Tongues of Serpents

Chapter 14

LAURENCE COULD NOT HAVE IMAGINED any more awkward and inconvenient period to their journey than to be kowtowed to in his plain and travel-stained gear by a dozen men better dressed, on the damp sand of the shore, when Temeraire had said, "I am Lung Tien Xiang, and this is the Emperor's adopted son, William Laurence," in Chinese, before Laurence could forestall any such introduction.

The adoption had made a useful and face-saving diplomatic fiction at the time of its promotion, on both British and Chinese sides; to use it for personal gain in the present circumstances felt to Laurence at once dishonest and wretchedly embarrassing. Now these men could not fail to perform any of the formal obeisance which their court etiquette demanded - however visibly, however plainly inappropriate when directed at Laurence - without showing disrespect to their own Emperor, a crime punishable by death.

The ritual had for audience Galandoo and several other of the native men, who looked on with interest. What structures of a permanent sort stood upon the shore all looked to be of the Chinese style, amongst which however the peripatetic natives seemed to be entirely comfortable: there were several younger men, hunters, bringing in game to cooking-pits; and women could be seen working in the enormous courtyard of the pavilion, and also peering down with interest at the ceremony.

If the Chinese gentlemen found the act objectionable, they concealed their feelings, and having risen from the sand invited them into the pavilion, where Laurence halted on the threshold, dismayed: a Yellow Reaper, perhaps a week old, was sleeping comfortably on the stone beside a small fountain, and there were several native women sitting beside it and working with some rocks.

"Oh, here you are," the dragonet said, lifting its head, and turning said something to one of the women in what sounded like their tongue. "I am Tharunka," the dragonet added, and a little critically, "you have been quite a long time coming after me."

"So long as you are hatched, I do not see you have anything to complain of," Temeraire said, having put his head inside the pavilion. "Who are these people, and what did they mean by taking you, I would like to know?"

"These are the Larrakia," the dragonet said, "who had me from the Pitjantjatjara, who had me from the Wiradjuri; and pray do not be angry, for they needed me quite badly. You see, we are sending goods so far that all the directions are in different languages for all the different tribes, and of course all of you in Sydney, and there is no one who can speak to all of them; but now I can, as I have heard them all in the shell," she finished, with some complacency, "and I am learning Chinese, too, as much as I can; and they have given me a great many jewels."

"Where?" Iskierka instantly demanded, and Tharunka nosed over a large basket, filled near to the brim with glowing, burnished opals, and the women working around her were polishing still more.

"I do not see much use in just a basket of jewels," Temeraire said later, in private, drinking a bowl of light fragrant tea prescribed for its cooling properties. "If one had them strung, on gold wire perhaps, there might be something to admire; one cannot wear a basket. At least, not without looking silly."

"Well, I want some," Iskierka said. "I like the way they shine, the dark ones. Granby, I am sorry we did not bring more gold with us; do you think there are any prizes we might take, hereabouts?"

Granby very emphatically did not.

The chief of the outpost was Jia Zhen, a gentleman of perhaps thirty years of age, young for so isolated a position of responsibility, and full of energy; he had presented to them with earnest satisfaction all the details of the pavilion, established for the comfort of dragon visitors, and beside it across the courtyard stood a large and comfortable house in the Chinese style, offering an excellent prospect upon the harbor.

Laurence disliked extremely feeling inadequate to his social occasions, and all the more so that the Chinese might have expected him, by the grace of his rank, to be more versed than he was; but the courtesies had baffled him in his short stay at the Imperial court, and he had not improved in the intervening time. He did not know how to tactfully inquire after their purpose in being here, nor how far that purpose went: did they think to establish a colony of their own? It did not seem very probable - the Chinese did not have anything like a merchant marine; the little junk in the harbor looked to him a wallowing death-trap, and he was astonished they should have survived the journey: a matter of sheerest luck.

"I suppose you could not have been very comfortable: it must be two thousand miles of ocean and more," Laurence said to Jia, doubtfully.

"The journey was tiresome, of course," Jia agreed, "two weeks nearly without land! But one must endure," which became comprehensible to them that afternoon, watching as the great-winged dragon came in landing before the pavilion, and yawned hugely before dipping her head to the courtyard's fountain to drink.

"They cannot colonize very well by dragon, at least," Laurence said, after a dismayed silence: two weeks to China! He did not suppose one could make it in under two months by sea, even if the monsoon were cooperating.

"No," Granby said judiciously, peering down at the beast, "she's prodigious, but it is all in the wings now I see her closer; I don't think she could carry more than a ton and go anywhere."

