Tongues of Serpents

Chapter 17

THEY AT NO TIME saw any of the natives during the long tedium of the return voyage, which even on dragon wing consumed half the autumn: the desert creeping by slow, and their passage wary and hunted. They found tracks and signs enough, in the mornings, to know that they were watched; at the water-holes they drank swiftly, and left what small offerings they could spare for the bunyips from their hunting with the country grown still more spare and ungenerous in the waning of the year, and four dragons, one of rapacious appetite, to be fed.

The beasts were all four of them thinner than Dorset liked before they reached at last the marker, the great monolith standing up out of the red desert with all its vegetation now burnt yellow by the sun; and began their turn for the coast. "At least there will be the lake, soon," Temeraire said wearily lapping at another water-hole, too shallow to put his muzzle in to drink properly.

It was all their hope that long fortnight's flying: though they were yet only halfway home, they were now moving at a pace wholly different than during their first journey, flying straight instead of in pursuit of an unknown foe, and the prospect of the lake's refuge invited them onwards. When at last they sighted it in the distance as a faint brilliant gleam stretching over the curve of the horizon, catching the sunset, Temeraire's wings quickened; all the dragons' pace increased, and they came landing by the shore not an hour later: to the stench of rotting fish, and a shore crusted with a rim of pink-stained salt; the lake had receded to a long narrow stretch of water.

The water of the shrunken lake could not be drunk: it was become more salty than sea-water, pinkish in hue, and the dead fish floated half-eaten in clumped masses on its surface. The birds had deserted the shore.

They managed to find a small water-hole, sufficient to give the dragons a few swallows, although the requisite bribe drew down too much of their stores; in anticipation of the game at the lake, they had not paused so often for hunting. What little they had left, they ate in silence, huddled close around their small fires. It was not merely inconvenience; the disappointment felt something of a parting slap, contemptuous, from the wild back-country: a reminder they were not welcome.

And yet Laurence felt little more so as they limped finally back into Sydney, a ragged and thinner band, and set down upon the promontory already once more overgrown in their long absence: grass and weeds and small prickly shrubs beginning to re-establish a hold. They arrived late, the Allegiance riding at anchor in the harbor, a small flotilla of merchant ships clustered nearer-in to the shore; the sun hung low in the sky, throwing orange flame across the water, and at the mouth of the harbor, where it emptied out into the ocean, the light glittered on the hides of a dozen sea-serpents, rising and plunging from the water at their play.

"The question only remains how it is to be done, not whether," Governor Macquarie said: Bligh's replacement, finally arrived a little while after Granby's second departure. In the intervening months of their journey, an elegant house had been raised on the spur of land overlooking the harbor, with a clear prospect from the office stretching all the way to the open ocean. Even a small rug lay upon the floor, and the furniture neatly joined; Laurence and Granby stood raggedly out of place, and Rankin for all his efforts was not much better arrayed.

They had not been afforded any opportunity to acquire new clothing; the summons had come last night before they had even sent a runner to formally announce their arrival, and called them at first light to the governor's mansion, to find the new governor waiting urgently, pacing across the floor of his study.

"I can see no reason to have them here," Bligh was saying scarcely under his breath, meaning MacArthur and Johnston, on the point of being shown in; MacArthur came across the room to shake Laurence's hand.

"I find you have been a prodigiously long way, Captain," he said, throwing a look at the dust-stained and faded maps which had been laid out across the broad desk. "I am glad to see you returned safely," although there was perhaps some enthusiasm lacking: he and Johnston were ordered to England with Bligh, to stand trial for the rebellion; Granby's return meant the Allegiance would sail at last, and she would make their natural transport.

"We must first however resolve what is to be done with these serpents: their presence was ominous enough before the report we have had from you, gentlemen," Macquarie said, interrupting the private greetings, and waving a hand to the chairs at his table.

The serpents had not appeared alone: another of the wide-winged dragons, not Shen Li, had been sighted lately off the eastern coast, on one occasion not thirty miles distant; the serpents shortly thereafter had begun to make their sporadic appearances, evidently being trained upon some new harbor, near enough that in their frolics they from time to time came past Sydney. Shipping went still to and fro without incident; the serpents had not been incited against them, and seemed sufficiently well-fed that any natural inclination which might have led to attacks was suppressed; but this was scarcely much comfort to those who had seen the devastation they might easily wreak.

"They must be eradicated, at once," Captain Willoughby said harshly, his wooden-leg stump stretched out awkwardly before his chair; he had insisted on accompanying them, though his injuries yet left his face grey and drawn with pain. "We must trace them to their harbor and put them to the sword; them and their masters."

