Tongues of Serpents

Chapter 16

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.

"I suppose - " Granby said, reluctantly.

"Caesar is the only one who can go," Laurence said. "Neither Iskierka nor Temeraire could land upon the ship; and I have no confidence they would listen to Demane - or for that matter to me; the captain can scarcely have failed to hear of my case."

"I don't know I wouldn't rather wait until he was close enough to row out to," Granby muttered, but there was no help for it; they could not with any conscience at all allow a British company to approach without speaking them, so Rankin must go with them; in any case, he was scarcely waiting for their opinion on the matter, and had already gone to dress. Caesar was arranged upon the shore waiting, preening with self-importance.

"Well, we are glad enough to find you," Willoughby said - Nesbit Willoughby, captain of the Nereide, having supplanted Corbet in that position after, he said, the successful taking of Reunion, which had been undertaken, under Commodore Rowley, to secure a port in place of the lost Capetown; but Laurence could not take any great comfort in the substitution: Willoughby had himself been charged with cruelty before a court-martial, in his previous command, and the ship did not have a happy air; there was a lowering stiffness everywhere, and Caesar was looked upon with a wariness more intimate than mere reflexive anxiety: these were men who feared punishment, and feared it might grow worse.

"Not," Willoughby continued, "that I imagine we will have any great difficulty. I wonder at them, indeed: planting themselves here cool as you please, not a single possession nearer than four thousand miles and only that one floundering mess of a junk to defend it; other than the dragons, of course, and I am relieved to hear they have only the one they stole. I believe we cannot expect to recapture her?" he inquired.

"Sadly," Rankin said, "I am afraid the beast has been too thoroughly suborned to permit us to entertain any such hope: several of my officers," some effrontery in that, which Laurence controlled himself from remarking upon, "have attempted to entice her back, but she has rejected wholly all the lures: her egg was in their possession too long."

Willoughby nodded. "Well, it is a shame," he said, "but at least we cannot be too worried about her, new-hatched and untrained. I suppose they will strike their colors at once when we have made clear the situation, in any case."

"And what is that situation?" Laurence said, a little sharply, and Willoughby looked at him with disfavor.

"I do not much care for your presence at this conference in any case, Mr. Laurence," he said, "and I will thank you to keep silent. I do not propose to answer to the inquisition of a convicted traitor."

"Captain Willoughby," Laurence said, too impatient to tolerate this, "I must beg you to imagine my own interest in either your feelings or your opinion of myself, when I have allowed no similar consideration for those who had greater claims by far to alter my course; and if you dislike my company, you may be shot of it all the sooner if you will not stand upon some notion of preserving ceremony, in circumstances so wholly irregular and unexpected: unless you imagine that a twenty-ton Celestial will have any more patience for it than do I."

Rankin looked away, as though to express silently his mortification at Laurence's crudeness; Captain Tomkinson of the Otter covered his mouth and issued a cough, soft and uncomfortable. Granby only did not see anything awkward in the speech, and added, "And speaking of whom, if you do mean to make some noise, you oughtn't be glad to have found us; Temeraire won't in the least sit still for your having at these fellows, and I don't suppose any of the other beasts would care to disoblige him. I don't know what Captain Rankin may have said about seniority, which is a right-enough mess between us presently, but he knows very well that it don't make a lick of difference to them. What are your orders?"

Willoughby frowned: he was a narrow-faced man, whose hair had already crept back along the curve of his skull, and he was not particularly well-dressed: his clothes were those of a man who had been at sea for eight months, and lodging in irregular shelters. But Granby had given him an excuse, and it was to Granby he answered: "Our orders," with emphasis, "are to take the port. And if it will not be surrendered, gentlemen, I will take it; I will take it if I have to shell it to the very earth."

Willoughby's authority was quite real: the orders, which he allowed Granby to read, were from Commodore Rowley and indeed specific: the port, if it existed, could not be tolerated, and must be taken before it were fortified; the grounds for doing so a mere bagatelle of a technicality: the Regent had ordered the remainder of the continent claimed on the basis of Fleming's circumnavigation, which might as easily have given France a claim by the journeys of La Perouse.

"There's no sense arguing it with him, anyway," Granby said, when they had flown back to shore. "He has the bit in his teeth, and the orders are clear enough, to be just."

"If we must choose between starting a war with China now," Willoughby had said, "and starting it a year from now, when they have cannon here and are letting the French romp merrily through our trade, we will start it now. And I say it has been too long in coming, myself, when they have been giving Bonaparte one plum of a dragon after another. One despot likes another, I suppose."