"Which I am afraid begs the question," Tharkay said, "where several tons a week of smuggled goods are coming from into Sydney, unless they have an army of these beasts," but this theory Temeraire was able to discount, though scarcely with less disquieting news: the dragon, Lung Shen Li, was one of barely four beasts extant, of a wholly new breed.

"The crown prince gave orders they should be bred," Temeraire explained, "to travel long distances: she says it took them almost three years to manage, and she is still the only one who can conveniently fly so far: her year-mates cannot stay in the air longer than two or three days at a time."

"In three years?" Granby said, watching covetously: the dragon was stretching herself out in the sun, the massive wings glowing amber with a fine branching tracework of darker veins and tendons. "It can't have been done; it is twenty, at the least, to work out a halfway sort of new breed, if you don't mind it being half-blind when you are done."

"Oh; it is not that they did not know how," Temeraire said. "She says that her kind were bred by the Ming, before, and there is a record of the matings."

"Then why the devil shouldn't they have done it before?" Granby said.

"Because," Laurence said slowly, realizing, "they did not wish to; or more to the point, the conservative faction would not allow it.??- This is the consequence of Prince Yongxing's death."

They were silent, considering the implications for Britain's empire - China choosing to reach beyond, and with the means to do so. "Do you suppose we will have to quarrel with them, over the place?" Granby said dubiously. "I don't know how much of the country we have claimed; or where we are, for that matter."

Laurence laid out the maps on the floor of their chamber, but they were uncertain enough of their position to make the determination more than a little troublesome. "I think we are somewhere near One Hundred Thirty East," he said finally, "which would put us outside the border: Cook's claim begins at One Thirty-five. The Dutch might have something, of course; although I cannot recall."

"Well, the politics of it all are past me," Granby said, "but someone in Whitehall will want to know this; and I dare say they would like to know it quicker than eleven months from now, too."

There was more they would like to know, also: Tharkay slipped out, that evening, and returning could report that the dockyards were not so simple as they appeared: there were pulley wheels upon the jetty, and along the shore paving-stones had been laid down in clean lines marking out a road, very broad, in the Chinese style, to accommodate dragons. "With two foundations marked along it," he said, "I imagine for warehouses; or barracks if you care to be pessimistic."

Laurence could not but be grateful for their presence, whatever the larger political questions: there was a physician of some skill among them for the benefit of Lung Shen Li, out of caution for any possible complication which might threaten the health of a new breed, and he had with great courtesy discussed Temeraire's condition with Dorset, and suggested a course of treatment which their supply had further made possible; and besides this, Jia had with great generosity flung wide their stores, and Gong Su had applied himself with great energy: Temeraire had eaten better in one week than in the past two months, and already seemed to Laurence much improved.

There was food enough to meet even Kulingile's appetite, which they saw properly satisfied for the first time at last when he had eaten a heap of fresh-caught fish nearly the full size of his body; and in a smaller and more personal vein, there was something near paradise in finding after so long and grinding a journey, so civilized and gracious a welcome, familiar even if foreign.

But this same gratitude could not but make Laurence all the more sensible of the very real danger of conflict which this outpost represented. It was not merely the presence of the Chinese, or their cooperation with the native Larrakia: two days after their arrival, several Macassan praus appeared in the harbor, come to harvest trepang. Shortly their small flotilla of canoes were plying the coast, Malay divers plunging from their sides over and over, and in the evening bringing in their haul to be counted up and prepared: enormous vats of boiling sea-water stood on bonfires, and after boiling the trepang were hauled out and laid upon frames in huge dark ranks for drying in the intense heat of the sun.

Apart from this freshly gathered haul, the divers brought up also from time to time pearls; to these the native tribesmen had the supply of opals and heaps of dried spices, to exchange for Chinese goods. The market which was forming among them might be small only for being so new, and for the limitations of the harbor, but it was taking shape with remarkable speed.

Jia had set aside all the southern wing of the building for their use and comfort; it was not adequate to the full size of their party, but the lower officers and the convicts put up light tents upon the ground behind the building, as yet undeveloped, and so filled out their shelter. The building was in a light, unfamiliar style well suited to the humid and tropical climate, allowing the winds to bring coolness through the thin walls.

