Tongues of Serpents

Chapter 13

Part III

Chapter 13

THEY GAVE CHASE ANYWAY: Kulingile and Caesar left to trail behind, the men packed into the belly-netting with haste; Temeraire and Iskierka stretched themselves lean and straight and flew and flew, at the limits of their speed. They made progress; little by little the dragon grew larger in Laurence's glass as he watched, the immense wings protruding past the edges of the lens. Onward through the panting heat of the sun, always keeping the dragon in their sight; then the dusk a welcome relief, but there still might be no respite: their quarry did not stop to rest, so neither could they.

The night came on, and the moon spilling silver: Laurence had to struggle to keep his eyes on the dragon now, a moving inkblot crossing the stars, and still it did not pause. The wings scarcely moved; one beat or two now and again to catch a draft of wind, and otherwise nothing, like one of the great sea-birds, an osprey or an albatross, hanging peacefully aloft and more at rest in the sky than on the ground.

It was drawing away. Temeraire's breath labored more gratingly than before, and Iskierka's speed was dying. They had flown already a long day, and without halt for anything but a little game snatched on the wing, a few gulped swallows of water at a creek. "There's another," Granby said at last, his voice faint but clear across the gulf of the empty air, and Temeraire and Iskierka landed by the gleam of water to drink, their legs trembling and wings drooped nearly to the ground.

Granby leapt down. "Mr. Forthing," Laurence said quietly, "let us disembark, and see about a camp; by those rocks, if you please, clear away from the water."

"Yes, sir," was all Forthing said; failure lay heavy upon them all.

Temeraire and Iskierka did not speak a word; they drank heavily and thirstily, and fell upon the sand asleep as soon as they had been unburdened. Forthing marshaled the aviators and they formed a phalanx of pistols and knives bristling while in that shelter the convicts hastily filled canteens and jugs, and they all drew back to the security of the rocks to eat their dry biscuit and a little hot tea.

"Do you know, the worst of it is, I don't think they were even trying; I don't know that they ever saw us," Granby said tiredly, stretching his legs one after the other out and then in again, working out the stiffness of nearly twenty hours aloft. Laurence did not yet trust himself to sit at all; he thought once he had gone down he would not come up again very easily.

"No," Laurence said. "The crew all kept below and out of the sun, and so far as I saw them they were sleeping. The dragon did not look around once." He shook his head. "She might have been sleeping on the wing, herself; I have known Temeraire to do it, on a long flight."

"Half-sleeping, anyway," Granby agreed. "Did you see those wings? I suppose she could go around the world on them twice if she wanted to. I have never seen the like. That is no feral beast; that's breeding, if you please, and I should like to know what they have bred her out of, when we haven't seen a single other dragon anywhere in this country."

"Their own lack of concern argues there may be none to be seen," Tharkay said quietly. "They did not see us because they did not look; they did not imagine any pursuit."

"You think they have her from somewhere else?" Granby said. "I suppose there might be something like her in Java, with all those islands to fly amongst; but how we have missed ever seeing one of them, I would like to know. I suppose I wouldn't value an egg of hers much over half-a-million pounds."

"I should value more," Laurence said, looking over at Temeraire, so exhausted his head had lolled to one side, and he had not stayed awake even to have his muzzle cleaned of the red dust of their travel, "some way to catch her up."

The quarry already lost, they waited the next day until Caesar caught them up, himself exhausted and deeply disgruntled: "Well," he said, "and you haven't got the egg back, with all this mad peltering, and meanwhile I have had to slog on all day with this lump hanging on to me; and he has eaten everything."

Kulingile ignored him in favor of swallowing yet another kangaroo nearly whole. Caesar's complaint was not without some justice: Kulingile had grown visibly in the short span of their absence, and would have made an increasingly heavy burden. Caesar had made by now some eight tons in weight, but Kulingile bid fair to make near enough a ton in weight himself by the end of the day.

"I will not have Caesar carry him again," Rankin said. "We are not going to stunt his development to carry a spoiled beast along."

"I have said I am sorry," Kulingile said, piping, "but I cannot help it I am so very hungry. I think I might fly to-day, though, and then I need not slow anyone down."

"I don't see why you should fly to-day, when you did not fly yesterday, or the day before," Iskierka said dismissively, "so it is no use saying anything like that; but I will carry you, since I am not a complainer."