"Sir," Laurence said, "we have already suffered a repulse from one attempt at taking a harbor so guarded, without sufficient preparation and, Captain Willoughby must pardon me, without sufficient provocation for the consequence we court. Surely there can be no justification for spurring on a war with China which, we now know, they have the means to carry against all our shipping. Even without the direction of intelligence, the serpents have been a constant peril to sailors before now; they need neither wind nor current in their favor to maneuver, and may strike wholly unexpected from below."

"Yes," Bligh said belligerently, "and there are a dozen of them outside our harbor this very moment. If the Chinese meant to teach us to respect their power, they have succeeded; if they meant to teach us fear, sir, they have failed and will always do so."

"Hear, hear," Willoughby said, glaring at Laurence, who compressed his lips at this ludicrous enthusiasm; he could scarcely fault Willoughby's courage, having already lost both an eye and a leg to the serpents, but his sense offered more to criticize.

"The Navy gentlemen must forgive me," MacArthur said, "but I cannot help but wonder if we could not manage to think of something better to do with these fellows who can, I gather, bring in twenty tons of goods from China to our shores in a month."

Bligh might have purpled himself into an apoplexy in response; Macquarie raised a hand. "If you please," he said: he was quiet-spoken, and his face drawn in craggy but warm lines, with deep-set dark eyes. But he would not allow the possibility of negotiation. "Our last orders, by Commander Willoughby's report," he nodded to that gentleman, "are plain enough: we are not to tolerate any foreign encroachment on this continent. If efforts to dislodge them from this northern port have failed, that is only more cause to repulse them before they can establish another, nearer."

He was bent upon the eradication of the serpents; it was left only to discuss how it was to be done. "Bombs must be our surest method for disposing of the creatures," Rankin said, "delivered from aloft: if they have been trained to come to fish-slops, we can easily bait them to their doom."

His suggestion was adopted with enthusiasm, despite the obvious difficulties of delivering bombs upon creatures which could plunge to the ocean depths, and whose size alone would make them difficult to kill; Willoughby applauded regardless, and Macquarie approved. Granby, who had more experience of aerial warfare than Rankin, whose former experience had been in the courier service, looked doubtful, and said, "We had better try it on one, first, and at a good distance: if you drive them mad and it don't work, they might do for all the shipping in the port."

"Perhaps we ought to clear out some of the most valuable ships," MacArthur suggested. "If we will be dropping on them from above, I cannot see there is any need to keep the Allegiance in port for them to gnaw on her anchor-cables."

There was something disingenuous in this proposal: he had already offered his services and Johnston's to arrange the manufacture of the bombs, which should give them excuse to postpone returning to England. But Riley had already once seen his ship nearly brought down by a sea-serpent, and could not be said to be eager to repeat the experience: he was only too pleased to second the notion, and Governor Macquarie did not disagree.

The plan of attack was agreed upon; the conference dismissed, not before Laurence was given his long-delayed post: three letters bundled together from Jane, and another two for Temeraire; and one to be passed on to Tharkay. He put them in his pocket as they departed; MacArthur caught him at the door of the governor's office.

"I suppose they aren't to be reasoned with," MacArthur inquired, " - these Chinamen, I mean. Do they wish to have us all thrown into the harbor and fed to the things?"

"I will beg you, sir, not to entertain the sort of absurd fancies which I have grown used to hear from raw hands," Laurence said, too exasperated to be courteous. "They are men, like any others, and like any others possess full measure of folly and vice; but I cannot say their portion is greater than our own."

"Ah, well," MacArthur said, "then we may all go to the Devil together."

He touched his hat and they parted, Laurence to join Temeraire upon the promontory, to share their letters. The correspondence did not go any length to reconciling him to the imminent attack, devastating almost equally in success or failure: Bonaparte had indeed made alliance with the Tswana, according to Jane.

Put them on every Transport he has in his Pockets and shipped them straight across the sea: twenty-six Beasts delivered direct to Rio, nine of them heavy-weight, and two fire-breathers; you may guess what it was like, and I will spare You the Particulars: they don't make Comfortable Reading, I will tell you.

The Portuguese are howling for Help, and we must do our Best, before they swallow their Pride and bend the Knee to France, but I have no Notion how we will keep these fellows from tearing all the Colony to Rubble if we cannot persuade the Inca to take an Interest. We must have Iskierka back at Any Price, and I would give an Arm for one of those Japanese fellows, the waterspout-makers.