This was a wholesale misunderstanding of the original intention of the Chinese in sending Temeraire's egg to Napoleon, which had been done for purely interior purposes and merely to avert a question of succession; and even more so Lien's presence amongst the French: she had fled the country an exile, suspected in treachery against the crown prince, and had gone to Napoleon seeking only revenge.

But this was not Willoughby's deepest objection; he had added, more vehemently, "And when I think of the way they snatched our East Indiamen, and all of us forced to be meek as milk to them after, I avow it must make any man worthy of the name want to put his hands to his gun. It is time and more we blacked their eye for them."

Laurence remembered well his own feelings on learning that the Chinese had confiscated four British ships: confiscated them, and forced the sailors to sail their envoy to England, with neither cargo nor payment and only peremptory demands. It had been a gross violation of sovereignty, and he had felt, with every other sailor who had heard it, the most violent fury, not lessened in the least by the cringing behavior of Government - more anxious then to prevent the entry of China into the war, or at least more sanguine that it was to be prevented.

Jia Zhen might of course have felt a similar sense of outrage when Rankin presented to him the demands for surrender, through Temeraire's dubious translation, to which Temeraire added as commentary, "I do not see how this is reasonable: after all, it is stuff for the Regent to say we have claimed the country, when the Larrakia are right here and have been for ages and ages. Why, what if I were to land in London and say, Very well, because I am the first Chinese dragon to land in London, now I will claim it for the Emperor - that has as much sense as this does."

Rankin snapped, "That is enough: these are our orders. You may question them if you must in private, not in front of the agent of a foreign nation."

"That is a very handsome way to talk," Temeraire said scathingly, "after you have been sleeping in his house, and came to his dinner; it all seems to me like the sort of thing that Requiescat would do, when he was behaving like a scrub. And anyway," he added, "if Jia Zhen could understand whatever I was saying in English, I would not have to translate, so I do not see why I ought to be any quieter about it in front of him."

Whitehall claimed a violation of the treaty of Peking, the agreement negotiated by Hammond, wherein China had granted to Britain an equal access to any of her opened ports under the same terms as any other Western nation. Jia Zhen with great courtesy pointed out that this agreement said nothing whatsoever about China's granting her own merchants other and more favorable terms for export, as should be natural to any nation, and further that the port was not after all a Chinese port, but the possession of the Larrakia, if they had been so kind as to grant the Chinese the use of much of the land.

"And certainly British merchants must always be welcome, in any case. The Pomfrey, I believe," he said, "was here in the spring: her captain a pleasure to deal with, and most reasonable. I hope that Captain Willoughby will reconsider his position. Any disagreement or quarrel between our nations must be a most painful circumstance, and I fear could scarcely help but grieve the Emperor."

Laurence ignored Rankin's black looks to say, "Mr. Jia, I hope that you might agree that the terms of the treaty are somewhat unclear, and the possession of this port itself open to dispute: certainly left to their own devices, the Larrakia had not opened such a trade. Perhaps if the trade were suspended for a time, while our respective governments should discuss such amendments to the treaty as would satisfy them both - "

But Jia Zhen was not to be persuaded, not without reason; he did not refuse outright, but spoke in a calm and roundabout fashion of the difficulty of managing the sea-serpents, the impossibility of interrupting their peregrinations without causing their training to founder, and the expense of providing their food, which must be supported by the trade; he also, to Laurence's dismay, spoke of the warehouses which were to be constructed, and added, "By the order of the Emperor, several craftsmen have already been commanded to prepare themselves and their families to make the journey: Lung Shen Li will bring them hence on her next journey." This of course was very like throwing tinder onto a fire, and likely only to stir further enthusiasm on Willoughby's part for immediate action.

"There was no real hope, of course," Laurence said, low and bleak, when they had ended the fruitless audience.

"If it is any comfort," Tharkay said, "I doubt whatever concessions you might have wrung from them would satisfy Willoughby. He is here to take the port; nothing less will content him, and he does not strike me as that political sort of creature who might be persuaded by an appeal to his caution."

"But he is wholly unreasonable," Temeraire protested. "It is not as though Britain had built a port here, and the Chinese were taking it away; we had months to travel only to reach here at all."

That the port was strategically placed so as to easily wreck all of Britain's shipping, and her mastery of the Indian Ocean, did not appease him. "I do not see how one small country can complain if it does not rule all the oceans of the world, even those which are quite upon the other side," he said, "and after all, have we not heard that Java is only on the other side of the water here, and the Dutch are there, and our friends? Why does Willoughby not go there and say, Those are yours, and hand them over."

"He would," Tharkay said, "but they are defended with modern guns and modern navies, which can raise the price of making such a demand."