Kulingile looked at Iskierka's bristling sides a little sadly, and it did prove something of an awkward puzzle to fit him aboard, as his own armament of spikes was by no means insubstantial, and were beginning to harden into solid horn, so that as he squirmed into position they clacked noisily against Iskierka's own. "That will have to do," Iskierka said, "now strap him down; and you had better not squirm."

Dorset climbed out of Temeraire's throat after a final inspection. "I can hardly overstate the damage. There are burst blood vessels throughout, and what blisters were half-healed are now raw. It was wholly inadvisable."

Laurence nodded but only briefly; there was no sense in dwelling on what was done. "What would you recommend?"

"Rest," Dorset said, "rest, and a soft diet of fat salt pork; but under the present conditions I must settle for absolutely no exertion of the throat. I will not answer for the consequences should he attempt to roar again until he is quite healed; and if it can be helped, he ought not speak at all."

Temeraire did not much like not being able to speak: it was very irritating to always be thinking of something, and then unable to tell anyone. And if he should turn his head round to say something, as he flew, Dorset would pick up his head and glare from behind his red-dust-coated round spectacles, quite like a gimlet - Temeraire did not know what a gimlet was but had the impression it was a disapproving, narrow-faced creature that was sour and unpleasant - and anything Temeraire might have been about to say died away.

His throat did not hurt so very much more when he spoke as to make him feel the necessity of the restriction, although he very much did wish the condition to improve - apart from the endless soup and gruel which was now his portion, he had been very distressed to find himself unable to roar. It was not so bad as being unable to fly, of course, so he could not really complain around Kulingile, who could do neither, but Temeraire did feel instinctively that roaring was of particular significance to one's existence as a dragon, even apart from the divine wind, which of course marked him as a Celestial.

He wondered a little dismally if it were perhaps some sort of retribution, although he did not have a very good idea whence this might have originated; the men spoke of a vengeful deity quite often but Laurence had thoroughly refuted the notion of God dealing out either reward or punishment in life, even if Temeraire did not see the point of passing judgment on people when they were dead and could no longer either enjoy or dislike the consequences.

Only, it did seem to Temeraire that it was somehow fair in a dreadful and unpleasant way that having lost Laurence his title and his fortune, he should now lose the divine wind, himself. It made him anxious, and he formed the habit, in the evenings, of asking Roland quietly to bring out his talon-sheaths, so he might inspect their condition, and watch her polish them over; and he would glance several times down at his breastplate during the day, as they flew.

There was one small saving grace to lighten the unpleasant restriction: there was nothing very much to talk about. The wide-winged dragon had flown quite away; they did not even find a camp, although occasionally there would be a few bones or a scrap of bloody fur left on the ground, or gouged lines in the sand where a dragon had stooped from above with claws outstretched, and once at one of the water-holes there were a few claw-marks where she had stopped to drink, and footprints showed where the men had come down, too. Tharkay looked at them and said, "Four days old; or five," and that was when they had flown only a week: she had already got so far ahead of them.

She was flying in a straight line nearly directly north, only a few degrees off to the west; Laurence had plotted the course on his maps and it appeared - they were not wholly certain of their present location in the great empty space of the map, which made it a little difficult to conclude - but it seemed as though the course might end in a convenient bay upon the farther coast of the continent, which had been lately surveyed. "It has been marked out, I believe," Laurence said, "for further investigation; the proximity to Java should make it of great value for shipping among the archipelagoes, and thence to China and to India."

So they knew their destination, very likely, and there was nothing to be done but to fly towards it, far-away and tedious as it was. Laurence did suggest a little tentatively that the egg might well have hatched, by now, or would do so any day; and that it was in the keeping of another dragon.

"But we cannot turn away now," Temeraire said. "After all this time we have seen the egg with our own eyes; we cannot let some strange dragon steal it unchallenged, as though it did not matter."

"That is enough talking," Dorset said sharply, so Temeraire could not go on to explain further: she was a strange dragon, after all; they did not know her, or whether she had managed eggs successfully.

And Temeraire did not quite understand this business of only staying in the air, endlessly; it did not seem very interesting or practical, although when he looked at the maps, he did think - privately, without spending his voice upon it - that if one could stay aloft so long, then it was not after all such a long way to the next land over. It looked to him only two hundred miles perhaps to Java, or to Indonesia. Even without particularly wide wings, one might make such a flight, if one really wished to, and after that everything else seemed to be closer; one might fly from Java to Siam without going out of sight of land, and then one was really very close to China, if one had wanted to pay a visit.