Ten million pounds lost they say so far in Property; ludicrous, ain't it? So far the Tswana only seem to care about the Plantations and the Slaves, but if they get a taste for War, as Dragons will if you give them half a Minute, and want More, you may be sure Boney will find some to offer them.

Laurence laid the letters down, bleakly: in such circumstances, to be opening another front against an enemy far better equipped than the Tswana to wage war upon their shipping, seemed still nearer to madness. He sent Sipho for pen and paper, and began to add to his own letter, however late and useless it should be, to advise Jane of these new circumstances, and of his fears.

"At least they have made some progress here," Temeraire said, meaning on the quantity of cattle, and Governor Macquarie was proven very reasonable, he felt, having allowed them each two cows after the ordeal of the journey, despite the expense to the colony. With the shortage, it seemed hard to see so many cattle and sheep loaded aboard the Allegiance for her provisions: Iskierka would at least be at sea, and might eat fish if she chose, in all their variety; there was no reason she ought not take instead some kangaroos, and perhaps some of the grey cassowaries, and there would be seals at New Amsterdam.

She was unswayed by this argument. "And I do not see that I owe you anything," she added, with a flip of her tail, "when I consider how long the journey, and how many pains I have taken over it. You might at least have given me an egg, for all my trouble."

"You have caused a good deal of trouble, yourself, and no one wished for you to come from the beginning," Temeraire retorted, but guilt smote him painfully when he had said it: Iskierka had been of material service, he could not quite deny it in the privacy of his own conscience. He squirmed with discomfort, but he thought rather despairing that Laurence should never approve if he permitted selfish interest to outweigh justice, so Temeraire drew a deep breath and heroically said, "You might stay, I suppose, if you wished to."

Iskierka snorted, disdainful, "As if anyone would wish to stay in this wretched country, where there is nothing fine to eat, and the only battles one can get, one is covered in stinking fish. No; and if you ask me, you are a great gaby to stay," she added. "Granby says we will likely go from Madras to Rio, instead of home, and have a splendid battle against those African dragons who ran you off before. I am sure we will do better."

Temeraire flattened his ruff, from equal parts annoyance and envy; Madras - he had never seen Madras, or any part of India, although many pleasant things were always coming from there; and he understood all of Brazil to be thoroughly littered with gold, from what sailors said. Nor could Temeraire have any enthusiasm for the coming battle: as he understood they would only be dropping bombs, from aloft; and while he would be perfectly happy to clear away the serpents, who had proven to be so wretchedly difficult and stupid besides, Laurence thought it should certainly mean war with China.

But there was no choice: when the Allegiance had gone, and the latest frigate, and those of the merchant ships whose draught was too deep to bring them into the safety of the shallows, they would attack. Laurence also was making his farewells. "Pray give my best to Harcourt," Laurence said, and then belatedly added, " - I mean to Mrs. Riley, of course; I hope you will find her much recovered, and the child well."

"I suppose he will be talking by now," Riley said, "if he hasn't been dropped from dragon-back mid-air; I shan't be surprised to hear it if he has." He took the letters which Laurence had prepared, and those which Sipho had taken down for Temeraire.

"Captain Riley," Temeraire said, "I know you are not very fond of each other, but if you please, I hope you will tell Lily that I send my regards, also; and she is very welcome to visit, she and Maximus, if they should ever choose to."

"Oh," Riley said, a little dismally; Temeraire did have to allow that Lily had been a little unreasonable towards him, but then, in a way one might say it was Riley's fault that poor Harcourt had suffered so much, with her egg. "Yes; certainly I will convey your wishes."

"I call it damned stupid and a waste besides," Granby was saying to Laurence meanwhile, low, but not very low. "To leave you here, and with Rankin to command the covert; if one can even call it a covert when there are three dragons in it, and two as likely to throw him in the ocean as obey him."

"I wish him very great joy of the command," Laurence said dryly. "It is not likely to demand much initiative, and he may as well be here as anywhere; he cannot do very much harm in the position, and he is welcome to the politicking. In all honesty, we would be at more of a standstill if Demane were confirmed in rank; from what we have seen of Governor Macquarie, I cannot imagine he would be in the least inclined to listen to a stripling, quite apart from his birth."

"As far as that goes, Demane is as much an officer as he is a fish; so I don't know you are worse off with Rankin, either," Granby said. "No; but it is still a crime to leave you here to rot along with him, and I expect he will make a nuisance of himself; I don't think he knows how to otherwise. And a prime heavy-weight," he added, with still more frustration, "with not a prayer of getting him off the continent when the Allegiance has gone."

