Tongues of Serpents

Chapter 10

"I WILL THANK YOU for an end to this wholly inappropriate interference, Mr. Laurence," Rankin said, icily. "You have neither rank nor office, nor even proper training to recommend your opinion on the matter. Mr. Drewmore, I trust you are ready to stand the duty? Mr. Blincoln, I believe you are next in seniority, should Mr. Drewmore fail to secure the hatchling; you will prepare yourself as well."

"Yes, sir," Lieutenant Drewmore said after a moment, not displeased but only slow to grasp the offered advantage: a man of forty, heavy of body and of mind at once; he had shown not an iota of initiative, which Laurence had seen, and set himself apart only by a certain amiable willingness and basic competence. He had reached the rank of first lieutenant aboard a middle-weight, for no greater accomplishment than being the son of a distinguished and well-liked captain; but he had been grounded by the death of his beast, during the plague, and no equal post had been offered him.

And Blincoln, only a little second to him in both years and seniority, was similarly a nonentity; neither of them in any way worthy of the one, the last egg. Meanwhile Forthing, who alone among the aviators had distinguished himself in service, however meager his connections, was evidently to be set aside.

Laurence had grown up in a service where influence was very nearly all, in the way of promotion, but he had grown used to the very different mode in the Corps: if a man had much in the way of influence, he was not an aviator, as a rule. Rankin himself was an exception, and Laurence's former lieutenant Ferris: the only two such cases Laurence had so far met, in the service. Merit, and the lucky opportunity of demonstrating it, had in practice by far the greater reach. Personal loyalties might have their impact, but Rankin did not know these men; they had not been affectionate towards him. He had met them one and all, not a month ago.

Laurence had known the gesture was a futile one; but he had spoken anyway. "Sir, you may not be aware that Captain Granby had other intentions," he had said, quietly.

Rankin had rebuffed him in as offensive a way as possible, and without bothering to lower his voice; adding now, "I do not intend this covert should be conducted on the irregular and unsound lines of your own model of behavior."

"By which I can only suppose you mean that Mr. Forthing is not of a line of aviators," Laurence said.

"Your own example must be all that any man requires to appreciate the value of a trained, a trusted lineage: of men who understand what dragons are, and what their own duty is," Rankin said.

Temeraire, who had been anxiously watching the egg so far, lifted his head here and said, "Well, if the egg should prefer Mr. Forthing, it may have him; and I will tell it so whether you like me to or not: I do not care whether he has a trusted lineage."

Rankin wheeled to confront him, but meanwhile the egg was rocking; it cracked abruptly across its equator, or near enough, and all their attention was drawn over to it at once. Tipping over, it did not quite separate; with an evident effort, the broken upper half was slowly pushed forward over the sand, furrowing up the burnt patches, and the hatchling beast crawled laboriously out.

There was a brief, dismayed silence as it raised its head. It was a strange, misshapen creature, with none of the lithe, deadly grace that every other dragonet whom Laurence had ever seen had possessed instantly on cracking the shell. It was a long almost skeletal thing, uniformly mottled brown-grey, and bristling along all its shoulders and in patches over its back with spikes very like the barbs on the tails of the Chequered Nettle, one of which had produced the egg; it had, also, inherited the claws of its Parnassian sire, so long they bid fair to snag upon its own flesh.

Its wings were a little stubby and badly cramped together, draped loosely over the hatchling's sides, but as it tried to stretch them out, those sides were revealed - distended into swollen folds which bulged out over the dragonet's shoulder and hip-joints, as if its rib cage were shrunken in too small, and the hide too large for it.

Yet it was otherwise painfully thin to look upon, the bones of the shoulders and hip standing in sharp relief: long and narrow, and had been folded upon itself several times in the tight bounds of the shell. The dragonet had evidently suffered from the confinement, and moving palsied-slow unwound itself only a little at a time, and pausing every short while to gasp a few labored breaths. Laurence could only wince for its sake. It was scarcely the size of an underfed hound.

"Oh, I am hungry," the dragonet said, in a small piping voice which sounded very much as though it were being whistled through a reed; but none of the aviators moved. Drewmore and Blincoln shifted uneasily, and looked at Forthing, who already had edged back away. They, too, stepped back, from the hatchling, and a general uneasy silence began.