That afternoon - they flew now only during the evenings and the cool, dark nights, navigating mostly by the stars; occasionally Laurence would touch his shoulder and murmur some small correction, working with his compass by the light of a hooded lantern. They slept instead during the sunlit heat of the day, and that afternoon as they looked over the maps, Laurence said to him quietly, "I am sorry; I beg you to put the thought of such a flight out of your mind."

"But, Cape York," Temeraire protested in brief, referring to the northernmost spar of the continent: on the map, there was scarcely a gap between it and the southern coast of the large island marked NEW GUINEA; the distance could not have been more than a hundred miles.

"By what few reports we have, Cape York is surrounded by nearly impenetrable jungle," Laurence said, "and even having reached it, New Guinea would not offer much improvement in our position: it is nearly two hundred miles across open ocean to any sizable island, and that much again to reach Java, a journey which must be attended by the greatest danger. Any small error could so easily be magnified into disaster - the day clouding over, missing the passage of time, a stronger headwind - and all estimates, all planning, might be for nothing, and leave you without a glimpse of land. Only imagine the desperate quality of losing any sense of place, and knowing that in that very moment, you may be flying further from your only hope of landfall, and yet unable to turn away from the plotted course."

Temeraire sighed a little; he had not said anything at all, but Laurence had known anyway. Laurence put his hand on Temeraire's muzzle, and stroked him gently; Temeraire puffed out a little breath against him, and he did try and put it out of his mind, although he still did not think it could be quite so dangerous as Laurence suggested, if one waited for a clear day. He had flown two hundred miles in a day before; though over land.

They did not cover so much ground here, however: it was too hot to fly so far, and they were all carrying quite a lot of weight. Iskierka did complain about Kulingile, despite her fine, boastful remarks of before; and not without some justice. He was still eating tremendously and growing on and on, whatever one might say to him, or however one would prod him warningly away from the food which one was still eating oneself, even if a bit slowly because one's throat ached.

Temeraire was weighted down with all the men and their things, although at least they had put a few of the aviators off onto Caesar: Rankin had taken some of them for his crew, now that Caesar was getting big enough to manage it, and he had even after some consideration - and discussion with Caesar - taken a few of the more steady convicts for ground crew.

Temeraire had expected more complaining, but quite to the contrary, Caesar instead made himself unbearably smug about it, when Mr. Fellowes had rigged him out with more harness straps, and he made a point of learning the names of all his crew and saying such things as, "Mr. Derrow, my third lieutenant, has done good work today: very handy managing the distribution of weight across the hindquarters," whenever they landed, or, "It is a fine thing to have a proper ground crew, instead of only one or two unofficial attendants, I will say that much: a great advantage, if one would like perhaps to be scrubbed a little, or to have a harness-buckle adjusted just a touch."

Caesar did complain about Kulingile, endlessly: every bite of food which Kulingile took might have been snatched from his own mouth, and he would have it that they were robbing him, even though he had a perfectly fair share himself, and really, Temeraire felt, more than quite justified by his size and prospects. Caesar had begun to slow down growing, it seemed, Dorset thought: he was now three months out of the shell, which startled Temeraire to think; had they really been traveling so long?

"Longer than that," Laurence said, tiredly, dragging a sleeve over his forehead, "and a fortnight more to reach the coast, at this pace."

"Laurence," Granby said quietly, "we had better think about how we mean to get back, too. I don't like to ill-wish, but - Kulingile is nearer to being a real difficulty every day. I know he is the size of a rabbit, as dragons go, but without the air-sacs doing their share, he is getting to be as heavy as though he were carved out of gold. I think Iskierka could take Caesar on her back more easily than him. If it keeps up in this way, I don't see how we can manage him on the way back."

Demane overheard enough of this to look rather desperate, and Temeraire saw him saying to Kulingile, "You cannot eat so much: you cannot. Promise me you will only eat half-a-kangaroo today."

Kulingile said sadly, "I will try not to; only it is very difficult to stop after half of anything, as the other half is right there," which Temeraire had to agree as an argument possessed a great deal of justice.

At least Kulingile would eat almost anything, without pausing; if they took some more of the cassowaries, he would have them with the feathers on, so they did not need to spend the effort to butcher them. Temeraire tried a small wing just to have a taste - of something, anything, other than soup - and found it very awkward getting a proper bite: the feathers would cushion his teeth, and they tasted wrong in his mouth, as though he were trying to eat something like rope or sailcloth.

He gave up and set it down for Gong Su to put into his vat of soup after all, and shook his head. Kulingile shrugged and said, "I only swallow it anyway," and tipped his head back and sent down all the rest of the bird, squirming a little to work it down into his belly.

