- Black Rose
- The Great Train Robbery
- Blue Dahlia
- Carnal Innocence
- Dance Upon the Air
- High Noon
- Sacred Sins
- Face the Fire
- Holding the Dream
- A Man for Amanda
- All the Possibilities
- Black Rose
- The Great Train Robbery
- Blue Dahlia
- Carnal Innocence
- Dance Upon the Air
- High Noon
- Sacred Sins
- Face the Fire
- Holding the Dream
- A Man for Amanda
Tongues of Serpents
THE FRIGATE MIGHT BE SEEN from shore before dusk fell, and a little after a sloop-of-war, sailing in company. "That is the Nereide, I think," Laurence said, looking through his glass for what he could glimpse of the bow. "She was sent with the expeditionary force to Île de France, by my last Gazette; under Corbet." He did not share what he had heard of that officer: a hard-knocks captain, court-martialed for brutality; anything might have changed in half-a-year, and rumor might be mistaken.
"No," Laurence said, " - but I find there is very little to approve of, particularly, in war or in the relations amongst nations. There is no secret of our colony in New South Wales, my dear; China certainly has known of it, and of our interests in the Indian Ocean trade. They cannot even pretend ignorance when they have been sending goods to Sydney herself, and there is certainly a degree of provocation in seizing upon a location so strategic, and so very near the boundary of Cook's claim to establish their own holding."
"But that does not excuse destroying the port," Temeraire said, "and perhaps killing our friends. I do not see that Cook had any business claiming anything anyway, but even if one should make allowances for that, he has not claimed this, so it is not as though one could call it a real challenge.
"But," he added, stopping to hover, "I do not mean to argue, Laurence; I have something splendid to show you."
Laurence paused and said, "We might fly further out."
"Well," Temeraire said, "I particularly thought it might be useful if Willoughby might see it, also, from where he is - "
He turned and looked, and the ships were making sail: the great billows of white spreading to catch the wind, and come about into the harbor; and the guns had rolled out of the portholes, black tongues. "The tide is not wholly in yet," Temeraire cried in protest.
Laurence laid a hand upon Temeraire's side. "My dear, pray let us go further; there is no reason you should be witness here."
"But you do not understand," Temeraire said. "I have done it: I have worked out how to make Lien's wave - " and on his back he felt Laurence go very still.
"No - no, Laurence. I did not mean - of course I did not mean that," Temeraire said, into that awful silence. "But if only they should see it, I thought - I thought they might not persist."
Laurence paused, very long, and then he said, "A threat rarely suffices which you do not mean to carry out. And regardless - no. I can have, I will have, no part of even issuing such a threat against the Navy. To prevent an officer of the King from performing his duty and from the commission of his orders would be equally grievous a crime whether committed by violence or mere intimidation. No. I have committed treason once, but in the service of a higher cause than nations, not the lower one of mere personal sentiment; I must beg you to excuse me."
He spoke with hard, bleak finality, and Temeraire shuddered with distress. He had not seen it so, at all; he had not thought - "It need not be treason, surely," Temeraire said, "not just to let them see?" but as he spoke, the protest shriveled small upon his tongue: he had known, of course; he had not spoken to Laurence.
He coiled around himself in distress, mid-air, and said, "Oh - I am so very sorry; Laurence, I beg you will forgive me. You cannot think I would ever mean to ask anything like of you again, after everything so dreadful which has occurred - not just to defend a pavilion," and he was very relieved to feel Laurence's hand upon his neck, and added, to try and explain himself, "Only I cannot see how it can be right to only watch, as friends are hurt, who have been so generous - and when the Government, after all, has taken so much away."
"By this argument you should soon reduce all loyalty to a mere competition of bribery," Laurence said. "If I had thought for one instant that those robes should so secure your affections as to make you wink at treason, I should have thrown them on the fire directly, regardless of what distress you might feel; and," he added, with a degree of heat, "I am growing inclined to think Jia Zhen knew precisely what he did when he made you so extravagant a gift."
"I do not mean only the robes," Temeraire protested weakly, but he was very much shocked that Laurence should even consider so hideous an act, and added, "and I hope you would never really do anything so dreadful. Of course I cannot help but feel kindly towards them, and the Government is always behaving like a scrub; that is not any of their fault, and certainly it is no fault of the robes."
He looked back at the pavilion in much distress: the Otter, small and quick, had already turned broadside to the harbor, and as he watched, and flinched, the roar of the cannon echoed across the water. The ball went sailing high - they had the cannon elevated - and came down upon one graceful high-pointed corner of the pavilion's roof, in an instant carrying away the elaborately carved dragon and smashing through the tiles. A distant shriek of wood breaking, which sounded queerly as though it came from somewhere to the east, and a cloud of splinters bursting away; a clatter of more red tiles went sliding down into the gap, and the dark hole stood dreadfully jagged against the elegant line.