"Well," Rankin said after a pause, "it is a pity. Gentlemen, I assume you are one and all in agreement? There is no officer who would care to try the harnessing? Mr. Dorset?"

Dorset was already pacing around the hatchling, inspecting it; he shook his head absently. "I cannot speak either to the source or the effects of the deformity until I have opened it, of course; from the labored breathing I should imagine the lungs are constrained. Quite an interesting case."

No-one else spoke; Laurence did not immediately follow, until Rankin turned and said, "Mr. Fellowes, I believe you are our only ground-crew master; I must ask you to undertake the duty - I am afraid we do not have rifles. Would you prefer a sledge, or a pistol?"

Temeraire, Laurence thought, had also not yet understood; before he should realize, Laurence said sharply, "That is quite enough, sir; I wonder if you could have the temerity to call yourself a Christian. Mr. Fellowes, we will have none of that."

Rankin wheeled on him and snapped, "That you are ignorant of all principles of the Corps, and disdain those few you know, is no surprise; that you have the audacity to set yourself up as authority likewise - What can you, who received the privilege unlooked-for and unearned, understand of the feelings of any aviator on such an occasion, who has lived all his life in waiting for it? It is our duty - as much our duty as harnessing the beast would be, if it were fit for service; it is not. It is not, and there is nothing to be done for it."

"It is nonetheless one of God's creatures for its lack of usefulness," Laurence said, "and I will not see it murdered."

"Would you prefer to see it abandoned and exposed, to suffer slowly?" Rankin said. "A dragon comes out of the shell ready to fend for itself: do you imagine this hatchling could do so, if we should leave it here, unharnessed and alone?"

The dragonet, as yet mostly preoccupied with untangling itself, looked back at them wary and uncertain. Fumbling its long-clawed feet over one another and its tail, it tried to spread out its wings, and managed to flap and raise a little dust; but then it ceased the effort, and fell to gasping instead.

"Oh," Temeraire said sadly, to the hatchling, "you cannot fly?"

"I am sure I will manage it shortly," the hatchling said, in its small pale voice, "only I am so stiff; and hungry."

Rankin jerked his hand cuttingly. "It cannot live long in any case," he said.

"Then," Laurence said, "we will give the poor beast some food, and what comfort it can take, until the natural end should come; if that be quick or late, that does not relieve us of the obligations of humanity."

"And who do you propose should feed it?" Rankin said. "No aviator will do it and so bind himself, sacrificing his one chance; and I will be damned if I will allow you to impose a low convict upon us with a claim to call himself Captain - "

"I will feed it myself," Laurence said.

"What?" Temeraire said, his head swinging around sharply. Laurence paused, astonished, and Temeraire said, "You would - ?" and his voice was trembling, thrumming with distress and wrath, an edge of the resonance of the divine wind to it.

"Have done," Rankin said, impatiently. "You cannot feed it; unless it has no sense at all, it will not take food from your hands: it can see you are Temeraire's, and it knows he would kill it at once. Which," he added, "would save us the difficulty, I suppose."

Laurence threw him a disgusted look; Temeraire might perhaps dislike the gesture, but as for murdering a small and helpless hatchling, he did not in the least believe it. He said, "Temeraire - my dear, what is this absurdity; you cannot imagine I would propose any substitution, ever." That Temeraire was distressed, however, was certain; Laurence added, "My intentions are only the most practical: and I beg you to feed the hatchling yourself, if you should have any objection to my performing the office."

"Oh," Temeraire said, his ruff smoothing a little. "Oh, well; I do not mind that, but, Laurence - " He leaned his head over and in a low and confiding tone said, rather hesitantly, "Laurence, maybe you have not quite understood - it cannot fly."

Laurence was very much shocked - shocked, appalled; he scarcely knew what to say. Rankin said, "There; will this convince you to have done enacting us this thorough Cheltenham tragedy?"

Temeraire snorted at Rankin. "I am sure I do not see why you must speak if all you wish is to be unpleasant," he said, "and Laurence, if you should feel very strongly, of course I will give the hatchling some food. Only, it does seem a little strange."