"I suppose it does make it easier to take it all for yourself," Caesar said, "before anyone else can get in a taste; but what use you are going to make of it, I would like to know."

Temeraire snorted, wordlessly disapproving, as Caesar had eaten two himself, and did not need any more; but it was true he did not see how Kulingile could enjoy his food at all, taking it so quickly.

Temeraire found that his thoughts drifted easily as he flew, with the stars unchangeable slowly turning above their heads, and through the afternoons; when he could not speak there was not even conversation to break the stillness. The days crept onward and blurred, one very much like another; and with a quality of strangeness. The country rolled away beneath them, and dust whispered against Temeraire's wings when he tucked his head beneath them to rest in the hot wind.

He found he did not really mind the soft haze of one day to the next: it was a relief of sorts from the weight of anxiety, and he certainly preferred to fly at night and to lie down afterwards in the middle of the day, when the heat of the sun might be a pleasure, as one did not have to work. Each morning a little before noon, when they found water, they landed and encamped. Temeraire would make sure that Laurence and all his crew were safely established upon the rocks, and that there was someone patrolling the sand, just in case the treacherous bunyips decided to make some other attempt, and then he would stretch himself comfortably and sleep for several hours in the steady, baking heat.

To-day he yawned after some time, raising his head, and squinted at the shadows: it was a little while past noon, and still very hot; he was glad not to be flying. He pushed up and went over to the hole for a little drink of water, and returning frowned at Kulingile, who looked very strange: his sides had swelled out again, and he was sleeping in an improbable posture, crouching low to the ground with his head and limbs dangling. Temeraire put his head down and nudged him, and Kulingile did not tip over or lie down properly, but bobbed away over the ground.

He raised his head and blinked reproachfully. "I am sleeping," he said.

"What are you doing?" Temeraire said, unable to resist asking. "Are you trying to fly?"

Dorset was roused from his own nap, and irritable and vague with drowsiness said, "It was not wholly unexpected, given the growth rate. Tether him," and would have gone back to sleep without further explanations.

"What do you mean, not unexpected?" Rankin said. "I believe we have had enough of this evasion, Mr. Dorset: what is his prognosis? I do not recall that I have heard of any dragon floating away without its own accord. If he is to become still more of a burden, I will hear of it now."

"The phenomenon is seen occasionally," Dorset said in his most biting tones - he did not like the heat, and most days came out unevenly red and speckled in the afternoons, if he did not stay always in the shade - "in Regal Copper hatchlings: it is an indicator he will make twenty-four tons, at the least, when he achieves his growth."

The response silenced Rankin entirely. Temeraire did not mind that, but everyone else was gone quiet, too, and he could not help but eye Kulingile dubiously: the dragonet was certainly growing very quickly, but that was not saying very much, when he had begun scarcely the size of one of Temeraire's talons, and now was perhaps a quarter the length of his tail.

"Dorset," Granby said after a moment, equally doubtful, "I don't suppose you are quite sure of it?"

"That he will make a heavy-weight, yes, now that the sacs have inflated permanently," Dorset said. "As for the particular weight, I will not swear to it; but the extreme disproportion of the air-sacs to the rest of the frame exceeds any other recorded to my knowledge, and any hatchling which has exhibited a negative total weight at any point in their development has achieved that size or more."

No one said anything much afterwards; except Roland gave a sort of squeaking noise and pounded Demane on the shoulder - he looked wary and dazed at once, and said, "He is not going to die, then?"

Temeraire was a little torn over the whole matter: so he would be losing Demane, after all, but on the other hand, there was the very great, very real satisfaction of being proven right, or rather seeing Laurence proven right; but Temeraire might have the credit of trusting Laurence, as anyone else ought to have, and also of having been charitable, with so pleasant a result for once. To further add to the glory of the coup, Rankin was not at all pleased, and now Caesar might not make any more noise about it, either, as Kulingile would outgrow him.

"I will believe it when I see it," Caesar said, loftily, and then would have tried to sneak another of the cassowaries which Gong Su was cooking for Temeraire to eat, later, if Temeraire had not warned him off with a snap near his hindquarters.

Kulingile took the news more equably. "I did not mean to die, anyway," he piped - the inflation did not seem to have altered his voice - "but I am glad, if it means I may eat more, and no one will poke at me for it." He put out his wings and flapped a little, which sent him going up alarmingly quick; Temeraire had to reach out and catch him by the tail-tip, and even then he stayed in mid-air, floating. "Look, Demane, look at me," Kulingile said, and flapping only one wing managed to spin himself about in a circle.