"Oh!" Temeraire cried in distress, "Laurence, only look; and if anyone should have been below - "
He darted a little closer - of course he would not do anything, not now he did see it must be still more wrong; but he could not help it -
"Temeraire," Laurence said.
"No, of course I will not," Temeraire said, despairingly. "I suppose I might not even knock down the cannonballs, as they flew?" He did not know if the divine wind would allow it, but -
Laurence's answer, whatever it might have been, was entirely lost to Temeraire; instead all the world went spinning round and full of noise, roaring, and he was driven in a tumbling rush down into the ocean swell, green foaming light everywhere, choking into his nose and into his throat. Temeraire struggled wildly to right himself, belling out his sides, and he burst back up through the surface, coughing and coughing. "Laurence," he managed, choking, twisting his neck around in panic - but Laurence had not been snatched: he was there, streaming wet and short one of his boots, but dangling safely from his harness and pulling himself back into position.
"There," Iskierka said, beating back up and away, looking down at him, "so much for your scheming; as though you were so very clever, and no-one had any business making out that you meant to do something to the ships, behaving like a sneak."
"I did not, at all!" Temeraire said, calling up at her wrathfully, because that was a wicked lie; he had never meant to hurt the ships, "and I think you have been a great deal more of a sneak than I might have been in ages, jumping down upon me like that with no warning."
"You may complain all you like," Iskierka said, "but it is no more than you deserved; I will not let you hurt Granby in the service any more than you already have. He is going to be an admiral, and a lord, too; like Roland's mother."
"Pray be quiet, you wretched selfish creature," Granby said, calling through his speaking-horn. "Laurence, are you all right? She would have it he meant to do something - "
Laurence was occupied with a wracking cough, but he managed reassuringly to say, "I have had a ducking before now - perfectly well."
"Temeraire did mean to do something," Iskierka said, "whatever he may say; and I have stopped him, which I hope you will tell that captain when he goes back to England; I am sure they will be glad to hear of it," she added, in a very self-satisfied manner.
"Oh!" Temeraire said. "If I did mean to do something, you should never stop me," and he took a deep breath and flung out his wings and beat them wildly, swelling out his sides as much as he might; with a lashing of his tail and hindquarters, as though he were trying to lunge back onto the Allegiance after a swim, he managed to get back into the air.
He meant to teach Iskierka a sharp lesson, despite Laurence's protest, but gunfire called his attention back to the ships, the spattering of rifles going, and not the great guns. Tharunka had come flying out from the pavilion with a couple of men in belly-netting, who were holding great dripping sacks. Temeraire could smell the stuff even at the distance, as they upended it over the Otter and then the Nereide in turn: a clotted, dribbling mess of half-spoiled fish and rotting seaweed, black as tar. As Tharunka stayed quite high to be clear of the rifle-fire, it splattered all over the sails and the poor sailors high up in the crow's nest, whatever did not miss the ships entirely and land in the water. It was not less than the ships deserved, for their attack, but it seemed quite useless to Temeraire; the bow-chasers were perhaps splashed a little, and the carronades on the quarterdeck, but the gun-deck of course was not touched at all.
The harbor bell was ringing, as Tharunka flew hurriedly away to the shore, and then the waters of the harbor began to churn as one and then another, the sea-serpents breached the stained water and began to claw their way up the sides of the ships and onto the decks, stretching their long necks up towards the slurried sails.
The speed with which the serpents moved was appalling - the massive beasts were struggling one against another to get a purchase on the ships, pushing and shoving to get at what was evidently pure delectation, and meanwhile beneath them the deck pitched and heaved as their weight threw the ship all ahoo. The unfortunates in the rigging, coated in the slime, were immediate victims, snatched like particular tidbits even as the men tried in desperation to flee down the ropes. Wide jaws tore at the cables, and the spars yawed wildly and went tumbling down, throwing more of the slush upon the men on the deck, to draw the serpents' attention.
A smaller of the serpents had managed to wriggle itself onto the deck of the Nereide entirely almost, only its long tail dangling back over the side, and it began to pursue the sailors with such enthusiasm that it thrust its entire head into the fore ladderway. The axes were coming out now, however; axes and the great guns firing, and as Temeraire and Iskierka flew to the ships, beating urgently, Laurence saw a tall man leap forward and swing down upon the small serpent's neck, directly behind the head which had been thrust below.
In two strokes he had cleaved the spine, and the body went into furious convulsions that tore the head the rest of the way from the body, spurting dark blood in torrents across the deck. It ran orange-red over the ship's white-painted rail and down its side, and the smell of dragon blood mingled with the fish-rot and kelp.