"More than a little strange," Caesar said. "Why, what's it to do when you aren't about, and it is hungry? Anyway, we are still in this desert, and it has been scraps and string all week; there may be a bit of extra food about now, but it's a long way back to the cows. You might have a little sense, instead of wasting it."

"Perhaps it might come to be able to fly, after all," Temeraire said, "if it is only tired, from being shaken a great deal - although - then it might have stayed in the shell to rest - "

He trailed off, not very convincingly; and Laurence found himself abruptly unsure - adrift; what he had supposed a certain mooring had shifted, and was floating with him in an unknown current. If the hatchling should linger - deformed, helpless, without any means of sufficiency - rejected by the Corps, and its fellows also -

"Temeraire, you will oblige me greatly if you would give it something," Laurence said, nevertheless; there was no alternative which did not appall the worse: which was not full of barbarism and cruelty, and must be rejected out of hand.

He turned, and stopped: the hatchling was feasting slowly but with great determination in the gutted innards of the kangaroo, with a loop of belt around its neck for token harness, and Demane looked up and said, "I am naming him Kulingile."

"It means, 'all is well,'" Temeraire said to Caesar, "and I do not see what business you have complaining, when Demane was of my crew. I do not see why I must always be losing some one of my officers or my ground crew whenever an egg should happen to hatch; it is become quite unreasonable."

And almost enough to make one not wish to go and find the other egg: a certain anticipation of injury which made Temeraire feel not so delighted as he ordinarily would have been, with the intelligence which Laurence and Tharkay had brought back from the natives.

Not really, of course; it was not the fault of the egg, and in truth Temeraire was deeply, profoundly relieved, even to have the little scraps of direction; but - he might admit he was not quite feeling himself. He would not have minded a few days more of quiet rest, and stewed meat. Temeraire did not mean to complain aloud, but his throat was so very uncomfortable, and it seemed very hard he should have to go to all this trouble, and suffer indignities, only to be robbed of yet another crewman. He sighed.

"I beg your pardon; he is an officer," Laurence was saying to Rankin, "and not merely a personal servant: Demane has been rated nearly two years, and served as acting-captain on Arkady - "

"A feral beast, which could not be controlled in any case," Rankin said, dismissively. "No; if you imagine I will submit this to the Admiralty, you are thoroughly mistaken. Your servant has made a pet of the creature, and so far as I am concerned, they neither of them have anything to do with the Corps at all; he is welcome to ship back to England if you imagine he will fare better with recognition there. Not that the beast will survive long enough to make that necessary."

"Only long enough to eat up the best of everything," Caesar said, disapprovingly; and Temeraire did think the hatchling was being excessive. Kulingile did not eat very quickly, but he had not stopped eating since he had begun, and was now nearly inside the carcass.

"The kangaroo is bigger than you are," he said, "and you seem to be eating all of it; you might leave some for tomorrow."

Kulingile pulled his head out of the kangaroo, having torn free another fresh gobbet of meat, and tipped back to swallow down the lump, which traveled as a visible knot down his skinny throat. He panted a few times afterwards, his very peculiar-looking sides heaving out and in, and then said thin and piping, "But I am still hungry now, and my captain fetched it for me, so it is mine, and I will eat it; I will," and he pushed his head back inside.

Temeraire sighed, and supposed he could not be mean enough to grudge the hatchling its meal; it must, he thought, be very distressing not to be able to fly. He looked at it critically: it was those sides, so queerly bulging and heaped on one another, he thought, which were likely the problem. "I do not suppose you might cut a bit of them out, and sew it up again," he suggested to Dorset, who was sitting cross-legged by the hatchling's side and listening to the chest with his ear-trumpet.

"A little quiet if you please," Dorset said absently, "and it would be of the greatest use imaginable if he would stop eating," he added to Demane, " - the digestive processes are drowning out the action of the pneumotic system."

"He will sleep when he isn't hungry anymore," Demane said, a possessive hand still on the dragonet's neck, stroking. He looked over at Roland with a rather triumphant expression, which faded when she turned her back and with a set face went to the other side of the camp, to busy herself with packing away the gear for their departure.