"It is certainly better than being a great solid lump upon the ground," Iskierka said, "and I do not mind if I do not have to carry you anymore, but that is a ridiculous thing for a dragon to do; you ought to come down or fly properly," but Kulingile's spirits were not depressed by this criticism, and Demane did indeed have to tether him with a rope, which Temeraire allowed to be secured to his harness, as the only rocks about were flat and inconvenient for the purpose.

The only other person displeased by the situation was Sipho, but as he had retreated into the solace of his studies, Temeraire selfishly did not mind that: it was a great satisfaction to him at last to have someone who might read the Analects to him aloud, correctly; if Sipho happened to find a character which he did not yet know, he would scratch it out large and Temeraire could give it to him, which served very well. It went a good deal quicker, and also Temeraire did not need to feel quite so guilty as if he had forced Roland or Laurence to write out a stretch of it for him large enough to see.

"You are getting hunchbacked," Demane said, disapprovingly, and poked Sipho between his shoulders; Sipho flailed an arm resentfully at his brother and spat, "At least I am not only spending all my time stuffing a fat dragon's belly, who can't bother to hunt for himself, even if he can fly, now."

It was not quite fair to call what Kulingile did at present flying: he had grown so used to dragging about on the ground that Dorset said he had failed to properly develop his instincts, so that now he had it all to learn from the beginning. Quite to the contrary of any natural assumption, it seemed that being so light did not help him at all. He might get off the ground very easily, but he would then float off in quite the opposite direction to the one he desired, and if he flapped too vigorously he would go caroming off anything around, and wrecked several trees in the process. Certainly he was not yet ready to hunt, although no-one could possibly have doubted his enthusiasm for that eventual day; he could not dive effectively at all.

Demane fetched his brother a clout across the ear. "You ought to be helping me, instead of sitting here wearing out your eyes," he said severely. "You are being very stupid: now we have a dragon, of our own, don't you understand? When he is grown a little bigger, he will be able to hunt, too, and fight; and then they cannot do anything to us we don't like."

"Who?" Sipho said; Temeraire wondered if perhaps Demane meant the bunyips.

"Anyone!" Demane said impatiently.

"Why would anyone do anything to us we don't like, unless we are going to war, and fighting them," Sipho said, "and if that is what you mean, then having a great huge big dragon will only mean you have to fight more, and the enemy will try and hurt you anyway, so that doesn't seem very safe to me at all."

Demane said, "I don't mean the enemy. The law has made the captain a prisoner, and taken all his property; what if they would try to take us, too? That is what I mean."

"Then we would run away," Sipho said, "except now we have a dragon following us around it would not be hard to catch us. And anyway," he added, spiteful and contradictory, "I expect they will not let you keep him, now he is going to live and be very big; they will want to give him to somebody else. And I don't care if they do."

Demane clouted him again, and stalked away, but later that afternoon he said to Roland quietly, "You don't suppose they would; take him away from me?"

"In half-a-second," Roland said absently, without looking up from the pistol which she had taken apart to clean, "if they had any chance of it; I think I heard that scrub Widdlow going on to Flowers about trying something of the sort." Demane did not say anything, and she looked up. "Don't be an ass," she added, "it don't work that way; ask Temeraire if he would have swapped Laurence, himself."

"Certainly not," Temeraire said, "although," he could not resist adding very quietly, so Dorset should not hear him, "I suppose Kulingile might be more fickle, but if he were, you might find anyway you prefer to remain among my crew; and you would certainly be welcome."

"That is quite enough murmuring; and inappropriate besides," Dorset said, without looking up, although Temeraire's throat felt much better by now, except when it was particularly dry, or they had not found very much water in a day or so. "I would hope that a grown dragon might have a little more restraint than to so resent a hatchling, I might add; I must consider it particularly shameful."

"What have you been saying to my captain?" Kulingile said suspiciously, picking up his head from his nap, which movement brought him back up off the ground, and trying to swim himself over to Demane managed to accidentally knock him and Roland both over into the sand.

"Nothing," Temeraire said, because he could not talk any more: Dorset had said so; and anyway he had only been trying to console Demane in case Kulingile should have proven false. If Kulingile remained steadfast, certainly no one would ever interfere, although Temeraire did think it was not quite so bad as Dorset painted it, when one considered that Demane had been his, first.