Kulingile had outgrown Caesar a short way into their journey, to Temeraire's private satisfaction, but it seemed to him Kulingile did not need to continue growing at such a pace now, when it plainly consumed so much of the available stores. Even if Iskierka was going away, that still did not leave them with so very many cows, and the hunting grew a good deal more tedious when anyone was taking half-a-dozen kangaroos at a time; soon they should have to fly several hours afield to find herds which could be culled.

"And you have surely heard several of the officers say that there is no use for a really big heavy-weight here in this colony," Temeraire had said to him, when they had at last returned to the valley, and Kulingile had insisted on a portion of cattle just as large as those which Temeraire and Iskierka had commanded.

But Kulingile remained unimpressed by the hints which Temeraire dropped, and continued both to eat and to grow. "Of course he will not outgrow Maximus," Temeraire murmured to Dorset interrogatively, when the second cow had vanished, and Kulingile was eyeing the rest of the herd with a sad, speculative gaze; Temeraire did not really see why Kulingile should outgrow him, either, but one did not wish to sound self-centered, or as though one would mind any such thing: it did not signify, of course, if one were a Celestial, even if Kulingile was also coming into a quite handsome pattern of golden scales, as he grew.

"Very likely he will," Dorset said, writing in his log-book; he had been making a record of everything which Kulingile ate, and doing a great deal of measuring with his knotted string, at least until Kulingile had grown so large that only his talons might so be measured in any reasonable amount of time.

Dorset added, "We will know he has begun to reach his growth when he ceases to be quite so rounded: that is when the body will have overtaken the air-sacs, and so begin to approach the limit." But it was now more than a week later, and Kulingile still had a tendency to roly-poly, and if he was not quite as long as Temeraire, it would have been a little difficult to say he was decidedly smaller, if one should compare their shadows on the ground.

MacArthur was certainly very impressed by his appearance when he came up to the promontory that afternoon, presumably to speak with Laurence; but Laurence had gone down to the Allegiance to dine with Riley and Granby one final time before their departure, and so there was no one else to meet him. MacArthur paused at the edge of the hill, and asked Temeraire, "So this is the new one, I gather? Something prodigious, I see, for a few months out of the shell; he will have your measure if he goes on a little longer this way."

"I suppose, if one is only concerned with weight," Temeraire said, a little repressively.

"Ha ha," MacArthur said, although Temeraire saw nothing very funny in it. "And does he have a captain?"

"He is mine," Demane said, belligerently, having already raised his head to listen from where he and Roland were sketching out the proposed plan of attack upon the serpents, and arguing over its merits; Demane was inclined to dislike it only because Rankin had proposed it, and so was finding fault, where Roland had said impatiently, "Yes, he is a scrub, what has that got to do with fighting? If Laurence said to jump in the water and fight them, would you like to do it?"

MacArthur eyed Demane more than a little doubtfully, and then said something to him which did not make any sense: it was a little like the aboriginal languages which Temeraire had now heard bits of, mixed together with a great deal of English peculiarly pronounced. "What?" Demane said, justly baffled.

"He thinks you're one of their natives!" Sipho said, without looking up from his book. "We are from Africa, and we aren't stupid, either; you needn't talk like you are babbling to a child."

"Well, that is handy," MacArthur said. "It is a shame more of you black fellows cannot speak better English."

"It is a shame you can't speak better Chinese, too," Sipho said, not quite under his breath, to which MacArthur said, "Why, I cannot say I would mind it these days," and laughed again, ha ha, and said to Demane, "Now then, how did that come about: you are never an officer?"

"I am, too," Demane said defiantly, "whatever Captain Rankin may have said; he wanted to have Kulingile killed, when he was hatched, so," he spat, "that, for him, and anyone else who likes to deny me, I am happy to meet them anytime they like."

"Well, for my part you may keep your sword in its sheath," MacArthur said, "and I am happy enough to call you captain if the dragon does; there's the real sticking-point of the business, after all. I suppose the other fellows are being sticklers over it?" he added shrewdly, and Demane looked mulish.

"You will be sticking here with this big fellow, I gather: what do you mean to do, stick here in this covert?" MacArthur went on. "A little uncomfortable, with a grousing pack of envious fellows about; you might do better to go it your own way, after all - with your own piece of land, and raise cattle of your own."

Demane took a low startled breath; there was nothing more highly valued in his childhood society than cattle, at once survival and currency: orphan and impoverished, he had risked his life willingly to become the possessor of a cow, which yet remained in some corner of his spirit a standard of wealth. MacArthur might as well have said, that Demane ought to dig up a chest all full of treasure, and pointed him in its direction. "I might," he said, attempting to be a little cool about the matter, and sounding merely wary.