"I didn't think you would be so jealous," he said to her, when the dragonet had gone to sleep a little later.

"Yes, very jealous," Roland said without turning, "you ass: I will be taking Excidium in seven years or so, when Mother is ready to be grounded." Temeraire silently swelled with indignation, overhearing this.

"Then - " Demane said, and she rounded on him, and said, "What business have you, dragging it out for the poor thing and everyone, only to make a show of yourself? Half these fellows are grounded because their beasts died, d'you think anyone likes it, watching it fight just to get its breath? It'll outgrow its lungs in a week - "

"You don't know!" Demane snapped. "The captain doesn't think it's going to die."

"Of course he does," Roland said, "we all do; listen!" The dragonet, breathing, was quite audible from across the camp; long effortful hissing breaths, which distended its sides. "And the captain wasn't looking to save it for himself, was he? Only he'll go through fire if he thinks he ought to; he's churchy. You aren't; so I think you are a perfect selfish beast," she added, and stalked away.

"I am not!" Demane said, and looked up at Temeraire. "He might not die," he demanded.

"Well, I do not see any reason he should die," Temeraire said; he was not at all inclined to see the hatchling die, it would be very distressing, "except I do not quite know what he is to do for food, if he should ever have to hunt for himself."

"I can hunt for him," Demane said.

"And he is so very small, that perhaps he will not take a great deal of feeding," Temeraire agreed, and added encouragingly, with a burst of inspiration, "and perhaps he will turn out to be a scholar, and not need to fly at all - or a poet."

Demane did not look very happy at this suggestion; it was always a little difficult to persuade him to sit to his books, and he was already grown deeply disappointed in his brother, who could hardly be got away from them. Temeraire felt however that he had hit upon an ideal solution, "and after all," he said to Laurence, "I do not find that anyone asks a fresh-hatched egg to hunt, when it is a person; Harcourt's egg could only lie about and flap its arms and wail, and at least Kulingile can speak, and eat without someone else putting food into his mouth a bit at a time."

On this philosophy, he tried to begin teaching Kulingile his characters, when he had woken up, but Kulingile only pulled in his wheezing breath and said, "But I am hungry."

"It is only two hours since you ate," Temeraire said, "you cannot be hungry again."

"I am hungry," Kulingile repeated sadly.

"Well, at least learn these first five," Temeraire said, with a sigh, "and then you may have some lizard."

Kulingile looked at the scratched characters, then looked up and said, "I have learned them."

"You have not," Temeraire said, and swept the marks clean from the dirt with the smooth curve of his talon. "Draw them over," but he was forced to yield in the end, for the long claws would not allow Kulingile to write.

So Kulingile was permitted to devour two - three - of the large lizards, which had been cut up and preserved, earlier. Caesar watched disapprovingly, and Temeraire himself could not be exceedingly happy to see them go. He liked the flavor extremely, but he could not at present enjoy very much of it: his throat ached unpleasantly if he tried to eat anything that was not very soft, and the water tasted still ashy and bitter, even where it had been filtered into the small hollow. Anything which Gong Su had tried to stew for him was tainted with the flavor. He ate as much as he could bear, until the worst demands of hunger were satisfied, but sadly that left a great deal of room in his belly afterwards; he would have been glad to look forward to something better, when he could eat again, but at this rate Kulingile would have eaten up all the salted meat before anyone else could have more than a bite.

"I am very ready to go," Temeraire said, however, when Laurence asked: Temeraire could not help but feel that the egg must be found very soon, or not at all, and now that there was no other to worry about, his duty was clear; and oh, he so wished to redeem himself - he had almost thought, for an instant, when Laurence had talked of feeding the hatchling -

Well, it did not bear thinking of; Laurence had said everything which could be reassuring, and he had not after all done it - his explanations were entirely sensible, and after all, Temeraire could not really think that anyone would prefer Kulingile to himself, no matter what; Kulingile was very small, even if he did not mean to die. But, Temeraire could not help but be conscious - he had already lost Laurence his fortune, and his rank, and his home; to conclude that sequence by losing, also, an egg -

"I do feel almost perfectly recovered, Laurence," he said, strongly. "I know I do not quite sound like myself, but that is only a bit of smoke still in my throat; let us go at once."

