laurence's rope-numb fingers. Feng Li, still standing, went staggering back with arms flung wide as if to embrace the blast of the wind: full willing, it carried him backwards over the railing and into the churning water; he vanished without trace.
Laurence clawed back to his feet and looked over the rail: no sign of Feng Li or Leddowes, either; he could not even see the surface of the water for the great clouds of mist and fog rising from the waves. No one else had even seen the brief struggle. Behind him, the bell was clanging again for the turn of the glass.
Too confused with fatigue to make any sense of the murderous attack, Laurence said nothing, other than to briefly tell Riley the men had been lost overboard; he could not think what else to do, and the storm occupied all the attention he could muster. The wind began to fall the next morning; by the start of the afternoon watch, Riley was confident enough to send the men to dinner, though by shifts. The heavy mass of cloud cover broke into patches by six bells, the sunlight streaming down in broad, dramatic swaths from behind the still-dark clouds, and all the hands privately and deeply satisfied despite their fatigue.
They were sorry over Leddowes, who had been well-liked and a favorite with all, but as for a long-expected loss rather than a dreadful accident: he was now proven to have been the prey of the ghost all along, and his messmates had already begun magnifying his erotic misdeeds in hushed voices to the rest of the crew. Feng Li's loss passed without much comment, nothing more than coincidence to their minds: if a foreigner with no sea-legs liked to go frolicking about on deck in a typhoon, there was nothing more to be expected, and they had not known him well.
The aftersea was still very choppy, but Temeraire was too unhappy to keep bound; Laurence gave the word to set him loose as soon as the crew had returned from their own dinner. The knots had swelled in the warm air, and the ropes had to be hacked through with axes. Set free, Temeraire shrugged the chains to the deck with a heavy thump, turned his head around, and dragged the oilskin blanket off with his teeth; then he shook himself all over, water running down in streams off his hide, and announced militantly, "I am going flying."
He leapt aloft without harness or companion, leaving them all behind and gaping. Laurence made an involuntary startled gesture after him, useless and absurd, and then dropped his arm, sorry to have so betrayed himself. Temeraire was only stretching his wings after the long confinement, nothing more; or so he told himself. He was deeply shocked, alarmed; but he could only feel the sensation dully, the exhaustion like a smothering weight lying over all his emotions.
"You have been on deck for three days," Granby said, and led him down below carefully. Laurence's fingers felt thick and clumsy, and did not quite want to grip the ladder rails. Granby gripped his arm once, when he nearly slipped, and Laurence could not quite stifle an exclamation of pain: there was a tender, throbbing line where the first blow from the pry-bar had struck across his upper arm.
Granby would have taken him to the surgeon at once, but Laurence refused. "It is only a bruise, John; and I had rather not make any noise about it yet." But then he had perforce to explain why: disjointedly, but the story came out as Granby pressed him.
"Laurence, this is outrageous. The fellow tried to murder you; we must do something," Granby said.
"Yes," Laurence answered, meaninglessly, climbing into his cot; his eyes were already closing. He had the dim awareness of a blanket being laid over him, and the light dimming; nothing more.
He woke clearer in his head, if not much less sore in body, and hurried from his bed at once: the Allegiance was low enough in the water he could at least tell that Temeraire had returned, but with the blanketing fatigue gone, Laurence had full consciousness to devote to worry. Coming out of his cabin thus preoccupied, he nearly fell over Willoughby, one of the harness-men, who was sleeping stretched across the doorway. "What are you doing?" Laurence demanded.
"Mr. Granby set us on watches, sir," the young man said, yawning and rubbing his face. "Will you be going up on deck then now?"
Laurence protested in vain; Willoughby trailed after him like an overzealous sheepdog all the way up to the dragondeck. Temeraire sat up alertly as soon as he caught sight of them, and nudged Laurence along into the shelter of his body, while the rest of the aviators drew closed their ranks behind him: plainly Granby had not kept the secret.
"How badly are you hurt?" Temeraire nosed him all over, tongue flickering out for reassurance.