Temeraire dived and seized hold of one serpent by the shoulders, dragging it away from the ship as it lashed and flung back its open maw to try and snap at him, the coils and coils of its great length twisting and the small forelegs clawing at the air. Laurence could see directly down into its jaws and throat, looking over Temeraire's neck, and a pallid hand within desperately clinging to the tissue of the gullet, a face bloodied but not yet senseless gazing up at him in utter horror before the serpent's thrashing shook the man loose and he vanished still whole deeper into the creature's belly.
The serpent was unmanageable with its enormous mass drawn out of the water and so violently clawing - "I cannot keep hold of it," Temeraire panted, struggling to drag it still further; but then Iskierka called, "Only a moment, keep clear!" and dived in. She blasted its dangling length with flame, the skin and scales crisping up and roasting with a dreadful stink; the serpent made a high thin shrieking noise and curled around itself like a beetle as Temeraire dropped it at last back into the water.
"That does for that one," Iskierka said, satisfied, but Tharunka had just darted in and flung yet another sack of the fish-refuse all upon the disordered deck of the Nereide, closer now that the riflemen were all in disarray, and still more of the serpents came boiling out of the water in a frenzy.
There were dozens of them, ripping, tearing - nothing coordinated, only a maddened and savage fury which did not know even their own kind: as the axes and cutlasses bit into their flesh, they began to snap and tear at their injured fellows, at the rigging, even at the guns slick with fish-scraps - a cannon breaking free of its moorings and running riot across the deck to smash through the railing, taking half-a-dozen men and a serpent with it. The deck was slick with their blood, and the guns roared: cannon tore into their flesh and flung them back into the water.
But more came, and the injured, only still more frenzied, clawed in blind, mad rage at the source of their hurt; and one of the greater monsters, perhaps now recognizing the ship itself as prey and danger, pulled its huge forequarters to the far side and plunging down over into the water began to loop the whole vessel.
Laurence had seen the maneuver attempted once before, on the Allegiance - a vessel nearly twice the draught of the poor Nereide - and only the greatest effort had kept it from succeeding. "We must stop her, that one," Laurence shouted to Temeraire, who dived and set his claws into the traveling length, the spine itself too protected by a vast and razored network of hard spiny fins.
He strained back, beating; but as they began to drag the serpent clear, above them one of the spars tumbled loose and tipped towards them, and Laurence was half-blinded with the muck as it splattered from the sail upon Temeraire's back and wings. He wiped the stuff from his eyes only to see a great pink saw-toothed maw coming lamprey-wide towards him, unblinking orange eyes fixed on him with intent greed.
Laurence jerked his sword loose - pistols useless after the dousing - and managed to bring it down into the approaching lower jaw, opening a deep purplish gash into the creature's lip, which made it recoil; only a little, but Temeraire noticed, and snapped at the beast. It snapped back, and then turning its head bit at his wings, seizing the pin-joint in its mouth and wrestling back and forth while it tried to pierce the tough, resilient membrane. Temeraire roared at it, the great startling thunder of the divine wind resonating painfully in the bones of Laurence's ears, and it let go and fell away with that high shrilling cry.
But more were lunging at them, and the great serpent beneath them was all the while marching on; the noose was drawing tight, and abruptly the port rail snapped like matchsticks beneath it, and the starboard gone an instant later. The bulk of it slipped Temeraire's claws and fell to the deck heavily as the support was taken away; he darted down again to seize a fresh hold, and four serpent heads reared up feeding from the deck, one tipping back to swallow the better part of another victim.
Temeraire twisted away from their stretching mouths, and Laurence had managed to pack his powder fresh; he pistoled one of the creatures directly in the eye, and saw the sclera cloud with dark blood as it recoiled shrieking. But Temeraire had to beat away again: they were biting at him from all sides, and he had not won a fresh grip; he had only brought away one sailor, snatched from the deck, and now twisted to hand him up to Laurence: a midshipman, perhaps fourteen, hair and face thick with slime.
"God save you, sir, and him," the boy said, glazed with horror and polite by reflex; with shaking hands he laced his belt through a harness-ring when Laurence showed him, and wound his arms through the straps to hold on; then Temeraire was making another plunging attempt.
He attacked lower down on the side this time, and between the squirming press of the serpents' bodies managed to set his claws again into the great one. But he was fighting now against the ocean, too: the swell slapped at his tail and the lower edges of his wings as he sought to hover and pull, and then he was windmilling back, his grip lost: another great serpent, surging suddenly up from the depths, had seized hold of the deck and pulled all the ship groaning askew.
The Nereide was tipping, and the serpents scrabbling up her far side, still trying to reach over to the deck, tipped her further yet; there were cries audible within, and the cannon trying to roar, and then abruptly the loop was drawing tight and tight: the decking began to crack and splinter, and the water pouring over the rail was rushing into the gaps.