Granby was kind enough to make one final attempt: they flew over with Caesar once more, and he remonstrated with Willoughby, who if he heard, did not show any particular interest in listening. When Granby had finished, he nodded, and then said, "Well, I have heard you out, and now, Captain Granby, and Captain Rankin, I am giving you a damned order: you will get your beasts and all these others out of the port. We scarcely need your help to secure the place, so you need not involve yourself, if you do not choose to - I will be happy," he added coldly, "to forward your reasoning to Whitehall. All I require is that you do not interfere with my orders, and we will manage the thing ourselves."

"So he means to smash up all the port," Temeraire said, "and maybe kill Jia Zhen, who has been so kind to us, or the Larrakia: when I think of the tremendous, the extraordinary generosity which has been shown us - oh! what a wretched little worm this Willoughby fellow must be; it is no wonder he should like Rankin so."

Laurence said somberly, "I am afraid the fault was ours in accepting that hospitality when we had so little information on the position which our nation had taken, or might choose to; there was reason enough to know the Government would dislike it, if not to guess they should risk a war over the matter. They may," he added, "suppose that a sharp rebuke here will warn China off from any similar attempts."

He looked up at Temeraire and said, "I do not say I like it, my dear; I do not, in the least, and Willoughby is the last man I would wish to see entrusted with the power to offer so great an insult to any foreign power not already our enemy. But he has been entrusted with that power, and this is an open and honest act of warfare. The enemy has been offered terms, and however little I think of Willoughby, I know of no reason to suspect he will refuse quarter when surrender has been given. I hope a warning shot will be sufficient to persuade Jia Zhen not to prolong the engagement.

"If it is any comfort to you, I ask you to consider that we ought have left before now, in any case, and we might already be on the track back to Sydney, wholly unaware of anything which occurred in our absence."

"But we have not left," Temeraire said, "so we are not unaware, and that is not comforting at all."

He brooded after, when Laurence had gone to pack his things; he did not mean to make things still more awkward for Laurence, or for Granby, but it seemed very wrong to allow this Willoughby person to destroy the pavilion only because the Government wished to quarrel; after all, the Government had sent Temeraire away here, and did not want him in the service anymore, so he did not see that he owed the Government anything; meanwhile Jia Zhen had been perfectly splendid.

Temeraire was not quite sure what he might do, but while everyone else made ready to depart, a little surreptitiously he went behind the pavilion, and experimented with clearing his throat and trying to take the deep breaths which were required for the divine wind. Dorset paused going by with his instruments, frowning, and when Temeraire in a roundabout way inquired he said disapprovingly, "I cannot recommend the exertion of the throat yet in any way. The strain has been very great, and you have not kept quiet as you ought to have."

Temeraire thought this was hard, when he had been so silent on their journey - he had not talked above half-a-dozen times a day, except on special occasions, or if he needed to explain something, or if he had seen something of interest which he wished to mention to Laurence or one of his other crew, or had needed to consult on their direction. His throat did not feel so unpleasant anymore, either: it did not hurt when he spoke, and at dinner he had eaten a couple of tunny spines, roasted deliciously, without suffering the least difficulty or soreness.

And he certainly must have the divine wind, to do anything very useful: if he were only to claw away at the ships, he could not do much to both at once. Of course, he did not mean to do anything excessively unpleasant to the ships, either, or at least not to the sailors; but he thought perhaps he might wash them some distance out to sea, so they were too far away to do any shelling; or he might make the seas high enough beneath them that they should be forced to stop working the guns.

Temeraire had tried a little, on their long sea-voyage, to work out how Lien had built up the tremendous wave which she had used to drown the British squadron at the battle of Shoeburyness, but it had to be admitted he had not had very much success. He understood vaguely how she had done it - she had built many little waves, and sent them sculling on, and then had built one last and sent it sweeping along to gather up all the smaller. He had mastered the trick enough to manage perhaps four or five little waves, compounded into one great, and this one he had certainly made more substantial than the ordinary waves all around, but by this Temeraire meant he could achieve a crest of ten feet, perhaps, above the swell; scarcely enough to do more than rock a frigate for a minute or two.

He had thought of his former trick upon the Valerie, where he had struck her with the divine wind directly, but the ships in the harbor had their sails furled: they were riding at anchor, and built solidly of oak; the divine wind had nothing to grip upon. It would not do, so that night he determinedly shook out his wings and flew from their new camp - out on the sand across the bay, exposed to all the weather, with meanwhile the pavilion standing empty but for little Tharunka - and he flew out to the ocean and began doggedly to practice once more, trying to work out how quickly each wave should go.

