Tongues of Serpents

Chapter 15

THE SERPENTS WERE HAVING a frolic in the sunlight, out past the edge of the harbor and where the water was dark and deeper; one could see them even from the shore as their shining curves breached the waves and plunged again, glittering with scales and their golden nets. There were a great many of them, thirty perhaps, although they were difficult to count and would not stop to even try and talk, when Temeraire had flown over to speak with them.

"They do not seem to care for anything but fish and swimming," he said, landing again discouraged at the pavilion.

"I don't see what else you expected," Caesar said. "My captain says they are a menace to shipping, and they will get themselves caught in fishing nets and break them, which oughtn't be hard to miss if they were not very dull fellows."

The pavilion was now the scene of many and intense negotiations, among the various captains and Jia Zhen as well as his lesser officials, who it seemed were responsible for working out the various arrangements, and then presenting them for his final approval. The rows and rows of containers upon the shore had been opened up for inspection, very like, Temeraire thought wistfully, heaps of splendid gifts arrayed for one's delight. It was a little saddening to think they should all very shortly be going away, and one might not keep any of them, although he was well aware this could only be classed as rampant greed when he had already come out of their visit with so much good fortune. No-one, he felt, could deny that Laurence had been by far the most gorgeously arrayed of anyone present, the evening before, and the exquisite robes, at Temeraire's suggestion - he did not find that Laurence was quite so careful of his clothing anymore as one might really wish - had now been packed away in oilcloth and in some scraps of silk, and were in a box among Temeraire's own things, safe and protected.

He would have even been very happy to possess one of the sea-boxes quite empty, and had sniffed them over several times to make a note of their design. They were so very ingeniously crafted that they had scarcely leaked, all the long way from China: on both top and bottom, a sequence of long wooden lips and trenches interlocked with one another, and these had been lined with pale creamy beeswax. It was indeed quite a struggle to open them at all: Temeraire had been only too pleased to oblige with a little assistance, and even he had found it hard going to work his talon-tips into the notches and lever the two halves apart.

Some few seals had failed, but only perhaps three of the lot, and two of these contained porcelain which was only dampened and not spoilt. Although it made for tedious work to take out each piece and inspect it and dry it again, Temeraire could not be sorry in the least, as he and Iskierka and Caesar and Kulingile and Tharunka might all sit at the edge of the pavilion and watch each lovely glowing piece come out, to be wiped and set out upon cloths upon the mowed grassy verge, in the sunlight, and there were hundreds and hundreds of the pieces to be seen.

They were crowded, though, and at first they were distracted by a little squabbling among the little dragons: Caesar was still the largest of those three, but Kulingile had eaten nearly four times as much last night, with all that Caesar had been able to do, and was not so very far off; and Tharunka, who of course was still very small, had the very reasonable contention that as this was in her country, the pavilion was more nearly hers than anyone else's, and so she ought have the best place.

"I do not see why you must all make such a fuss," Iskierka said impatiently, "and look, they are bringing out some platters: that one could hold an entire cow."

"Oh, oh; how marvelous," Temeraire cried: it was painted with a great phoenix, in yellow and green; of course it would have been the very pity of the world if it had been hurt in any way, but Temeraire did wonder if, perhaps, the salt water had faded the color a little, whether they might decide it could not be sold after all, and they might as well put it aside. "That is enough," he added to the squabbling, turning his head, "Tharunka, you shall come and sit between Iskierka and me, up on the steps, and Kulingile, you may sit upon me: if you are not floating anymore - "

" - which I am very glad to see," Iskierka put in, "as it is not reasonable, and looks very strange."

" - even if you are not floating, anyway you are still very light; one would hardly know you were there," Temeraire finished. "And there is no reason, Caesar, why you cannot fit on Iskierka's other side, if I should turn myself a little so Kulingile can see, and then Iskierka sit straight back; but I must say it is time you gave over pretending Kulingile is not going to be bigger."

Harmony thus re-established, they might all enjoy the remainder of the spectacle as it unfolded before them: there were even some plates which had gold upon their rims, so they flashed in the sunlight, and Temeraire did not even mind Iskierka sighing damply; it was impossible to blame her.

"I should like a whole set," she said, "and I should eat off them every day."

"It doesn't seem to me that it is proper to get anything like that dirty," Tharunka said, and Temeraire was of her mind, but Iskierka pointed out that the plate would be clean at first, and when one had finished eating one's food it would be cleaned again, so one would have all the pleasure of seeing it cleaned fresh every day, and also of having it uncovered little by little as you ate.