Temeraire indeed did not sound like himself, and the pace he set was considerably lowered from the extremes to which he had formerly tried to press: Laurence had been obliged to ask him to rein in, a dozen times in an hour, to keep to a speed which Caesar could match; now not at all. Kulingile clung on to Temeraire's back flattened low and strapped on, Demane sitting beside him, the recipient of cold disapproval from every aviator who looked over at him; the boy's head was held up proudly in defiance, and Laurence said, "Mr. Blincoln, we will have a little of the dried meat brought up for the hatchling, if you please," by way of reproof to the others.

Kulingile devoured what was offered him almost at once, and sighed for more, although they had only been in the air half-an-hour: they were obliged to feed him twice again mid-air, before a water-hole offered itself below and Temeraire descended for a rest - without requiring much persuasion, Laurence was concerned to note.

The landscape was yet blasted in all directions, save where the thick green bushes had acted in some manner as a fire-break, or a barren patch of earth had offered nothing to the hunger of the flames. Fringed with both of these protections, the water-hole had only a thin coverlet of ash resting upon the surface, which they were able to skim off with their cups and buckets; it was however not very deep, for the most part, and they were obliged to keep most of the water they had obtained at the creek in their jugs and cans, and use the better and fresher supply only to satisfy their immediate thirst.

Temeraire drank and drank, when they had done, until the hole was nearly down to a damp recession in the earth; fortunately the water began to seep out again when he withdrew, so they might have a prospect of more when they had rested through the heat of the day. "Can we spare so long?" Temeraire said, wistfully.

"We will do better to conserve your strength," Laurence said. "My dear, you are not yourself yet; I beg you do not try and push on through this heat. At least here we have a little shade, and I do not think Kulingile ought to be exposed to the sun's worst violence."

However, Kulingile did not at present seem to care anything for the sun, or for anything but food: he stood waiting out in the open at the edge of their makeshift camp nearly quivering, until Demane came trudging back with a fresh load of game for him to eat, and fell upon the provender without a pause.

He was done very quickly, and looked for more with a hopeful air; Demane stared at the wreckage - there was very little left but scraps of hide of the four small animals he had brought - and then pulled himself up to his feet again, despite the heat. "You may have another hour," Laurence said, glancing upwards: the sun had made noon and was beginning its descent; soon, he hoped, they might leave again.

Another pair of lizards and a smallish kangaroo were found amid the burnt wreckage, only a little torn by birds, and they vanished into Kulingile's gut with the same ravening speed while Demane knelt at the water-hole and cupped water into his mouth with his bare hand, panting, his arms shaking with fatigue; then he crumpled beneath one of the bushes and slept. Having devoured all there was, Kulingile licked his jaws and muzzle and every bloodstained talon clean, very carefully, and then looked around again: he crept to Demane and curled against him in the shade, and fell into a fitful, wheezing slumber beside him.

Sipho watched all this resentfully. Being both younger and easier in temper, he had acclimated with far less hesitation to the upheaval of their life, and the new society in which he found himself had become his home, where Demane, warier by nature and experience, yet held aloof. Sipho had begun, Laurence thought, to dislike a little his brother's overzealous and smothering attention, the last year; but he was far from approving its transfer to the new recipient, and too proud to compete with open demands instead put himself in the deep shade of Temeraire's body, and opened again his book, a Chinese text, to demonstrate his perfect unconcern.

"Well?" Laurence asked of Dorset, quietly, when the surgeon had risen from his inspection: he had gone to look over the sleeping hatchling yet again.

"It is certainly a pity, from the scientific standpoint," Dorset said.

"You have no hope of his surviving, then," Laurence said.

"On the contrary, I must now expect him to last some time, as he has lived this long," Dorset said - several of the aviators, lying hangdog in the shade nearby, looked up abruptly - "and at his present rate of increase, there will shortly be no chance at all of an effective dissection. I would learn a great deal in his current state, but if he should live another month, there will be no working out the original deformity."

Laurence paused and compressed his mouth; then he said, "Perhaps, Mr. Dorset, you might consider the patient's feelings in the matter, before making your laments. Can you determine what is inhibiting his flight?"