The men were certainly in no great hurry to leave: four had fallen sick, and Laurence felt himself strangely enervated, the natural urgency of so extraordinary a discovery deadened by fatigue and by the peculiar and isolated circumstances: their return journey would devour another two months almost certainly, and then whatever intelligence they might send would require six more at the least to reach any authority who might act. A full day's idleness seemed without meaning, when matched against such stretches of dead time, and almost difficult to avoid when so abruptly they had been relieved of the necessity or even the opportunity to fend for their own care; one after another unspooled into a week, and when they had only begun to settle it, that they must shortly depart, Jia interrupted their plans by visiting to invite them formally to a banquet, to be held at the night of the new moon, a week hence.

The invitation could not be refused, after so much generosity on the part of their hosts, and so much slothfulness on their own: to suddenly find it necessary to leave at once could only be, it seemed to Laurence, the height of rudeness. "I scarcely see how it can be more suitable to attend some barbaric feast," Rankin said, "given by encroaching agents of a foreign power likely soon to be at odds with our Government, and undermining our trade; but certainly we will wait if you insist upon it," he finished, with cool sarcasm, "and a pretty figure I am sure you will cut on the occasion."

"We are pretty ragged," Granby said, "but I suppose that is better than behaving like a rudesby; I don't see you saying no when they are offering you dinner, and bringing a tunny for your beast."

"At the least," Laurence said to Temeraire afterwards, privately, "the intimacy of such an occasion may prove an opportunity to broach the subject of their position here - the awkwardness such a situation must produce between our nations - "

"I do not at all see why," Temeraire said. "We have come so dreadfully far, Laurence; whatever can it matter to anyone in Sydney that the Chinese are here? And it must be very pleasant for us," he added, "to at least have the opportunity of visiting, if we like to make the journey; and Mr. Jia has already very kindly informed me that if I should like to send letters, he feels it quite his office to send them express. He sees no reason that Lung Shen Li should not visit us even in Sydney to deliver them, when that should be convenient. I have shown her our valley, on the map; she does not think it would be more than a week out of her way, flying from Uluru, so she can manage it now and again."

"Uluru?" Laurence asked.

"The great rock," Temeraire said, "where we saw her: that is where they deliver goods to the Pitjantjatjara, who have been sending them onwards to the other tribes; it is easy to make out from aloft. I suppose she might also bring some goods to Sydney herself," he added, quite the opposite sort of encouragement which the British Government should have liked.

Laurence was determined to make some attempt, however: this outpost was new enough, and the market yet so small, that it might not be an entrenched enterprise; some agreement might be found, some compromise, if he could understand better the purpose of the settlement, and it occurred to him in a dawning hope, that if Jia would forward letters, he might send one also to Arthur Hammond, the envoy established in Peking, who had negotiated the treaty which had left Temeraire in British hands and secured them certain advantages in the single open port of Canton.

"If we could not rely on the letter's remaining secure and unread," Laurence said, "at least it would not take the better part of a year to arrive; and I suppose I would trust Hammond's sense of the situation better than ours."

"Better than Whitehall's, also," Granby said, and looked at Tharkay, "unless you know more of that than we do?"

Tharkay shrugged noncommittally.

Laurence struggled to form some plan of attack, some approach not hideously clumsy in execution, and to further complicate the matter, he would have to rely on Temeraire to translate as his own Chinese was a limited mess and half-forgotten. The occasion could only be uncomfortable; it must seem in some sense almost a threat, or at least interference. Laurence thought it nearly certain he should give offense, and to gentlemen who could not resent it, very nearly the worst solecism he could imagine for his own part; but he had in some sense an obligation to both parties, which demanded the effort of reconciliation: however inadequate he might be to the task, he and Temeraire at least were present, and there was no better interlocutor to be had.

Certainly the Government would likely wish to challenge the encroachment on Britain's trade, if not the mere existence of what might be termed a colony, although the Chinese seemed less particularly interested in peopling the territory than in forming relations with the native tribesmen, and profiting by the extension of their trade. China's strength was in her aerial forces, but one light-weight dragon, or even four, if all the other of Lung Shen Li's breed were brought hence, could not withstand the full force of a British naval expedition, nor modern weaponry, if brought to bear against them.

But all concerns Laurence might have had and all his planning were by the next morning overturned: on the tide, a small fleet of vessels began to come into the harbor: more of the Macassan praus armed with their narrow sleek canoes, but these bringing in great heaps of ripe tropical fruit and carved wooden vessels to be carefully unloaded onto the shore and added to the other stores already under shelter. Several seeming officers of this company were met with some ceremony upon the shore, and invited into the other quarters of the house: and Laurence realized belatedly that the dinner would not be a private event, as Gong Su came and asked if he might offer his assistance with the burgeoning preparations.