This seemed almost excessively sybaritic, Temeraire thought, but after all, it was true the plates were intended for the purpose, and one ought to use them so, if one were careful not to let them be broken.

At last the plates were all dry, and packed away again, this time in an ordinary crate: they were going to Holland, it seemed, or at least the Dutch captain was taking them away after some intense conversation with one of the officials, who consulted his records and shook his head a few times, and then at last reached a bargain: one of the chests which had been kept under lock and key in the pavilion was opened up, and oh, it was full to the brim of bars of gold, of which ten were carefully counted out, and then each separately wrapped by the officials in paper; another, with an ink-pot and a brush, wrote upon them in large characters.

"What does that say?" Iskierka said, craning, quite to no purpose, as she could not read a word even of English.

"It is a name," Temeraire said, squinting a little. "It says, the house of Jing Du, who I suppose is a merchant, and that this is the third of ten bars, in payment for the shipment of five hundred pieces of porcelain," and the bars were carefully wrapped again in oilcloth, over and over, and set back into one of the other containers: he supposed those would be returned to China.

Mostly the remaining porcelain was not unwrapped, to all their disappointment; each piece was taken out wrapped in paper and shaken a little, and if no pieces came out they were put away into the new crates; a few did drop some shards, and were opened up, and whichever piece had broken was put aside and marked down upon the accounts; but it was more melancholy than satisfying to only see the ones which were smashed.

One of the flawed containers, alas, had contained great bolts of silk; the leak had penetrated also into the oilcloth wrappings and stained several of these wholly beyond repair, and Temeraire bowed his neck in wincing sorrow when they were lifted out and unrolled in the sunlight: great sprawling white-crusted splotches all over the pale-spring green and deep crimson bolts. But the officials only shrugged, philosophically, and put them aside in a heap with the rest of the ruined goods; a note was written and wrapped in oilcloth, to be set with the rest of the payments.

As the morning advanced, the speed of the exchanges began to increase; the rest of the goods came out swiftly, were repacked, and one after another rowed out to the waiting vessels, where the crews loaded them aboard as more and more payments went into the waiting container. Before the sun had reached its zenith, the smaller of the ships were leaving: the Macassan fishermen singing as they put their backs into their rowing and loading the dugout canoes back onto the praus. Their small white sails went up as they drove past the sea-serpents and vanished into clouds upon the ocean, sculling away.

As the other containers were emptied of their deliveries, many of the goods which had been left and unloaded over the past week were now transferred within, in their place: the heaps of trepang now dried and smoked; the sweetly fragrant ripe fruit, each bundled separate into a little wrapping of paper -

"They mean to ship fruit?" Laurence said, doubtfully; he had come to watch.

Temeraire inquired of one of the officials, who had come hurrying inside for a fresh pot of ink. "Yes," the young man said, "the deep water keeps it cold, and only half of it will spoil. Of course it is all for the Imperial court. Six silver," he added, when Temeraire asked the cost of a piece.

"Good God," Laurence said, comprehensively, and Temeraire had to feel that for his own part, he should have rather had six silver coins than one piece of fruit, which might as easily be spoilt as not, and in any case would not even make a bite. "But," he said wistfully, thinking of the great treasure-chambers at the Emperor's court, which his mother had shown him on their visit, "perhaps if one has so very many silver coins that one cannot look at them all and enjoy them, one might rather have a piece of fruit; and then one might eat it and think, that is the taste of six silver coins."

One entire container, one of the newest judging by the color of the outer wood not yet as stained by the ocean waters, was thoroughly lined with oilcloth, and into this were laid bundles upon bundles of furs from the American ship: they were not gold, or brilliantly colored, so Temeraire found it a little peculiar that so much care should be taken with them, but when one of the bundles was spread out, it did glow very richly in the sunlight, a sort of warm red-brown color, and Laurence evidently thought them very fine: beaver, he said, and seal, and mink, which would go to make winter coats of particular warmth.

"Perhaps I ought to have one made for Granby," Iskierka said - showing away, Temeraire thought with some superiority, out of jealousy over Laurence's robes; it certainly could not compare in beauty, although as a practical matter, it might not be a bad notion; but it did not seem as though it was ever cold in this country.

Not all the furs were laid into the container, either: Mr. Chukwah and Senhor Robaldo were not allowing anything on the order of a philosophical difference to stand in the way of their making a separate arrangement, and a crate of furs was exchanged for a casket of gold and silver, to the satisfaction of both parties.

