Tongues of Serpents

Chapter 12

ISKIERKA DID at least go hunting for them, when she had understood what had happened, and helped to dig a channel from the quicksand pit which drained the water into a rock basin, where they might drink; so she was not useless, but she was still inclined to be critical and particularly of their having lost the trail.

Temeraire informed her with some asperity that he would have liked to see her do better, with a firestorm and a typhoon to be managed, all at once - if it had not precisely been a typhoon, it seemed far too mild to call it only a thunderstorm, and not at all reflective of the experience - and added, "And there was the third egg to be managed, also, at the time."

"Which was nowhere near as good an egg," Iskierka said disapprovingly, "as anyone could tell, only looking at it, and now you see what has come of it. Finish eating and hurry up, then, as we are bringing you along," she added to Kulingile, "which I do not understand."

Kulingile could not really be accused of eating slowly: he was taking everything which had been left, in gulps the very limit of his capacity. His sides had collapsed into their odd folds again only a little while after they had first swelled out; but twice more during the effort they had inflated and then crumpled once more. Demane was anxious, but it did not seem to have hurt the dragonet, Temeraire thought; at least, Dorset had not said anything dire, though he had examined Kulingile closely afterwards.

"So he might yet fly, after all, even if he cannot just yet," Temeraire said. "I did not always have the divine wind. Anyway, Laurence wished it: it would be immoral to leave him behind, as I understand it."

"I don't see what morality has to do with carrying about someone who cannot fly," Iskierka said.

"We have been carried about by the Allegiance, ourselves, when we could not have flown all the way," Temeraire said, "and if we did leave him, he would have to starve, as he cannot hunt; or what if those bunyips tried to snatch him? He was small enough, when he hatched, that they might have managed it."

"I don't see why you always want to dwell on and on about what will happen with things that are properly none of your affair, and far away," Iskierka said, dismissively.

Even Granby, to Temeraire's dismay, did not seem to wholly approve; he looked wincingly at Kulingile, and Temeraire overheard him saying, to Forthing, "I don't need to be told how it was: I am sure Rankin was a brute about it, and set his back up instead of explaining properly; I only wish I had been here sooner."

To Laurence he made no reproach directly, but said with excessive heartiness, "Well, one never knows in these cases what may happen, after all; although, we cannot be too slow - Riley can give us a little more time, he must wait for something to do with the monsoon, but - although, it is just as well, for there was still no news from England about Bligh, so perhaps ..." and then trailed off in a very awkward way, and began instead to speak of the bunyips.

It was very irritating, and Temeraire was still tired, and sore; there was sand everywhere sand could be, and nothing like enough water to be properly washed, or even to drink as much as he liked; so he was by no means in a happy mood as the men boarded him again. "I wish," he said to Laurence, "I do wish that other dragons were not always thinking me peculiar; not that anyone would value Iskierka's opinion, but it makes one doubtful."

"I hope you never doubt the value of charity," Laurence said, "regardless of any contrary opinion which you should meet: do you imagine Iskierka would have concerned herself particularly with the fate of the French dragons, as a consequence of the spreading of the disease?"

"No-o," Temeraire said, and looking slantwise asked, "Laurence, then you are quite sure that we have done as we ought?"

"Very sure," Laurence said. "And consider, my dear: a week ago his imminent death was certain, and now he is eating well and steadily gaining weight, and he was of material use in extracting you from the quicksand. I must think his prospects of further improvement are high."

That was not precisely what Temeraire had meant, but he was very cheered to know that Laurence felt the two acts were connected in such a way, and equally necessary; he had wondered sometimes if Laurence might have had some regrets - some feeling of disappointment, that Temeraire had asked so much of him. He did not at all mind bringing Kulingile along, or carrying him forever, if it should mean Laurence were not distressed.

And, he suddenly realized to his consolation, if he were doing so, then it was not really as though Demane was not his own anymore: if Kulingile was to be always riding with him, then it was more as though he was part of Temeraire's crew himself. "And," he told Kulingile, who listened intently, "if we should see some action, I think you might be of very real use, as no one might board while you were on my back: if only you can contrive not to grow very much more."

"Well, I will try," Kulingile said, but then he took the second half of the lizard in front of him and threw his head back and swallowed the whole thing at once, so that it traveled down his throat as a distended lump, as much as to say, Look how much I have eaten.

"That is not going to help," Temeraire said, exasperated.