Jia was now quite unavailable for any private conference, either, consumed with attentions to his rapidly increasing number of guests: the next morning, Laurence woke and saw in the harbor a launch rowing to the jetty, from a neat little merchant sloop of six guns, an American; and a Dutch vessel came in on the next tide, in the evening.

"The flow of goods to Sydney begins to look incidental," Tharkay observed: by the evening of the dinner, a Portuguese barque had joined the increasing throng, and without wishing to play the spy, Laurence had seen some dozen small and heavy chests brought onto shore, carefully, and set into the dragon pavilion under guard: almost certainly coinage, and in enough quantity judging by the size to pay for holds full of silk and porcelain and tea; where these goods were to come from, however, Laurence did not see.

"I cannot see why they should not be delivering them by air," Temeraire said, a little absently; he felt anyone might have been distracted, with chests quite full of gold and silver only sitting there in the corner of the building, and such splendid smells as were rising from the cooking vats upon the shore. Oh! the smell of roasted sesame; and the women were hulling exquisitely ripe longan fruits directly inside the pavilion, and heaping them into enormous bowls: the greatest self-restraint was called for, and Temeraire was not sure if he could have managed it, but for the coming occasion.

"But I will ask Shen Li," he added, "when she comes back again, although Laurence, I will tell you privately, I was quite right: there is something very peculiar about her, and I am sure it is all these long stretches aloft. She is perfectly pleasant, no-one could ever complain of her; but unless one speaks to her she will only sit quite still without saying a word, for hours and hours, and if one should ask what she is thinking, she says she is trying to stop thinking."

The magnificence of the coming dinner did make Temeraire feel a little awkward and anxious. He was privately conscious he did not look his best himself, as he had grown a little thin over their journey, and all the sea-bathing in the world had not yet sufficed to clear all the red dust from his hide; his scales were not quite so glossy as he might have liked, and he was sadly conscious that the edges of his wings were ragged. His breastplate had collected several scratches and dents, which Mr. Fellowes with all the will in the world had not quite been able to correct - Temeraire sadly missed having a proper blacksmith.

But at least he did have his talon-sheaths, and Tharunka had offered him some of the oil which she was using upon her own hide, against the dry, hot climate; the effect, Temeraire thought, would be particularly elegant on his black scales.

"I don't mind sharing at all; I am sorry you had to come all this way," she said, in what he felt was a handsomely apologetic manner, "especially as no, I don't suppose I will come back. It is no reflection on the Corps, I am sure, as your captain seems a fine lot; but I can't be fond of any of these officers you have brought along. They are all too pushy by half, and there is no really good fellow-feeling, as anyone might like to have around. Maybe I don't have a particular captain of my own, but I am pretty sure of good company any time of day or night if I want it, here with the Larrakia or anywhere in the country; and I don't have to sleep in a covert, or on a ship, or in some lonesome valley."

Temeraire could see the sense of her decision, if one cared to have quite a large circle, as most Reapers did seem to. Although he himself could be perfectly content with no other society so long as he had Laurence, certainly none of the other aviators was nearly as good, as Tharunka showed good judgment in recognizing; and the aviators might stop going around muttering and complaining of waste, if they did not choose to be better.

However, in one respect Temeraire did have to blush for Laurence, and for himself: there was no possible consolation for the appearance which Laurence would have to present at the coming dinner, the most particular and notable occasion they had met in this whole country since arriving. Temeraire struggled with his pride, and then yielded: when next Jia Zhen came by the pavilion, Temeraire dropped his head and deeply conscious of embarrassment began to try and explain - the length of the journey - the unsettled state of England after the invasion - the minor technical irregularity of their situation -

Before he had gone very far, however, Jia Zhen forestalled him and said, in the most delicate way imaginable, "I have been meaning to ask you if it would be considered excessively bold to offer a gift of robes on behalf of our small and unworthy outpost, when we have only the most limited of skill and our materials are scarcely suitable."

"Oh, how happy I should be," Temeraire cried, deeply grateful, "and I am sure Laurence could not but be honored by the gesture - " which proved even more splendid than Temeraire had ever hoped it might be: there was still some deep blue silk held in the stores, and green, and yellow thread to sew it with which looked almost golden; and it proved that Mr. Shipley had formerly been a tailor. Given the pattern of Jia Zhen's own formal robes and offered a small sum of golden coins, Shipley worked with great speed and energy, and even went so far as to try a little embroidery, at Temeraire's suggestion.