"The air-sacs are malformed in some fashion, certainly," Dorset said. "I imagine they have collapsed, and are pressing upon the lungs. The constraint of the shell very likely also injured the development. I hope I am not heartless," he added, albeit without sounding very much concerned by the accusation, "but without the supportive action of the air-sacs and the vessels between them, his weight will crush the remaining organs as he grows; unless he should remain stunted. That I am afraid is unlikely. I can only guess at weight, but he has already put on ten feet in length."

"Mr. Dorset, I assume there is no chance the dragonet should last much longer than that; nor ever fly?" Rankin interjected abruptly, having roused himself at the intelligence that Kulingile evidently did not mean to die at once and conveniently remove himself - and Demane - from consideration.

Dorset shrugged. "The vessels are functioning to some small extent, or else the weight of the skeletal system should already have crushed his remaining organs beyond use. It is not wholly impossible."

This opinion produced a good deal of stirring amongst the aviators, and low conversations. "Not impossible," Temeraire repeated to Laurence, with equal parts optimism and satisfaction, "I am very pleased Dorset should say so: that would be much better. There is no reason why he should not live, although he does eat a great deal; if only he can work out how to fly."

"I hope you will not set your heart on his survival," Laurence said, low, and looked with some concern at Demane, who yet slept, with an arm now curled over the dragonet's shoulders: determination as much as affection would drive him hard. "We cannot rely upon it; certainly it forms no great part of Dorset's expectations. Will you not eat a little more, before we go?"

"Oh," Temeraire said, "no, perhaps not; but I will drink a little more."

He drank, and they began the laborious process of loading him again, dragged out with reluctance: the convicts had all eaten heartily of the preserved meat themselves, and weighted down by food and the sun were in no great mood to continue the journey still further into the barrens, now without any guidance or promise of success but the ill-understood recommendation of the aborigines. "Three dragons ought to be enough for one town," one man muttered, "without looking to get more."

Laurence could muster no great enthusiasm himself, and particularly when Temeraire was so visibly unwell: his voice croaked raggedly, and even the smallish portions of meat, cooked a little while in water, were beyond his endurance to swallow. But with the hatching of Kulingile, there was no egg remaining to be a lever which could turn Temeraire aside; there was nothing now but to continue onward, until time should make it certain the lost egg was hatched.

"I must hope the egg is waiting," Temeraire said, "and trusts that we will rescue it; I am sure it must be very anxious. I could not blame it, of course," he added sadly, "if it did not like to wait, with as long as I have taken to find it. Pray, Laurence, can you repeat over anything of what the hunters said? Perhaps I might understand a little more."

"I cannot," Laurence said, "and I doubt O'Dea or Shipley could do so, either; and while I admire your gifts in this area greatly, my dear, I cannot allow you to suggest that you might form an understanding of a language of which you have never heard a syllable."

"Well, I did hear the singing," Temeraire said, but sighed, and did not press further.

* * *

He pushed himself up standing with an effort, when it was time to get the belly-rigging on him; and now several of the convicts made excuse for not climbing in, and abruptly had small personal errands which required their attention, or needed to refill a can of water; Laurence rounded several up and sent them aboard, and went down to the water-hole after another handful of stragglers - they would not stir save in pairs, anymore - who insisted they were coming, only they were taking turns filling their cans: they had drunk them all dry, and he could not ask them to sit aboard for hours in this heat, without so much as a drop.

"That will do," Laurence said, "fill your can on the other side, and enough of this malingering, Mr. Blackwell; if tomorrow you cannot provide yourself with water over the course of a pause of three hours without delaying us, you will fly thirsty; and if that is not enough we will consult the lash," with more acerbity than his usual wont; he was in no spirit to spare sympathy for the men who were dragging out Temeraire's discomfort.

"Aye, sir," Blackwell said, tugging at his forelock, and stepped across to the other side of the water-hole, and was gone: a red flashing of jaws, talons, tremendous speed - then he was jerked down and away; the bushes rustled over him once and were still.

Laurence stared; Jemson and Carter stared; the unreality of it - "Temeraire!" Laurence bellowed, as the men backed hastily scrambling away, their canteens tumbling and water spilling over the dirt - "Temeraire!"

