- Black Rose
- The Great Train Robbery
- Blue Dahlia
- Carnal Innocence
- Dance Upon the Air
- High Noon
- Sacred Sins
- Face the Fire
- Holding the Dream
- A Man for Amanda
- All the Possibilities
- Black Rose
- The Great Train Robbery
- Blue Dahlia
- Carnal Innocence
- Dance Upon the Air
- High Noon
- Sacred Sins
- Face the Fire
- Holding the Dream
- A Man for Amanda
Tongues of Serpents
"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."
"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.
- The Loners
- The Saints
- Tome of the Undergates
- Black Halo
- The Skybound Sea
- If You Stay
- If You Leave
- Until We Burn
- Before We Fall
- Every Last Kiss
- Suspiciously Obedient
- Random Acts of Crazy
- Random Acts of Trust
- Her First Billionaire
- Her Second Billionaire
- Her Two Billionaires
- Her Two Billionaires and a Baby
- His Majesty's Dragon
- Throne of Jade
- Black Powder War
- Victory of Eagles
- Tongues of Serpents
- Empire of Ivory
- Crucible of Gold