To cap his satisfaction and his feelings of deepest good-will, Tharunka said, when it was nearly ready, "Temeraire, the Larrakia have considered the circumstances, and believe that according to the law, it was not quite proper for the Wiradjuri to take my egg from you, even though you were in their country, as I am not anything which one would hunt. As they cannot give me back now, of course, they would like to know if you would accept instead some of these opals? That bit," she added aside, "was my own notion: I thought they might be very fine on those robes: how lovely they do look!"

"Now that," Temeraire said, feeling as though he must be aglow, "is what I must call civilized; and I am very glad, Tharunka, that you should have hatched with people of such consideration; if they have not any other dragons amongst them, that is not their fault, after all; certainly no-one could say they do not deserve to have them."

So the opals were sewn tightly onto the sleeves and the borders of the robe with fine thin thread, and Tharunka was quite right, they shone beautifully upon the dark silk; and when the whole was held up for inspection, no-one could have found any fault in it at all. "I will say it is something like," even Caesar grudgingly admitted, when he had nosed his head around it, and Iskierka jealously jetted some steam and said, "It is very unreasonable that Granby will not let me take any of these ships; if only I had any more of my treasure here!"

Laurence was stricken perfectly silent by their magnificence, when Jia Zhen presented them - at Temeraire's request, in the pavilion, so that he might observe. "Pray put them on at once, Laurence," Temeraire could not help but urge, as Laurence held their luxurious weight across both his arms and looked upon them, "for perhaps they might not fit perfectly; there is still time to alter the size, I think, before this evening."

Temeraire need not have worried; the robes fit without any alteration, and Laurence said, "My dear, I am very sensible of the effort - the consideration which should have gone into - " and stopped.

Temeraire said delightedly, "It is nothing, Laurence; nothing but what you ought to have had always, and how happy I am! I have not been easy about it, since I knew that I had lost your fortune; but I suppose anyone would rather have these than only some money in a bank. I do not think anyone could buy anything nicer anywhere."

"And - " Laurence said, " - and you are certain that this should be appropriate for the occasion - not, perhaps, excessive - "

"No; how could it be?" Temeraire said. "When Jia Zhen himself proposed them; and after all, Laurence, you are the Emperor's son: it is only suitable that you should have the grandest appearance."

"Oh Lord," Granby said. "Well, Laurence, you may call me a scrub, but I will be an honest scrub: I will swallow my gold buttons and silk coats and count my blessings. But at least you don't look a fool," he added, trying to be comforting, perhaps. "You look as though you might say Off with their heads! at any moment; but not a fool."

"Thank you," Laurence said, rather austerely: he felt a fool enough, and furthermore an outrageously false one, counterfeiting the appearance of an Oriental monarch and making, as it must seem, the most absurd pretensions to a station at once far beyond his own and utterly foreign to it.

And he could say nothing: if Temeraire's plain joy had not forbidden it, simple courtesy towards his hosts would have done as much, when so much effort and expense had been spent in the creation of the garments, and when they had been so ceremoniously presented. But Laurence was perfectly certain he had not put them on correctly, and also unable to persuade himself he would not look ridiculous both to his fellow Britons, and more surely to his hosts, who knew better; he was reduced to only the meager hope that they might not fall down while he ate; which event if it occurred should certainly draw the attention of the entire assembly, as he realized with dismay he was to be seated at the head, beside Temeraire.

The tables had been put out in the large and sprawling courtyard of the house: it was a little crowded for the servants to maneuver in around the five dragons who were all welcome guests, but if a few of the Dutch and Portuguese sailors did look anxiously at the large and well-toothed neighbors, no one protested aloud. Rankin had in the end condescended to make one of the party, at Caesar's earnest persuasion - "When there are so many foreign visitors," he had said, "it must look very strange for the senior, the most official representative of His Majesty's Government to absent himself, and perhaps convey a misleading impression of the relative authority of such representatives as will be present."

Laurence would gladly have sacrificed all false impression of the authority that he wholly lacked. Instead he was obliged to seat himself upon a large and elevated bench, which he suspected of being the Chinese notion of a throne, while beside him Temeraire gleamed as though he had been lacquered in paint, and displayed what fraction of his jewels he had not seen fit to load onto Laurence instead. He was seated on the other side beside one of the Larrakia chiefs, the oldest of their company, who regarded Laurence's attire with the unconcealed pleasure of a man enjoying an excellent joke.