At the very last, a final few containers were opened: and within them inside oilskin wrappings a second nested container, and within that another layer of oilskin, which folded back revealed at last rows upon rows of sealed wooden casks marked with characters upon the top: Silver Needle, White Dragon, Yellow Flower, and when one of these was breached, the lovely fragrant smell of tea wafted nearly to the pavilion.

"How many tons would you say this delivery has made?" Laurence said to Tharkay, as the tea was bargained out among the captains, for really astonishing amounts of gold, Temeraire wistfully noticed.

"Twenty at the least," Tharkay said, and flicked a hand at the smaller pile of goods set aside at the end of the beach, those which had not been taken by anyone; Temeraire had been wondering with increasing interest what should be the fate of those neglected goods, as he could not see anything wrong with any of them. "I imagine the leavings are all they send to Sydney."

"It is ours: it is part of the payment for using Larrakia country," Tharunka explained, looking up. "Whatever they cannot sell, we keep, and whatever we don't want we trade to the Pitjantjatjara, and the Yolngu, and I think the Pitjantjatjara trade it to the Barkindji and the Wiradjuri, who take it to Sydney, and trade it to you. So everyone may have something they like, and no one has to travel anywhere they don't want, and by the end of it, no one gets left with anything they don't care for," which seemed to Temeraire an eminently sensible arrangement through and through.

Laurence did not seem quite so sanguine. "How often do the serpents come, with such a load?" he asked.

Tharunka consulted with Binmuck, the chief of her companions: a woman with a soft and peculiarly deep voice. With the women's habit of silent labor, this had encouraged the aviators to think her shy: but she had quite established her authority after Maynard had attempted, with an offering of rum which he had somehow once again filched out of the stores, to wheedle one of the younger women out behind the pavilion.

This conversation, which had been carried out in a combination of coaxing whispers and covert pantomime - to evade Laurence's attention, as he had made quite clear his opinion of such behavior - went forward for some ten minutes, with the woman's attitude passing from initially a half-flirtatious fascination to withdrawal, as Maynard tried to put his hand upon her arm and draw her out.

Temeraire had just been wondering if he ought perhaps say something to Laurence, even though the young women were Tharunka's and not his; but Binmuck had silently risen up, taken one of the logs from the fire, and coming over to Maynard clouted him solidly across the back, with so much force that he was knocked flat to the ground on his face, the rum spilling beneath him. He sprang up red-faced and wet, which Temeraire felt served him right; the women all laughed with great enjoyment, pointing at the spreading dark stain upon his shirt - they none of them wore much in the way of clothing - and Maynard slunk hurriedly away in the face of Binmuck's unsmiling and censorious expression, and her substantial cudgel.

Now she listened thoughtfully to Tharunka's translation of their question, then answered at length: "This one was particularly good," Tharunka said, "but Binmuck says that they have been bringing more and more, as they get more of the serpents trained: the Chinese don't like to put goods on any one of them until it has swum the route back and forth three times without, you see, because it is such a long way; sometimes a new serpent will change its mind and just go another way, and then all your goods are lost. They come once a month," she added, "because there are two schools now trained to come here and return to Guangzhou; when one leaves here, another leaves there, and they go in opposite directions."

"And they may add more, I expect," Laurence said grimly, "and with no great delay," which Temeraire supposed was true; after all, if all one wanted was fish, and one did not mind where one swam, why ought they not swim here where they should be given so many: the Larrakia had been feeding them all day, whenever they swam up to the bell.

"They won't like it above half in Whitehall, I suppose," Granby said. "How soon do you think they will hear of it? It can't be long."

"No," Laurence said. "These gentlemen," indicating the ships yet riding at anchor, "are adventurers, following nothing much better than a rumor in hopes of finding a profitable run; but each one of them will make that rumor into news, wherever they put into port, and I cannot imagine no British captain has yet heard those same stories: we have any number of Indiamen running all over these waters, and going on to China as well."

Temeraire did not see how it should be anything to the British, even so; but Laurence and Granby and Tharkay all seemed not even to doubt that it should be provoking in the extreme, and that there was only a question when an angry answer should come about it.

"The absence of those tariffs which drive up the price of Chinese goods must wreck the trade in and out of Canton, as soon as it reaches a sufficient quantity," Laurence said, "as also must the lower risk: a serpent cannot be sunk, and if they will from time to time wander afield, or lose a container, each single one is not on the scale of a full merchantman.

"But that must now be scarcely the worst of the situation," Laurence added. "This is no smugglers' cove; this is a port city and a growing one, under the auspices of a nation which if it is not our enemy, is not our ally; a port here upon the very rim of the Indian Ocean must represent a very real strategic threat to the security of our shipping and to British mastery of the seas."