She was sinking. Laurence looked out in desperation: Iskierka had seized on to the Otter's anchor and dragged it deliberately aground, into the shallow water on the shore, where the serpents might not follow: men were leaping from the sides to escape those which yet clung on, while Caesar and Kulingile worked to tear them away: even Tharunka was now helping them, picking men out of the water to carry one after another to shore, and the Larrakia had come down to help pull out the staggering survivors.
There was nothing better to be done. "Temeraire," Laurence called, "can you drag her onto the shoals, or push her?" and the looped serpent proved an unlikely and bleak hand-hold for Temeraire to use. Kulingile diving came to join him, setting his own long claws deep into the flesh, and they together dragged the hulk even as she splintered and cracked still further.
The deck was nearly empty now of men, pillaged clean, and waves slapping flat against the tipped deck washed clean the muck with sea-water. She was settling lower in the water every moment, but they were moving steadily in towards shore as well, and as the water grew more shallow the less-maddened serpents dropped away. The second enormous serpent looked up at them with what Laurence in an unpleasant fancy thought for a moment was cool deliberation, and then it, too, let go and slipped away into the clouded water.
They pulled the Nereide at last onto a small reef, near the Otter; and there with Temeraire's claws and the tearing of the coral managed at last to carve away the looped serpent, already dead and slick with blood; Demane was already rescuing men from the hatchway, standing in his straps to help them crawl out onto Kulingile's back while the dragon clung on to the railing, his sides belled out hugely to support him.
There was no hope of setting her to rights: the keel itself had cracked, and great seams opened all along the hull. Already it was growing dark; Laurence sent Demane back to shore, and Temeraire hovered to receive what other men could be saved: Willoughby was handed up with his eye bandaged over and one leg gone below the knee, the surgeon climbing up after him; the gun-crews crawling out grimed with smoke. They could only hold on to whatever harness they could reach, and though Temeraire flew slowly and carefully to shore to set them down, some lost their grip and plunged down into the surf, only slowly to drag themselves out, crawling the last few feet upon the sand.
They made another journey, and then a third, picking men out of the water. The sun was sliding away behind the pavilion, glowing red upon the lacquered roof; in the water, the corpses of sea-serpents rose and fell with the lapping tide. Temeraire sank upon the sand, heaving breath and his neck bowed deeply with fatigue.
The Larrakia were watching; the young men who had been helping to carry the half-drowned survivors had drawn back and taken up their spears again, standing loosely ringed along the shore: many of them, quiet and watchful, and others joining them; several of the younger Chinese men also, with swords which looked awkward in uncertain grips: they were none of them soldiers. "Mr. Blincoln," Rankin said, from Caesar's neck, "if you please, let us have a little order here; Caesar, if you would," and Caesar reared up onto his hindquarters, making himself however more imposing could be managed, and thrusting out his breast with the bright-blazoned red stripe.
The aviators began loosely to form an opposing line. Laurence slid down from Temeraire's neck and laid a hand on the soft muzzle, feeling Temeraire's breath going in labored rasps: aggravated again, no doubt, by the excessive use of the divine wind. Whatever they had in the way of supply remained back in the camp, further along the curve of the bay and out of reach. "Roland," Laurence said, low, "go and tell Demane; if it comes to fighting, you are to go back to the camp and fetch out powder and shot, and whatever guns might have been left."
She nodded and ran to join Demane on Kulingile, who despite fatigue was perhaps among all the beasts the nearest to wide-awake, his eyes bright with hunger. Some of the Larrakia had come fresh from their hunting: a brace of small kangaroos were roasting on a spit behind their line, and this had all of Kulingile's attention.
The sailors lay inert upon the sand, spent more even than the dragons and worn past exhaustion by the wreckage and the horror of what Laurence hardly knew how to call a battle: a struggle against some elemental force, invoked too unwarily, and as swiftly gone when its bloodthirst had been appeased. Out past the edge of the harbor, many of the serpents were at play again, heedless like children who had already forgotten a reproof.
The Larrakia men were speaking amongst themselves, spears held low and ready; the elders in convocation with and the younger men interjecting occasionally. There was a hesitation on both sides: no one was unshaken by the violence of the eruption.
Galandoo came forward out of the men, and beckoned to Tharunka to translate; and to Laurence he said simply, "It is time for you to go."
- The Loners
- The Saints
- Tome of the Undergates
- Black Halo
- The Skybound Sea
- If You Stay
- If You Leave
- Until We Burn
- Before We Fall
- Every Last Kiss
- Suspiciously Obedient
- Random Acts of Crazy
- Random Acts of Trust
- Her First Billionaire
- Her Second Billionaire
- Her Two Billionaires
- Her Two Billionaires and a Baby
- His Majesty's Dragon
- Throne of Jade
- Black Powder War
- Victory of Eagles
- Tongues of Serpents
- Empire of Ivory
- Crucible of Gold