The other aviators were a ragged and untidy crowd after their long journey and wore whichever garments they possessed that offered the least embarrassment; saving only Rankin, who had somehow kept with him untouched across an entire continent his formal evening rig. He cut the only elegant figure among them, down to his spotless stockings and the high polish upon his buckled shoes, with no decoration but his small buttonhole medal for valor and a simple, discreet stickpin of gold in his cravat.

"Only look how plain Rankin is," Temeraire whispered, with satisfaction, and Laurence sighed.

Jia Zhen began the event with a toast delivered in Chinese, of which Laurence understood only enough to blush still more for his own audacity, and which Temeraire unfortunately saw fit to comment upon in perfectly audible whispers, such as " - the generosity of Heaven in bestowing upon our humble outpost the presence of the most noble Celestial Lung Tien Xiang and the emperor's son Lao-ren-tze - that is a particularly nice turn of phrase, Laurence, the generosity of Heaven in bestowing, do you not think?"

At least after this, the worst of Laurence's mortification was at an end: the wine came around, the food was carried in, and a gathering of men more likely to be sticklers would have been hard-pressed to care anything for social niceties before the largesse of the hospitality. One might have anticipated some awkwardness from the motley company: the Larrakia elders, the Macassan fishermen, merchant captains from three countries and their first mates, all in their respective best; their hosts in their formal robes.

But these very extremes of appearance and manners in some wise made less difficult their meeting; if only through pantomime might most of the guests communicate with those not of their party, smiles and nods seemed to serve universally, and a raised glass required no explanation. The perhaps natural consequence was overindulgence, so that by the second course, the volume of laughter and conversation was rising steadily, and what formal etiquette any of the participants had preserved began to vanish quite.

With the increased potential for disaster. Demane, unfortunately, had been seated next to a younger Larrakia man, with Emily Roland on the stranger's other side; the young man was interested in her dress-sword, a fine blade with an elaborately engraved hilt, a gift from her mother. He managed through his scattering of Chinese and her own to make his admiration evident, and as she was no more proud of the sword than a cardinal might be of his office, she was by no means reluctant to show it away; and having displayed it, she tapped her chest and informed the young man, "Emily," to which he returned, "Lamoorar." From this the acquaintance proceeded swimmingly through several courses and eventually to the offer, on his part, of a braided wristlet; on which Demane, whose feelings had followed the progression with a visible increase of surliness, gave vent to a hissed demand that Roland reject the gift, on the grounds of impropriety.

"Stuff," she said. "I don't see why I ought to be rude; and you needn't be unpleasant, just because this fellow likes to be friendly," and when he would have remonstrated further, she turned her back, and offered Lamoorar a trinket of her own: a few glass beads she had acquired in Istanbul, strung upon a cord, which he accepted with a glance at Demane that a jealous spirit might sadly have interpreted as triumph.

Laurence observed the resulting spark in Demane's expression with alarm, and tried to think how he might intervene without disrupting his own awkward position. But the event was saved: at that moment, Kulingile managed to overset his emptied dish with the wreckage of the fish carcass upon all three of them. Forthing, sitting on Roland's other side, prudently changed places with her while the damage was repaired, and shifted Demane with Sipho, who with an air of smug and deliberate maturity offered Lamoorar a few words in the Larrakia tongue, which he had troubled himself earlier to acquire, while Demane tried to glare from Kulingile's other side.

For the convenience of all, it had been decided that Iskierka should take the second position of honor, at the leeward end of the table, so that her occasional jets of steam should not be blown upon everyone else. Granby was seated beside her, of course, and while she sighed in satisfaction over the elaborately layered dish of cassowary and crab and fruit, the American sea-captain leaned over from his own place, three seats down, and said to Granby, "I don't suppose you ever go wanting a tea-kettle. She's a big one and no mistake: what sort is she?"

"A Kazilik," Granby said, perfectly glad to brag, "a Turkish breed; fire-breather, of course," he added, proudly.

The American introduced himself as a Mr. Jacob Chukwah, of New York; his peculiar name was evidently of Indian extraction. He added, "My brother has one; but more along these lines," jerking a thumb at the smaller Kulingile, who was stretching out his neck yearningly to the whole tunny being set before him, stuffed to spilling-over with some sort of roast native root, and fried.

"I hadn't heard you had your own Aerial Corps, yet," Granby said.

"He is signed on with the militia, and they go in when they are called up, of course," Chukwah said, "but no, they are on the run from New York to the Ojibwe: dry goods out, mostly, and furs in."