There was not very much more water to be had, either, as they flew onward: the water-holes which they found were almost all drying up, in the heat of the day, in a suspicious manner. "I expect they are telling one another to dry them up for us," Temeraire said, rather disgruntled, as he lapped a little water up from a rocky basin; he could not take nearly as much as he wanted, as it should have to serve for all.

"Well, let us dig up some more of these coverings, and then I will breathe fire in at them," Iskierka proposed. "That will bring them out, and they will soon learn not to be causing trouble for us."

"I don't see why you must be so quarrelsome," Caesar said. "I suppose if you want to be dragging up their houses all over, you can't be too angry if they don't like it, and I don't much fancy waking in the middle of the night up to my neck in sand, either. We might leave them a kangaroo or two, and see if that sweetens them up to give us water."

"As if we were going to give them presents, after the way they have behaved," Temeraire said, revolted, and Iskierka snorted her disdain; but much to their shared dismay, Laurence and Granby thought the idea sound.

"Consider, my dear, the very real difficulty we should have in constantly facing the objections of so widespread and hostile a force," Laurence said, "if indeed they are communicating, as you imagine not without grounds."

"And we are not here to pick quarrels with bunyips or anyone else, for that matter," Granby said. "We are here to find that egg, and be shot of this wretched desert; if they like to live here, there is no reason we shouldn't leave it to them, if you ask me."

To make matters still worse, Rankin alone disagreed. "You will only encourage the creatures by bribing them," he said, "and induce them to think humans more worthwhile prey: they ought to be eradicated one and all."

If he did concede so far as to not at once fire all the bunyips' lairs - which was a pity, as it seemed to Temeraire an excellent strategy, particularly as the bunyips should also have to flee the smoke, and come out for a proper fight, instead of hiding away - Temeraire could not quite see his way clear to leaving the bunyips a kangaroo.

"It is no more thrown away than letting that one stuff it into his gullet," Caesar said, meaning Kulingile, but for his part, Temeraire felt he should rather feed Kulingile twenty kangaroos than see the bunyips profit from one, when he had hunted it down.

"If we had begun by tearing up their homes," he said, "I might see the justice in it, but after all, we did not; we did not even know they were there, until after they had stolen some of our men, and eaten them, which is barbarous anyway. If anyone were to be apologizing and giving presents, it ought to be them and not us; instead they are only quarreling more, by stealing the water, now, too."

"If they have brought the water there in the first place, it seems to me they aren't the ones doing the stealing," Caesar said, but that was plainly absurd; it was not as though the bunyips had made the water. The water was there, and they had only moved it to a place most convenient for themselves, to trick people into coming near their traps; another part of a low sneaking strategy which deserved not the least bit of credit.

"Anyway, they might have said something if they did not like us to drink. They set the water out on purpose, and make it look as though it is not theirs, so it does not seem to me they can complain if we treat it like any other water," Temeraire said.

But it was very tiring and inconvenient to have to stop, over and over, to drink what little they could get at any one water-hole. It was not even restful, for one could not feel refreshed with so little to drink, and his throat ached all the worse. Temeraire still felt a deep unpleasant ache in his forelegs and hindquarters after his ordeal, and it was more of an effort than it ought to have been to spring aloft every time.

He sighed a little; and they must again fly sweeps, to watch for any fragment of pottery or silk or anything else which might have been brought from China; of course he was glad to have found the trail again, but there was no denying it was pleasanter flying when they could only guess, and go on flying straight.

However, watching the ground as they drew near yet another half-dry water-hole, he did at length near the end of the day catch sight of a little movement: a shadow which did not quite fit the rest of the ground, and Temeraire realized all at once it was one of them, the bunyips. He dived at once, stretching, and the bunyip burst suddenly into motion, skittering away across the sand towards a bare patch of ground, and as Temeraire reached, it squirmed itself madly beneath the earth, casting up a cascade of sand at its heels as it burrowed.

It was astonishingly quick: Temeraire landed and stuck his claw inside the freshly dug tunnel, and could not reach it; he sat back on his haunches and hissed in displeasure. "Come out, you wretched craven thing," he called into the tunnel, and looked back. "Laurence, are you quite sure you would not like us to smoke them out? I am certain we could quite easily manage them, if they did not squirm and run away so."

"And so ensure an endless sequence of attacks," Laurence said, "further delaying our search for the egg; pray let us continue on, my dear."

"You may consider," Dorset said, peering over, "that it is in their nature to hunt from their burrows, and the consequence of our own venturing into a country we do not know; and after all, you are eating the game on which they depend for sustenance. We are as foolish to resent their predation as cattle would be to despise you."