Laurence found that the resentment towards Demane, which had already been pronounced, easily transmuted itself in form: where the aviators had formerly criticized his daring to preserve a useless beast and thereby slow and threaten the recovery of the final egg, they now without any difficulty objected to his possession of that same beast as undeserved and unsuitable. There was a particularly strong understanding amongst aviators which held in contempt any sort of intrusion into the relationship between captain and beast, but as Laurence himself had known, this understanding might become flexible when the captain was not considered properly an aviator himself.

He remembered with distaste the coarse effort which had been made to separate him from Temeraire early in their relationship and prefer a proven lieutenant into his place, wholly disregarding all that the aviators had known of Temeraire's likely feelings on the subject, and even resorting to outright falsehood. Laurence himself had been too uninformed to object, at the time; he was now not so, but had no standing to speak even when he heard men muttering enviously and, past convincing themselves that it might be permissible to interfere, well on the way to embracing the idea as a duty.

Demane's temper was not one which would lightly brook such an insult, either, and he had also the means by which to resent it: though Laurence thought he was not yet fifteen, and a little short perhaps from the inadequacy of his childhood diet, he was filling out rapidly; and he had taken to sword and pistol and rifle with bloodthirsty appetite.

"I will not tell you to swallow it," Laurence said, "but I do tell you that any gesture, any act, which should demonstrate an uncontrolled temper, or a disdain for the rules of the Corps, can only create a worse prejudice against you, and make all the more unlikely that an official recognition will come; it will not come quickly, that much is certain."

"They none of them wanted him before," Demane said, glittering-eyed and angry. "They would have knocked his brains out, and left him to rot, or taken his food - "

"That is quite enough, Demane; they did their duty as they saw it," Laurence said; while perfectly accurate, Demane's resentment needed none of the encouragement of approval. "They misjudged, and you did not; that satisfaction ought to hold you against the natural murmurs of regret which any man might feel on seeing a boy advanced so greatly ahead of his years, and with so few opportunities as remain to them."

"They would not mind so if it were Widener," Demane muttered, meaning Rankin's hapless young signal-ensign, but subsided when Laurence regarded him sternly.

"Widener is a lump, so of course they would," Roland added to Demane scornfully, after he had slumped back sitting next to her in the shade. "Stop being so ungodly prickly. Of course they are all jealous now; they will get over it when you have been in a proper action."

"It is easy for you to say," he flared. "No one would ever say you are not an aviator, and talk of sending you back to Africa."

"And I suppose you have had to knock a lieutenant over for putting his hand in your shirt, then," Roland said, which brought Laurence's head up sharply, appalled. "No, I don't mean to say who," she added to Demane's immediate demand, before Laurence had even made an attempt, "he was drunk, and sorry after: really sorry, I mean, not just being a weasel. A weasel would have been afraid to try, I expect, now Mother is a lord admiral. Anyway," she went on, too candidly, "I don't know if I should have minded, if he had not been so drunk."

Much to Laurence's dismay, however, Demane showed as alarming and visible a predisposition to resent this, as the other; the whole business of which gave Laurence fresh cause for concern: he had been neglectful of his duty by Roland. She might not officially be under his command any longer, but certainly she was still his responsibility, and he had left her without sufficient evidence of protection. He had allowed her to run wild with the other ensigns and runners, though they were plainly reaching an age to make that inadvisable; it suggested a lack of care which could only encourage improper advances.

As there was not a single other female in their company, however, he would be hard-pressed to manage a chaperone at present; and he rather dismally felt Roland would not take with much kindness to supervision, in any case.

"What for?" Granby said, with that perfect disregard for reputation which Laurence could no longer be surprised by, and yet sigh for. "If she does decide to fancy Demane, or anybody else, it would be just as well if she got it out of the way early. Lord knows we would like to keep Excidium in harness at least two more generations, if he will have it; by now he knows our formations better than any ten officers put together. And you can see with Harcourt, there is no telling what may happen; it might take half-a-dozen tries to get a girl.

"No, but I will tell you," Granby went on, "I am a little worried about this business with Demane: I'll put a word in where I can, when I have got back to England, and I don't expect Admiral Roland will have any truck with this business of saying he isn't in the Corps. But that still leaves you with a good year and a half to manage, and I think Rankin means to encourage it, the rotter."

"So far as that goes, if need be we will remove to the valley, or find another," Laurence said, "and have done."