"I am perfectly well, I assure you, nothing more than a bump on the arm," Laurence said, trying to fend him off; though he could not help being privately glad to see that Temeraire's fit of temper had at least for the moment subsided.
Granby ducked into the curve of Temeraire's body, and unrepentantly ignored Laurence's cold looks. "There; we have worked out watches amongst ourselves. Laurence, you do not suppose it was some sort of accident, or that he mistook you for someone else, do you?"
"No." Laurence hesitated, then reluctantly admitted, "This was not the first attempt. I did not think anything of it at the time, but now I am almost certain he tried to knock me down the fore hatch, after the New Year's dinner."
Temeraire growled deeply, and only with difficulty restrained himself from clawing at the deck, which already bore deep grooves from his thrashing about during the storm. "I am glad he fell overboard," he said venomously. "I hope he was eaten by sharks."
"Well, I am not," Granby said. "It will make it a sight more difficult to prove whyever he was at it."
"It cannot have been anything of a personal nature," Laurence said. "I had not spoken ten words to him, and he would not have understood them if I had. I suppose he could have run mad," he said, but with no real conviction.
"Twice, and once in the middle of a typhoon," Granby said, contemptuously, dismissing the suggestion. "No; I am not going to stretch that far: for my part, he must have done it under orders, and that means their prince is most likely behind it all, or I suppose one of those other Chinamen; we had better find out double-quick who, before they try it again."
This notion Temeraire seconded with great energy, and Laurence blew out a heavy sigh. "We had better call Hammond to my cabin in private and tell him about it," he said. "He may have some idea what their motives might be, and we will need his help to question the lot of them, anyway."
Summoned below, Hammond listened to the news with visible and increasing alarm, but his ideas were of quite another sort. "You seriously propose we should interrogate the Emperor's brother and his retinue like a gang of common criminals; accuse them of conspiracy to murder; demand alibis and evidence - You may as well put a torch to the magazine and scuttle the ship; our mission will have as much chance of success that way as the other. Or, no: more chance, because at least if we are all dead and at the bottom of the ocean there can be no cause for quarrel."
"Well, what do you propose, then, that we ought to just sit and smile at them until they do manage to kill Laurence?" Granby demanded, growing angry in his turn. "I suppose that would suit you just as well; one less person to object to your handing Temeraire over to them, and the Corps can go hang for all you care."
Hammond wheeled round on him. "My first care is for our country, and not for any one man or dragon, as yours ought to be if you had any proper sense of duty - "
"That is quite enough, gentlemen," Laurence cut in. "Our first duty is to establish a secure peace with China, and our first hope must be to achieve it without the loss of Temeraire's strength; on either score there can be no dispute."
"Then neither duty nor hope will be advanced by this course of action," Hammond snapped. "If you did manage to find any evidence, what do you imagine could be done? Do you think we are going to put Prince Yongxing in chains?"
He stopped and collected himself for a moment. "I see no reason, no evidence whatsoever, to suggest Feng Li was not acting alone. You say the first attack came after the New Year; you might well have offended him at the feast unknowingly. He might have been a fanatic angered by your possession of Temeraire, or simply mad; or you might be mistaken entirely. Indeed, that seems to me the most likely - both incidents in such dim, confused conditions; the first under the influence of strong drink, the second in the midst of the storm - "
"For the love of Christ," Granby said rudely, making Hammond stare. "And Feng Li was shoving Laurence down hatchways and trying to knock his head in for some perfectly good reason, of course."
Laurence himself had been momentarily bereft of speech at this offensive suggestion. "If, sir, any of your suppositions are true, then any investigation would certainly reveal as much. Feng Li could not have concealed lunacy or such zealotry from all his country-men, as he could from us; if I had offended him, surely he would have spoken of it."
"And in ascertaining as much, this investigation would only require offering a profound insult to the Emperor's brother, who may determine our success or failure in Peking," Hammond said. "Not only will I not abet it, sir, I absolutely forbid it; and if you make any such ill-advised, reckless attempt, I will do my very best to convince the captain of the ship that it is his duty to the King to confine you."