None of the merchantment officers, with whom he might have shared a tongue, similarly made bold to speak across the table to Laurence: the dreadful state in which he sat precluded such familiarity even from his increasingly free neighbors, and when it occurred to him on the next pass of the wine that shortly the conversation would be past any real exchange of information, Laurence with some little struggle jettisoned his own sense of propriety, and leaning over asked the Portuguese captain, some few seats down, "You have French perhaps, monsieur?" in that language.

A little exchange sufficed to determine that Laurence shared with Senhor Robaldo, a native of Lisbon, a familiarity with a particular inn, which was enough to promote further conversation, leading as soon as Laurence could manage it to a discussion of the state of the war; he was anxious to know more of the attacks upon the cities in Spain, and Robaldo, he hoped, might know if the British had entered the field.

"Oh, the dog, the dog," Robaldo said, meaning Bonaparte. "Do you know, Mr. Laurence, what he has done? He has made allies of them, and ten thousand corpses still unburied in Spain and in France both."

"Sir," Laurence said, blankly, "your news runs too far ahead of me; I am lost. He has made allies of - ?"

"The moors!" Robaldo said with fervent, furious energy, not unaffected by the glass of wine he was gulping to wet his throat. "Dogs, dogs all of them; and he is shipping them to Brazilia."

"Are you talking of Brazil?" the younger American sailor asked across the table in English, Mr. Chukwah's first mate. "They have burnt Rio to the ground. We spoke to a whaler out of Chile a couple of weeks ago who had heard it in Santiago."

Robaldo groaned, when Laurence had translated this, and covered his face: he evidently had significant interests in the colony, lending his wrath a very personal intensity. "You would think his heart could not allow it! He was anointed by the Pope; but he is a heathen in his heart, a demon, a demon," and slid into his own language.

Rather less intimately concerned and better able to command himself in the face of the wine, being some six feet and more in height and solidly built, the American sailor, a Mr. David Wright, could offer Laurence more intelligence. "I'm afraid I don't know anything about what your redcoats might be up to in Portugal," he said, "but as I hear it, these fellows came out of Africa, the ones as burnt up the slave ports, and started in on some cities on the Med. They had a run at Gibraltar, too, but that went badly for them, so there's that for you."

Laurence was not much comforted to hear it. That the Tswana had intended some more thorough pursuit of their stolen tribesmen, the victims of the slave trade, he had learnt during his brief captivity among them; that they should have with such speed already realized their goal so far as to reach the coast of Europe was more than he would have dreaded. "Then it was not the French who sacked the cities?"

"No," Wright said. "The Africans went for Toulon, too, after they had done with Spain, and I guess that is where Boney got hold of them, somehow - caught some of them, or bribed 'em; but in any case he worked out some bargain with them, and he has been shipping them across the Atlantic since, on transports - by the dozen, I hear, and they are happy to go."

"He is setting them on our colonies," Robaldo said bitterly. " - the inhumanity is beyond words. No civilized nation could abide it."

"Well," Wright said, when Laurence had conveyed the sense of this remark, "I am sorry for them, but it puts pretty well paid to this stuff I have heard fellows say about the business, that the black fellows don't mind it. I would; I don't reckon I would sit at home quiet if I heard someone had taken my Jenny over the ocean and put her on a block, so I don't see anyone has a right to complain if they don't, either."

"I do not, either," Temeraire said, putting in, "and it seems to me that if anyone in Brazil did not like to be attacked, they would only need to give back the slaves, and then no one would wish to hurt them, either."

"I am afraid," Laurence said grimly, "that the better part of the kidnapped are gone beyond anyone's reach and are now in the grave; that news is not likely to appease the Tswana when they have crossed the ocean to hear it."

"I wonder how this gentleman will like it," Robaldo said, having gathered that Wright did not perhaps feel the full degree of sympathy which he felt appropriate, "when these African monsters have worked their way up the coast, and begun to pillage his cities: there is no shortage of slaves in his country."

"I don't mean to make light of the gentleman's trouble," Wright said, conciliatory, when he had understood. "There aren't any in my state, and we haven't missed them, either, so perhaps I don't see why folks can't do without. But I guess it would be hard if you have gotten used to it, years and years, and suddenly there is someone knocking down the door."

Chukwah leaned over the table and said, "Davey, you can tell that fellow, if you like, the Iroquois hatched thirty-two in New York alone this last year, so if these African fellows come to us looking for a fight, they can have one; and so can anyone else who likes, I expect.