With Rankin's encouragement or no, Blincoln - evidently feeling that, as he had originally been offered the egg, he had some right now to try again - did make an attempt; he was a former rifleman, and while they were encamped took one of the guns and went out, in a surreptitious manner, to return with a fresh-killed cassowary, which he brought back and offered to Kulingile while nearly all the rest of the camp were sleeping. Laurence roused only in time to see Kulingile fall upon the carcass at once with evident pleasure, while Demane rolled up to his feet, his hands clenched by his sides, rigidly angry.

Blincoln did not look over, but in a low voice suggested, as he put out a hand to stroke Kulingile's side, that perhaps the dragonet would like another captain, with a proper rank and standing in the Corps, who might provide for him not only raw meat but the chance at real service.

"No," Kulingile said, eating unconcernedly, "I have Demane."

Blincoln paused and said, "Surely this is a very nice cassowary; I am glad you are enjoying it," beginning on another tack; but Kulingile said, "Yes, although the one which Temeraire gave me yesterday was a bit more fat; and the one Lieutenant Drewmore shot the day before had a better flavor," and indeed he had been used to be fed by so many, lacking the ability to hunt for himself, that it was not surprising he did not attach much significance to the gift.

The first attempt having failed, Blincoln would have withdrawn, but Demane confronted him: a head shorter than the lieutenant and some fifty pounds at least lighter, a slim dark figure trembling with rage, and he said, "You are a coward, and if you try and steal Kulingile again - "

He stumbled to a halt, not so much reluctant to threaten as unsure precisely to what degree, and Blincoln said, "I hope," with an air of stuffy superciliousness, "Mr. Demane, that you have better sense than to indulge in histrionics and unreasonable expectations: no heavy-weight can be managed by a young boy. Your passion is understandable, however, and I am sure if you should demonstrate perhaps some more sense - some cooperation - that you will find it a good foundation for future expectations, and a more steady and rational advancement in the Corps - "

Demane spat, comprehensively. "That for steady advancement, as though I would trust any of you cheats," he said, "and if you think I will ever help you take Kulingile from me, you are a great fool; as if he would have a lying sneak like you anyway, after you wanted to let his brains be knocked out with a sledge. As for being a boy, at least I am not a useless old scrub sent away because he did not deserve his old post - "

Blincoln slapped him across the face, which Laurence, on the point of intervening, could not call entirely unmerited, even if there were no shortage of blame to be credited to Blincoln's account in the situation; but the noise was crisp and loud in the dry air, and Kulingile's head snapped up from his repast to see Demane stumbling back under the blow.

Kulingile did not precisely spring: the motion was more peculiar, as he launched himself and landed against Blincoln still floating, but then he exhaled in a sharp, hissing way, and the swelled air-sacs began to deflate, so his real bodily weight at once began to tell, and Blincoln stumbled and went down beneath him. "You have hurt him!" Kulingile said, shrill and furious. "You have hurt him; Demane!" and opened wide his jaws to push out still more air, and Blincoln coughed and struggled to push himself free, gradually being crushed.

"Demane!" Laurence said sharply, turning to rouse Temeraire, who had just cracked open a sleepy eye; but Demane was already there at Kulingile's head, seizing the tethering-rope and tugging.

"No, come away, you mustn't kill him," Demane said urgently, "or there will be trouble: look, I am all right, you can't even see a mark."

"That is only because you are dark," Kulingile said, "and not squashy and red like him," but with some reluctance he allowed the sacs to inflate once more, and himself to be pulled away, leaving Blincoln gasping and wretched upon the ground, curling around what proved on inspection to be several broken ribs. Dorset bound these up without great gentleness. There were no further attempts; at least, none where Demane might see and object to them, and as he made a determined sentinel, this ruled out nearly any such slinking efforts.

The end of the endless journey came abruptly and unexpected: though Laurence had marked off each day their progress, and written estimates of distance and position in his log. This was for some time their only account, as neither Granby nor Rankin nor any aviator had any notion of keeping records which Laurence could even call barely adequate to serve as a proper second to his own, and Dorset kept voluminous and wholly useless notes on individual leaves, or berries, or the paw of one animal, and could not tell which way was west if the sun were going down at the time.

Laurence put O'Dea to the work experimentally, as the man at least could write a decent hand now that the rum had been sweated out of him; which did produce somewhat more successful accounts, if Laurence would have preferred to do without such descriptions as the Blighted Crimson of the earth here, which surely has drunk the Blood of the Heathen and unwary Traveler, and yearns to taste still more, and the wholly unnecessary dramatization of -

... the loathesome Creature gazed upon us long and meditatively, as if considering which to single out as its lawful Prey, tho the Carcase of the Offering lay before it limp and bloodstain'd from the Slaughter, ere it chuse the easier Course and withdrew beneath the Sands to devour the Flesh of the Kanga-roo and only dream instead of the Satisfaction to be found in a Repast accompanied by the piteous Cries of a more sensible Victim.