This argument swayed Temeraire to some extent; at least he was persuaded to fly onward without further molesting the bunyips. Later in the evening, Temeraire said thoughtfully, contemplating the stew which Gong Su was brewing, with the meager haul of kangaroos, "I have never before considered the feelings of a cow: I suppose they must not care for us at all."

"They are only dumb beasts," Laurence said, "and such thought surely beyond them; any animal will defend its life and young, but that is not in the same vein as a thinking, reasoning creature."

"Only, how could one be certain?" Temeraire said. "After all, if one wishes to be particularly dull, one might be like that fellow Salcombe, and say that dragons are also dumb beasts. And I am quite sure the bunyips are not, though they do not seem to talk at all: they are only nasty thinking creatures. It is not very fair, though, that I should allow them to have sense because they will contrive one unpleasantness after another; what if cows are very clever, only they do not like to make a fuss about it?"

"If they dislike fuss enough to tolerate being eaten," Laurence said, with rather an amused expression, "surely it need not matter one way or another."

"Perhaps they think they will be eaten anyway, as they are so delicious," Temeraire said, and sighed. "I would give a great deal for a cow, Laurence; not that I wish to complain, and I am very grateful that Gong Su will go to such lengths: only they are a bit thin, the kangaroos, I mean."

They posted a watch that night, and twice Temeraire and Iskierka were obliged to shift their places, as the ground beneath them grew odd and unsteady to a probing stick; Caesar was nearly buried when abruptly a sinkhole opened beneath him, tumbling him down in a cascade of pouring sand. He roused all the camp to his cry of alarm, and several pistol-shots were fired uselessly into the dark, spending some of their precious store of munitions for panic.

"Keep your head raised," Rankin said, his hand on Caesar's neck; he had leapt clear as the sand poured in, and then jumped in to keep the young dragon steady. "Fetch a light, there, and bring shovels; we will have to clear some of this off him before he can scramble out."

It was near enough two hours before he could be resettled, now safe if uncomfortable upon an outcropping of rock; they none of them passed a very quiet or a restful night, and in the morning, all of Gong Su's stew had leaked away, the consequence of a smaller but equally malicious shifting of the earth beneath the cooking-hollow. Temeraire was obliged to eat the gummy and nearly leached-clean kangaroo or go hungry, as he had not eaten the night before; they might be soft, but were scarcely palatable. They had all to contend with thirst as well as irritation.

Iskierka was all for waging a thorough war upon the enemy: all their shelters were to be fired, or filled with smoke, despite the dreadful hazard of open flame in this dry country, and the utter impracticality of fighting who knew how many of the creatures there were with a force of four dragons, one half-grown, one stunted, and no supply whatsoever. Temeraire at least was grown more willing to be sensible, perhaps under the preoccupying influence of hunger, which drove out some quantity of pride.

He said, "I do not like it in the least, but we do not have the time to serve them all out now, and they can make it so very uncomfortable: we had better wait until we have the egg back safely, and then we may settle them; or," he allowed, "I suppose we may give them a chance to show they can behave better," and that afternoon, when they had taken half-a-dozen kangaroos and stopped at another half-dry water-hole, they laid one before the first trap-door which they found, and did not molest the covering after all.

Iskierka eyed it darkly and brooding; Kulingile eyed it, too, with a very different, a yearning expression, but he turned to his own portion instead, and Iskierka grumbled under her breath and did the same. Temeraire was hungry enough to ignore the pain of his throat and eat the kangaroo unstewed, only roasted a little, and crunching the bones for the marrow, though Laurence was sorry to see him forced to it, and Termeraire winced as he swallowed.

"It's gone, then," someone said abruptly, and Laurence realized that while they had all been engaged in their own meals, the kangaroo offering had silently vanished - rather a dreadful reminder of the speed and stealth of their enemies, and their omnipresence. But they were at least not harassed the remainder of their halt, although they did not tempt fate: no man ventured anywhere near vegetation, and they drank their share of water under guard.

The experiment was repeated that evening, when they paused again at a fresh spring with a larger outcropping of harder, stony ground near-by where Laurence thought they might encamp safely; whether for this reason, or the accepted bribe, they did not suffer further attacks that night, and Temeraire declined to risk his supper again, and ate his portion of game once more only seared.

They might also by now have been outstripping the speed of the bunyips' communications, whatever method they used. Tharkay was not particularly sanguine of their chances of finding still more traces of the smugglers' route, and did not encourage the fervent searching for scraps which Temeraire and Iskierka would have indulged in, left to their own devices.