Temeraire privately felt that it seemed a little unreasonable for a country as small as Britain to want to rule an ocean halfway around the world, and to complain if China, which was much larger and nearer anyway, wished to only have some sea-serpents coming by, with splendid things which people wanted to buy. "I am sure they would not mind if British merchants should come also," Temeraire suggested.

"They have never objected to taking our silver before," Laurence said, "but that will only lead to the same complications as before which our government have already been protesting, and the deficit between our nations will only be increased by a greater flow of goods: they are not likely to take finished goods, or anything else which it profits Britain to trade."

"Except opium," Tharkay said, a little sardonic, "which manages its own popularity. The public inspection of the goods might offer some difficulties, but I think one must have faith in the ingenuity of man."

Laurence was silent; he did not approve of opium, although it was so very useful for managing cattle and sheep when one wished to carry them along and eat better than whatever one could hunt; Temeraire was rather sorry they had not had some of it with them upon their journey, as they might have taken along some of the cows, from their valley.

"Even that trade is not likely to be sufficient consolation in Whitehall," Laurence said finally, "for the establishment of a port which, at the discretion of the Emperor, might give safe harbor to the French to prey upon our shipping, or at his will lock out British traders and none others from the profits of the trade, whatever those may be."

Rankin was particularly insistent, but Granby and even Laurence were also firm in agreeing they must return to Sydney at once with the intelligence they had acquired; although Temeraire did point out that if as they assumed, Government would shortly learn of the port without their doing anything, the news would no longer be news by the time they had brought it. Nevertheless, it was their duty, it seemed; and so Temeraire sighed, and supervised Roland and Sipho in packing up the robes along with his other treasures. He felt wistfully how long it would be, before they might once again enjoy such hospitality, and such comfort.

Of course, he did not say so; that was he felt a very poor-spirited reason for not wishing to go, if duty were involved. Only, it was a little hard to know there would be so long a journey, through the uncomfortable desert, hungry and too-hot all the long way - and the hunger would be all the more difficult to manage this way, now that Kulingile was eating more and more - and nothing at the end to hope for but the very awkwardness which had caused them to leave in the first place.

"By now some answer must have been received from Government," Laurence said.

"But what if they have sent to put Bligh back in?" Temeraire said. "That would not suit us at all, and I am sure he would be unpleasant about it."

"If they have," Laurence said, "we must endure him early or late," which Temeraire thought an excellent argument for late.

But he consoled himself with the prospect of visitors: Shen Li might come, and Tharunka had already promised she should do so as well, one day. "And even if we don't wish to go so far very often, it is a cheering thought," she said, "that we can go visiting, if we only can manage the trouble of finding food and water. My people tell me you have been lucky, and it has been a very wet year; ordinarily it is not nearly so green, and the water-holes nearly all run dry by this time of the year."

Temeraire sighed to hear it; while he would be happy to see Shen Li, too, who could more easily make the journey, one could not look for much in the way of conversation from her.

She returned to the port one last time shortly before they were to depart, and there was something of a stir, for when she landed outside the pavilion, she said, without even having folded her wings, "Jia Zhen, pray ask everyone together at once; I have a letter from the Emperor, for Lao-ren-tze," so of course everyone had to put down whatever they were doing, and assemble in the courtyard, which a brief discussion established as the most appropriate place, and kowtow to the letter.

"To the letter?" Laurence said, in dismay, when Temeraire explained.

"It has the Imperial seal," Temeraire said, "so it is as though the Emperor himself is here in part, or at least, I gather that is the notion. Perhaps you would wish to put on your robes again, for the occasion?"

"No, I thank you," Laurence said. "If I am going to be bowing and scraping to a letter, at least I may do it without fearing to trip and fall by accident."

"My captain says he would not do it for anything," Caesar observed, and Temeraire snorted.

"Of course not; there is no reason whatsoever why the Emperor should ever be writing to your captain," Temeraire returned smartly, "who is of no particular account."

With this splendid rejoinder he went with Laurence to the ceremony, and afterwards the letter with its magnificent red seal was handed to Laurence, who broke it and looked without comprehension: Temeraire was sorry to admit it, but Laurence had not mastered an adequate number of characters to read very much of anything; and the letter was too small for he himself to quite make it out very well.

"Sipho may read it, however," Temeraire said, "and inquire of me if he cannot make anything in particular out, by drawing it large."