This naturally ended the discussion, so far as Hammond was concerned in it; but Granby came back after closing the door behind him, with more force than strictly necessary. "I don't know that I have ever been more tempted to push a fellow's nose in for him. Laurence, Temeraire could translate for us, surely, if we brought the fellows up to him."
Laurence shook his head and went for the decanter; he was roused and knew it, and he did not immediately rely upon his own judgment. He gave Granby a glass, took his own to the stern lockers, and sat there drinking and looking out at the ocean: a steady dark swell of five feet, no more, rolling against her larboard quarter.
He set the glass aside at last. "No: I am afraid we must think better of it, John. Little as I like Hammond's mode of address, I cannot say that he is wrong. Only think, if we did offend him and the Emperor with such an investigation, and yet found no evidence, or worse yet some rational explanation - "
" - we could say hail and farewell to any chance of keeping Temeraire," Granby finished for him, with resignation. "Well, I suppose you are right and we will have to lump it for now; but I am damned if I like it."
Temeraire took a still-dimmer view of this resolution. "I do not care if we do not have any proof," he said angrily. "I am not going to sit and wait for him to kill you. The next time he comes out on deck I will kill him, instead, and that will put an end to it."
"No, Temeraire, you cannot!" Laurence said, appalled.
"I am perfectly sure I can," Temeraire disagreed. "I suppose he might not come out on deck again," he added, thoughtfully, "but then I could always knock a hole through the stern windows and come at him that way. Or perhaps we could throw in a bomb after him."
"You must not," Laurence amended hastily. "Even had we proof, we could hardly move against him; it would be grounds for an immediate declaration of war."
"If it would be so terrible to kill him, why is it not so terrible for him to kill you?" Temeraire demanded. "Why is he not afraid of our declaring war on him?"
"Without proper evidence, I am sure Government would hardly take such a measure," Laurence said; he was fairly certain Government would not declare war with evidence, but that, he felt, was not the best argument for the moment.
"But we are not allowed to get evidence," Temeraire said. "And also I am not allowed to kill him, and we are supposed to be polite to him, and all of it for the sake of Government. I am very tired of this Government, which I have never seen, and which is always insisting that I must do disagreeable things, and does no good to anybody."
"All politics aside, we cannot be sure Prince Yongxing had anything to do with the matter," Laurence said. "There are a thousand unanswered questions: why he should even wish me dead, and why he would set a manservant on to do it, rather than one of his guards; and after all, Feng Li could have had some reason of his own of which we know nothing. We cannot be killing people only on suspicion, without evidence; that would be to commit murder ourselves. You could not be comfortable afterwards, I assure you."
"But I could, too," Temeraire muttered, and subsided into glowering.
To Laurence's great relief, Yongxing did not come back up on deck for several days after the incident, which served to let the first heat of Temeraire's temper cool; and when at last he did make another appearance, it was with no alteration of manner at all: he greeted Laurence with the same cool and distant civility, and proceeded to give Temeraire another recitation of poetry, which after a little while caught Temeraire's interest, despite himself, and made him forget to keep glaring: he did not have a resentful nature. If Yongxing were conscious of any guilt whatsoever, it did not show in the slightest, and Laurence began to question his own judgment.
"I could easily have been mistaken," he said unhappily, to Granby and Temeraire, after Yongxing had quitted the deck again. "I cannot find I remember the details anymore; and after all I was half-stunned with fatigue. Maybe the poor fellow only came up to try and help, and I am inventing things out of whole cloth; it seems more fantastic to me with every moment. That the Emperor of China's brother should be trying to have me assassinated, as though I were any threat to him, is absurd. I will end by agreeing with Hammond, and calling myself a drunkard and a fool."
"Well, I'll call you neither," Granby said. "I can't make any sense of it myself, but the notion Feng Li just took a fancy to knock you on the head is all stuff. We will just have to keep a guard on you, and hope this prince doesn't prove Hammond wrong."