"I've surprised you, I guess," he said with some perhaps pardonable complacency, looking at Granby, who had nearly choked upon the prawn which he was eating; all the other aviators at the table had brought their heads up from the profound attraction of their plates and cups. "Yes, the chiefs have come around to proper cattle farming, and it is working pretty well. I am thinking of jumping ship for it myself: they have more dragons than men to work them these days. A steady man, who doesn't get the jitters or lose his head aloft, can have a beast of his own in three years."

To punctuate this remark, Ensign Widener dropped his chopsticks entirely into his bowl, splattering himself shamefully.

"My brother says it is the course of the future," Chukwah continued. "What does it matter if you can't ship more than a ton, when you can get it from Boston to Charlotte in a week, hail, sleet, or storm? I am taking this load straight to Californiay, myself, to see if the Chumash riders will carry it over the Rockies for a share: and if they will, no bother with the Horn for us."

As deeply interesting as the development of the American aerial shipping should naturally be to himself and to every other aviator, Laurence was preoccupied and yet again baffled where Chukwah meant to get sufficient cargo to justify his making so obscure a voyage, and not only him but every other captain present.

He was on the point of speaking to inquire, when Temeraire leaned over and whispered, "Laurence, as we are nearly at the end, it would be very courteous if you were now to offer a toast yourself, and I have thought of a few remarks, if you should wish to make them." These Laurence had to parrot without comprehension; what little he might have understood, the liquor haze had by now consumed. They were received with utmost politeness and applause, but as he was mortally certain the same would have been true if he had inadvertently insulted the families of all the attendees, he took no great comfort here.

The toast completed, and the wreckage of the meal beginning to be removed, Jia Zhen rose - himself not a little wavery - and invited them to recline in more comfort upon makeshift couches which had been arranged along the wall of the courtyard; the tables were pulled apart and lifted and carried out, to open more room within the court, and the lights were put out. In the absence of the moon, the night was very dark, and the jetty was lined with red lanterns that glowed brilliantly both in their own right and as reflections upon the water.

A peculiar sound began: down upon the sand, one of the Larrakia men was sitting with some sort of an instrument, an enormously long pipe it seemed, which produced a deep, low, droning noise that resounded ceaselessly; he somehow did not pause even for breath. Two of the younger Chinese attendants were now standing at the jetty's end, holding long poles with lanterns at the ends, which they dangled over the water; a crowd of the younger Larrakia men were waiting upon it.

The company had grown quiet, muffled by the steady droning of the instrument and a sense of anticipation; no longer restricted to their seats, the guests gravitated towards the society of those with whom they could converse, but voices remained low. The tide was lapping in swiftly, high upon the shore, and the waves slapped at the jetty audibly.

"I suppose they might be showing a path to land," Temeraire said, peering up vainly into the night sky, but then the instrument ceased; in the sudden stillness, a low churning gurgle might be heard, traveling up the slope towards them from the bay, and the illuminated waters about the jetty shivered suddenly with many colors: gold and crimson and blue, rising up, and the great lamp-eyed head of a sea-serpent broke the surface and rose up and up, water streaming from its fins and in rivulets from the knotted brown seaweed which throttled its neck, like heaped strings of pearls.

There was a smattering of applause from the guests, a murmur of appreciation; although one of the Dutchmen said to one of the Macassan captains, in French, "I don't care; it makes any sailor's blood run cold to see one, or he is a liar."

The men on the jetty were heaving a tunny into the serpent's waiting, opened jaws; it closed its mouth and swallowed with evident pleasure, and they reached for its sides: beneath the seaweed lay chains, running through a network of golden rings piercing the serpent's fins and sides, and forming a mesh. The ends of these strands were now being drawn up onto the jetty, a heap of untarnished net, and being wound upon the capstan which Laurence had seen before.

Twenty men put hands to the capstan bars, and heaving together were bringing up a chest: carved of wood in a stretched egg-shape and banded with more of the gold, the size perhaps of the water-tank of a first rate; when it had breached the surface, another party of men set pulley hooks in it, and with a great effort it was swung up and onto the shore. The sea-serpent, watching, was fed another tunny; a second chest was drawn up, and then a third, of equal size, with the same maneuver.

The netting was flung back off into the water. Trailing it behind like a skirt of gauze, the serpent turned away and plunging into the water swam to the far side of the bay: a pair of yellow lights gleamed and a bell was ringing from another distant jetty which Laurence had not formerly noticed. As the serpent cleared away, the great head vanishing into ripples and froth, the red lanterns were lowered again to dangle above the water; all fell silent once more, and yet another serpent broke out of the water, blinking slow, garlanded with gold and gleaming kelp.

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