They had come now more than five hundred miles from the strange monolith through the endless desert landscape, shifting only a little to be yet more parched; they were drawing nearer the equator, and the heat scarcely to be believed: strange clouds racing overhead, and the sunsets vast and spectacular. They saw once in the distance two more plumes of fire, and endured half-a-dozen thunderstorms which sent water sheeting in violent cascades over the hard-baked ground, so the dragons had to leap aloft out of the torrents.

They could not be sure of their position: one single survey could not necessarily be relied upon; there were no landmarks known, or any way to be sure of their approach. Their progress upon the map showed them steadily nearing the coast, however, and one morning they came upon a broad band of verdant green, stretching away in either direction along the banks of a riverbed, flowing vigorously.

They cut its course again, some two days later, and after this each day the countryside grew less dry: the red earth slowly vanishing from sight as the trees grew closer to one another, and water now more plentiful. They were flying through the night, the cool wind rushing in their faces familiar and pleasant against Laurence's eyes, half-closing, and then Temeraire was descending, suddenly, to land upon the top of a low hill.

Laurence roused: the air was salt, and below them the moonlight was running silver across the water, a thin shimmering road stretched out vanishing to the dark horizon, far away. The sound of the ocean came lapping clear and liquid up the slope towards them. There were some lights down below - an encampment perhaps, but there were many of them; and Laurence thought perhaps even one or two out on the water, from the bobbing motion - night fishermen in canoes, most likely.

"We had better camp over here, and have a look in the morning, before we go blundering in," Granby said, his voice kept low not to carry, and Laurence nodded; there was not much chance of hiding Temeraire or Iskierka, but they found a heap of rock which the dragons might curl themselves around, and so have at least a little camouflage against a quick glance in the dark. They put up the small tents around them.

"It is something to think we have crossed the whole continent," Granby said thoughtfully, while they drank their tea, "but Lord! What a waste of time it will have been, if the egg has already hatched."

"If it has not hatched," Rankin said, "I wonder what you propose to do to find it and extract it; you seem to imagine that only because we have found some native village, we have found the end of our search." He stalked away to Caesar's side.

"Whether we have found the egg or not," Laurence said, "I think we have found the end of our road: it must be hatched, or very soon, and when we have reached so clear a terminus I hope they will not demand further pursuit, so vainly." He looked where Temeraire lay sleeping, silent but for the rasp of his breathing.

He slept by Temeraire's side; in the morning roused and said tiredly, "Yes?" before he realized he was being looked over by a native man: tall, with a curly beard gone a little to grey; he was otherwise built like a much younger man than his face would have had him, sinewy and muscled, with a spear held casually in hand; he wore a braided belt, from which was slung a loincloth, and nothing else. Two younger men, rather more wary, hung back a little way behind him.

"Laurence, perhaps he has seen the egg, or the other dragon?" Temeraire said, peering interestedly down, which despite the proximity of his teeth did not seem to disconcert their visitor. "Have you?" he asked, and began to repeat his question over in French and in Chinese.

"We will have to try and manage it with pantomime, and whatever O'Dea and Shipley can work out of their language, if anything," Laurence said, pulling himself up to Temeraire's back to see where the men had got to. "Mr. O'Dea," he called, and that gentleman turned and came down from the ridge, where he had been standing with several other of the convicts, looking down at the sea.

"Sir," O'Dea said as he scrambled down, "we should like to know if we have got to China properly at last."

"Certainly not; we have only reached the coast," Laurence said. "I had not thought to find you turned credulous, O'Dea; you can read a map."

"Well, Captain," O'Dea said, "I can; but I have seen Chinamen, too, and there are four of them down the hill there."

"What?" Laurence said, as the native man answered Temeraire, in fragmentary but recognizable Chinese.

"Galandoo says there are two dragons here," Temeraire said, turning his head around.

Laurence caught hold of the harness and scrambled down from Temeraire's back, and went to the top of the hill. Below in the harbor, a small, narrow-hulled junk was floating at anchor with lanterns at her stern and bow, still lit in the early-morning light. A small open pavilion of wood and stone stood some distance up the shore, all the corners of the roof upturning towards the sky, with small dragons carved and crouching on every one.

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