"For that is the difficulty," he said to Kulingile, while he scratched calculations in the dirt - he quite missed Perscitia, who would have done the mathematics in her head for him - to try and work out how many breaths he should take between raising another swell. "They do not keep apart the same distance, and some are further apart, and so when the large one goes, it reaches a larger gap, and then by the time it reaches the next wave it is already breaking, and it only falls upon the rest of the waves and does no good to anyone."

Kulingile ate another bite of his raw cassowary, which he had managed to catch for himself that morning - they were now obliged to fend for their own meals again, without the very material assistance of the Larrakia hunters, who even if they had not brought something pleasant back would at least reliably be able to tell where one might find game - and piped, "But if it takes so long to make, and you do not sink the ships, won't they only wait until it is gone and then shoot afterwards?"

"Well," Temeraire said - but it would at the very least disrupt any immediate attack, and very likely make them confused. "And anyway they will have a time beating back up into position; if only the wind should not be in the right quarter, that is, but I do not see why it should be."

"What are you working on?" Iskierka said suspiciously as she came landing with her own dinner, and looked over the figures; of course she did not understand a thing of mathematics, but only to be safe, Temeraire swept his tail-tip over the diagramme.

"It is none of your affair," he said loftily; he did not intend to confide in Iskierka, of whom he felt a little wary; one could not rely on her to have the right sort of opinions in such circumstances as these; Granby was still in the service, of course, and so their interests might not be perfectly aligned.

He felt rather more uncomfortable over having so far also avoided the subject with Laurence; but he thought they might better discuss the matter a little later, once Temeraire had already worked out how to make the great waves - after all, so long as he could not do it, then there was nothing really to be spoken of; and when he had, he might then demonstrate the technique to Laurence, which would certainly be a source of great relief and pleasure to him. Laurence had not said anything on the subject directly, but he had encouraged the experiments, and asked Temeraire to consider how one might defeat a similar effort, another time. And if Temeraire should happen to demonstrate it somewhere the ships could also see, perhaps this Willoughby person would be afraid, and Temeraire would never even need to use it directly upon them at all.

He did not just yet think over what he would do otherwise - what else Laurence might say. It seemed after all a great waste of time - one might even consider such ruminations to be an attempt to shirk the certainly very difficult work of learning how to make the wave. And there was no time to be wasted: the ships were almost surely only waiting for the tide to come in that night, so they might come further into the harbor, and do their worst.

"I am going to go find something more to eat," Temeraire announced, therefore, and flew out to make another attempt. It was not after all false: if there were any fish about when he worked the divine wind upon the water, they often came directly up, dead already or at least so confused that one might just collect them without any difficulty. He had already made a handsome meal of them on his first pass, and the sea-serpents had been pleased enough to take the leavings; he could see their heads breaking the water in the distance, peering at him in anticipation of more, even if they did stay properly and respectfully clear.

He had more success this time in regulating the interval between the waves, and having sent out a series of them pursued with one large final roar: which did make his throat ache dully, and he was forced to stop and cough a little, but oh! what was any of that, for abruptly a great glassy hill was rising up out of the water. The swell went rushing away from him, eating every one of the little waves - climbing higher and higher, until it would certainly have gone to the topmasts at the least, thirty feet and shining pale green, and Temeraire was compelled to fly around in several circles to express his delight as the whole struck upon the hidden reef half-a-mile further out and crashed in a thundering, foaming roar very like an entire broadside firing off.

There was no time to be lost: the boiling white seafoam was tinged pink with sunset, and Temeraire flew flat-out to the shore and landed by the tents, calling, "Laurence - Laurence, pray come and see - "

Laurence looked up from the letter which he was writing - to be carried back to England by the ships, about Demane, although privately Temeraire thought there was no reason why anyone should wish to be a captain in the Corps anymore. If the Corps did not want Laurence, their judgment was plainly unreliable, when even the Emperor had approved of him so highly, and Qian; Temeraire had not mentioned to Laurence, for fear of seeming an excessive brag, but her letter had mentioned him as well, and informed Temeraire that she felt he had made a most auspicious choice of companion.

"If you please, Laurence, would you come and fly out with me?" Temeraire said, "I should like to show you something," and Laurence looked at the water lapping high upon the shore and said, "I will have my harness in a moment," and spoke to Granby briefly as he shrugged into the leather straps.

"My dear, I know the situation must give you great pain," Laurence said, as Temeraire beat out - not so very far this time, still in eyeshot of the harbor. "I cannot like asking you to bear an insult to the nation of - not precisely your birth, but your origin, and certainly of intimate concern to you: I beg you to believe I do it with the utmost reluctance."

"Laurence, you do not like it yourself at all, though, do you?" Temeraire said. "You do not think that Willoughby should behave so badly to our hosts - you do not approve."

"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."

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