It was not a very long letter, but full of great kindness: the Emperor sent wishes for the health of Laurence's family, and inquired if Laurence had yet married - Sipho paused and added, "and he says if not, there is a young noblewoman of the fourth banner come of age who has not yet been married, which would be very suitable," which made Temeraire put back his ruff, and Laurence said, "What?"

"I would of course not quarrel with the Emperor," Temeraire said, "but it does not seem to me that Laurence must marry anyone if he does not like to. Pray what else does it say?"

"We have learned that you were responsible for widely conveying the remedy for - coughing fever, I think it says," Sipho said, reading on, "when certain unenlightened and disordered individuals within the government of the nation of England would have guarded this blessing for themselves, at the cost of many lives. We commend your behavior: as all know, loyalty to the state is founded upon filial loyalty, and upon the proper observance of the will of Heaven: faced with a difficult situation you have acted in accordance with right principles, and we are pleased."

Laurence did not seem quite so flattered as Temeraire thought he might have been; certainly the young official who had been appointed to guard the letter and carry it upon its golden tray looked deeply impressed by this mark of favor, reading the letter upside-down even as Sipho worked through it. "Any praise and reward for the act are rightly yours," Laurence said, "and in any case I cannot take any satisfaction in being thanked by anyone whose feelings did not enter into my consideration at all, whether that should be Bonaparte or the Emperor of China. Does he say anything else?"

"Only that he hopes you will call upon Jia Zhen for anything which you might require," Sipho said, and Laurence paused and said, "Do you mean to tell me this letter has come from him direct? - he knew that we were here, in this outpost?"

Temeraire looked at Shen Li; she said, "Having delivered the news of your arrival, I awaited the reply and then came, so there should be no unwonted delay: this answer came to Guangzhou in two days by Jade Dragon, and so did your letter."

For Temeraire had also a reply to his own letter, written much larger upon a scroll of parchment, from Lung Tien Qian, his mother, and she wrote to hope that he was well.

It is a great comfort to me that you are so much nearer: although the distance is very great still, at least one need not endure such inconveniently long delays for correspondence. Your letter of last August had only just reached me, which cannot be considered satisfactory. I am all the more happy to hear of your safe arrival in this part of the world, as I have suffered great consternation upon hearing of the recent upheaval in the country of England, from your friend Mr. Hammond.

I am charmed by the description of your valley, and await with pleasure a view of the landscape. Will you be settled here a long time? You would make me very happy to hear that it is so. I have enclosed a copy of the Songs of Chu, also, which you may enjoy if your studies have advanced.

"And you may read it with me as well, Sipho," Temeraire said, very pleased. "How kind my mother is! Perhaps we will save the poems and read them out only one a day, as we make our way back, and that will make the journey go more quickly."

Laurence seemed silent and rather thunderstruck by the letters' having come so quickly; although Temeraire thought that it was more peculiar and embarrassing that they should take quite so long to come from England.

"They might at least bring letters by courier to somewhere that does not need so much flying across the open ocean - perhaps from Macassar, where those fishermen were from," Temeraire said, "and then they might row it across, and Shen Li bring them to us in Sydney; that would not be quite so fast, but it would not take eight months! What good is a letter eight months late, when everything must be changed? One might as well write stories that were quite made up - one might say, oh, I have just received a bag of lovely pearls, and if ever a reply came asking to see, one might say, why that was a year ago: they are all gone, now."

Laurence began to write a letter himself, to Arthur Hammond, the envoy in Peking; Temeraire did not remember him very fondly, as it had been very clear that Hammond would have been perfectly delighted to trade him away for any advantage he might get in the way of ports, or of shipping, and Temeraire had felt this was not merely a great misjudgment of his value to England, but also more than a little rude.

But in the end, Hammond had proven very useful, and had worked out the very many confusing details of the adoption, and Temeraire had grown quite reconciled to him; so he was telling Laurence to send Hammond his best wishes, when Mr. Chukwah came into the pavilion, in search of Jia Zhen.

"I am sorry to run out before dinner, more for myself than for you, to tell the truth," he said, "but I had better: a frigate has just heaved up over the horizon, and she isn't flying any colors, but I think I know British handling when I see it; and I don't care to have half my best men pressed. No offense to you, sir," he added, giving Laurence a small bow, "but the Navy has been getting a little unreasonable about it: we objected in 'seventy-six, and we'll object again if we have to."

"Why," Temeraire said to Laurence, "surely that means we do not have to hurry away at all; now they must know for certain."

"Yes," Laurence said, grimly. "Now they know."

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