"If they are not going to some central location lying in this direction we have been given, as limited as it may be," Tharkay said, "then we have no hope of catching them: a few shards of five years of age and half-buried samples do not make a trail worth following. We may as well hope for a more cooperative fate, and make the only attempt which has a hope of success."

So the dragons flew on with much less investigation of the countryside, and quicker: the red miles were eaten up swiftly with Temeraire's wingbeats, the unvarying dunes rising and falling, vanishing away beneath the leading edge of the black wings, only to be exposed once more, falling behind them like waves receding. The desert might have gone on forever: everywhere one looked, the world was flat and barren and strange to the curving blue-hazed edge of the horizon. Occasional taller hills would swell out of the low dunes; salt pans stretched pallid white; a trickling stream or a hollow full of water. These fell away and rode the earth over the horizon and disappeared, one after another.

The shapes were at first easily mistaken for clouds, low on the horizon; but they remained, and grew, and grew, until the brick-red stone was struck by the sunset and glowed fiercely against the sky. They reared up from the flat plateau, enormous and uncanny domes clustering together in the absence of all other company, their surfaces pitted and streaked in grey, a faint clinging fuzz of greenish moss upon a few of their heads. Temeraire slowed, as they approached; Laurence did not know what to think of the peculiar construct, so alone.

It was not possible even from the air to encompass the whole: at different angles it had a wholly different appearance, even as that first intensely glowing color faded, and a twilight cast of violet dampened the domes' presence, blurring them into the sky. Though the stone would have offered a certain refuge from the bunyips, they did not land upon the rocks. They had from habit and the fatigue of extreme toil begun, Laurence thought, to grow used to the alien and rust-red landscape; but in their strangeness, the monoliths made all else around them once more strange, a reminder.

They encamped instead upon a few dunes, not far removed; a little trickle of water came past the camp, not very much to drink from, and with no sign of bunyip management, which they now had a little cause to regret. They dug out a hollow in the curve of the creek, and it gradually filled; meanwhile Laurence stood with Temeraire watching the strange monumental stones blur and fade away into darkness, as all the stars of the Southern Hemisphere came wheeling out above.

They were all quiet that night, in the unseen shadow of the monoliths. In the morning Temeraire said, "Laurence - Laurence, there is another one, over there; look," and Laurence rising saw one last monolith standing at a distance: alone, wholly alone, even without a separated hillock for company: pink and palest orange cream in the early sunrise, and then Temeraire said slowly, " - is that a dragon?"

Iskierka roused up looking, and Caesar said, "Well, what else would it be?" - to be glimpsed at this distance, standing beside the monolith and casting a shadow against the smooth red wall, of wings outspread. Huge wings, even half-furled: and there were tiny dark figures of men to be glimpsed, moving around the dragon; there were bundles upon the ground, bales tied up with string, boxes, which they were taking off the beast: and still others, smaller bags, were going up to be stowed in replacement upon the dragon's back.

Iskierka said, "Whyever are we only sitting here? Let's go and have a look, and see if it has seen - "

"Oh!" Temeraire cried, "the egg, the egg!" and indeed, a round swaddled bundle was being handed carefully up to the men aboard the dragon, easing into a sling across its breast.

Laurence had barely a moment to seize upon the chain of Temeraire's breastplate, and get himself latched on, as Temeraire lunged aloft in a burst of speed, Iskierka with him. They had not been seen, Laurence thought, by the company on the ground near the other monument: there was no visible hurry, no move to self-defense. Instead the strange dragon rose and leisurely unfurled its wings the rest of the way - going on and on and on, twice the length of its body and more - and with a tremendous spring of its hindquarters was aloft; one wing-stroke, two, three, and then it spread those wings and was swinging away to the north, gliding on the air.

"Come back!" Temeraire called, flying quicker. "Stop!" and he paused, hovering mid-air, and began to draw in his breath, his chest expanding with the divine wind, that shattering roar which should reach even across that distance.

"Temeraire," Laurence said sharply, "Temeraire! You ought not, your throat is not - "

"Hurry, hurry," Iskierka said, circling impatiently; she could not get into its path. "She is getting further away, and with the egg!"

Temeraire flung back his shoulders and pulled in one more heaved breath, and then he opened his jaws, and roared - and broke, the thunder barely begun and the resonance dying in his chest, so Laurence felt the tremors come rippling through the flesh. Temeraire's voice cracked like strings upon some instrument breaking, and he clenched upon himself coughing - coughing - wracked and gasping, and he sank abruptly to the sand, his head bowed forward over his breast.

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