Temeraire lunged over the dune and nearly brought half of it down spilling into the water-hole, and when Laurence pointed at the bushes, he seized them in his talons and began to tear them away. "What is it?" Temeraire said. "I do not understand, where did it come from?"

"It was concealed beneath them," Laurence said, "or so it seemed; I scarcely caught a glimpse."

Forthing was hastily organizing the aviators: they had their pistols drawn, and swords, and stood warily back while Temeraire dragged up the bushes one after another, their long spidery roots dangling red dirt. When he had cleared them, there was nothing there: only the dirt, and grass, and stones, and Laurence would have thought himself mad, if only there had not been Jemson and Carter to swear to it, also; but Jemson said, "I didn't see it; only Blackie was there, and then he weren't," and Carter said, "It was big as a house, it was. It et him whole in one big bite, and then it went into thin air."

"Perhaps it did," Temeraire suggested, sitting back on his haunches; he nosed at one of his talons, abraded by his struggles with the tough bushes, "like a spirit? That would account for why we have not seen them."

"No," Laurence said, "whatever it was, the creature was perfectly corporeal, and it took him: can it have tunneled away?"

Temeraire raked his claws through the dirt, and they caught: with a heave he brought up a ragged mat of dirt and branches and a knot of grass atop it, which when thrust aside showed a gaping hole descending into the earth: narrow and rough-edged, dug out of the loose sand.

The sides were packed with stones, and plastered also with some yellowish green matter, flecked with larger bits of leaves and of grasses, as though these had been mulched, all to give it stability, although not very much. The walls yielded easily as Temeraire dug into them, and Caesar was now helping, too: they made rapid progress into the depths, but the tunnel crumbled as they dug. In a little while, they broke through into something like a junction: Laurence, crouching by the side, had a glimpse of many passages branching; then the walls collapsed inward and the whole fell in upon itself. Caesar nearly slid forward into the depression.

"That is certainly where he was taken, but if the bunyip has retreated, perhaps we may find some other entrance to come at its lair," Laurence said, pulling himself free from the heavy sand, which had buried him nearly to the knee in collapsing, and they began with shovels and talons to scrape at the ground around the water-hole.

"I think I have found one," Roland said, thrusting the handle of a shovel deep into the earth, a little way back from the water-hole beneath some more of the bushes. These did not need to be torn up, they discovered: when Temeraire had set his claws in the mat, he might lift it up, and the bushes would go with it: evidently their roots had grown around and through the mat, a clever way to disguise the lurking trap.

But they dug a little way down, and this passageway, too, collapsed: designed for its maker, and not the weight of dragons or shovel-wielding men, or perhaps only ever intended to be temporary. If there were more permanent chambers, far below, no quick excavation would reach them: the bunyip had undoubtedly fled as deep and as far as it could go, with so much noise and upheaval upon the surface.

"Well, are we going to dig forever," Caesar said, shaking dirt a little fastidiously off his claws, "or are we going? I am sorry for the fellow, but I don't think we are going to get anywhere at this rate: it can dig, too, and while we are going at it here, it is probably digging itself halfway across the desert and away."

While blunt, there was no denying the practical truth of the matter; and Laurence could not call Blackwell's survival likely: he had made no sound, and any man would have shrieked, dragged away by such a creature, if still alive. The very speed and silence of the attack which had made it so otherworldly, to be missed even if one was standing directly by, argued for the creature's instantly killing its prey, even as it whipped its victims away to be devoured in quiet and safety.

They considered and delayed a little longer, while Temeraire dug in a half-hearted way around the opened holes, trying if by chance he should find a deeper chamber, but these efforts collapsed the passageways even before he broke into them, and the only result was to leave behind a wreckage of sand-heaps and torn-up grasses, and the dunes assembled into new shapes, a deep valley marking where Temeraire had labored.

"Very well," Laurence said finally, drawing his sleeve across his face. "We can do no more."

Temeraire's belly-netting had grown choked with sand, during the first efforts, the desperate rush to try and retrieve the taken man. They did not wait to clean it, but only shook and brushed off the worst of the clumps. The men boarded silently and with alacrity; all were glad to be gone.

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