"Well, keep it in mind," MacArthur said. "There is no need to make any hasty decisions; only you might think it over, whether it would suit you."

He asked after Laurence, then, and hearing he was at dinner touched his hat and went away, not without promising another pair of cattle, "With a yearling beef for the littler fellow," he said, meaning Caesar, "and that way you don't need to squabble it with this - Kulingheelay, did you say?" as though Temeraire would have squabbled anyway, in some undignified manner. "Give your captain my regards," he concluded, and so departed, leaving Demane to say to Roland in an undertone, "It would suit me better than scraping to Rankin."

"As though you would, anyway," Roland said, rolling her eyes. "Don't be an ass; he probably wants to see if you can be persuaded to fetch and carry for him, or something like, at a bargain price."

"Do you suppose he might like something carried at not a bargain price, if he could not get better?" Temeraire inquired; though Roland abjured the idea scornfully, as beneath the dignity of an aviator to consider, Demane was of very like mind when Temeraire said to him privately, afterwards, "But if he or some other person were prepared to pay in cows, no one could object, I find, to doing him some service."

There would be time yet to consider; at present, the question and MacArthur's visit both were driven quite from his mind, for the wind had shifted: not very strong, but enough to rattle the spars a little, and in the ideal quarter. There was a consultation going forward on the deck of the ship, which Temeraire could see in the fading light: the young officers on duty peering up and calling questions to the crow's nest. They were a little while at it and resolved not too soon: below in the street, the doors to the inn opened, where the men had gone to dine, just as the ship fired away a blue light and the small blue pennant rose up on the mast to summon all her officers aboard.

Laurence came up the hill slowly and rested his hand on Temeraire's side as the ship's launch rowed back out, the guests from dinner crawling up the side one after another; the men were already at the two massive capstans, marching around, as the sails billowed out in sheets of rolling white.

"Good-bye!" Iskierka called from the dragondeck, her voice carrying over the water. "Good-bye! I will tell Granby to write you whenever anything interesting should happen."

Temeraire sighed a little, and put his head down upon his forelegs as the Allegiance began her slow and stately progress: the evanescing light orange-pink and steam wreathing her foremast from Iskierka's spikes, spilling up the belled sails and trailing away; shouts, calls, the bell rung at the quarter-hour came distantly. The ship was moving towards night, away, and the curve of the land gradually concealed the hull so that one saw only the sails gliding; a little longer, and then only the lantern-gleam high up, if Temeraire sat upon his haunches and stretched his neck. Then even that faded to just the gleam of the stars coming out, and between one blink and another, Temeraire lost the track, and she was gone. The Allegiance was gone: the first he had ever sat upon the shore and watched her leave.

The harbor looked strangely empty and smaller with her out of it, as though one could not quite imagine that any ship so large had been in that place, and all the other ships which had looked so small beside her now seemed ordinary in size and respectable. "There is no reason she should not come back someday," Temeraire said to Laurence, "of course; after all, a ship may go anywhere it likes, and she was sent here once. They might like to send some other dragons. And oh! it would be so very tedious to be sailing another eight months, as Iskierka is likely to do - if she is not sent to Brazil, that is," he finished rather despondently. He was sure Iskierka would be sent to Brazil, it would be just the sort of thing which happened to Iskierka; it did not seem very fair that anyone so careless should have acquired heaps of treasure, and all the ship's stores of cattle to herself, and also have a great deal more fighting, and everything pleasant.

But he was determined not to be dismal: he would not be a weight upon Laurence, who had also been left behind to manage with Rankin, and this new governor; Temeraire had been forced sadly to reconsider his feelings towards Macquarie. Laurence certainly thought better of him than of Bligh, and Temeraire would not quarrel on that point, but it seemed Macquarie was rather given to consulting Rankin, and not Laurence, and Laurence had not been invited to several of the conferences to further discuss the plan of attack.

Instead Rankin would return to the covert after these were held, and present the plan to the aviators in a very officious manner; and if Laurence had a point to make, or some question, Rankin would address him very pointedly as Mr. Laurence, and the others as Lieutenant, such as Lieutenant Blincoln; he only ever addressed the midwingmen so, as Mr. Peabody, or Mr. Dawes, so it was all the ever more sharp.

"That scarcely concerns me," Laurence said, when Temeraire had expressed his very great irritation. "He might as easily refuse to share with me any intelligence from the conferences at all, and try and put another man aboard with us to govern the course of events during the battle; he would be within his rights."

"As though I should allow any such thing," Temeraire said, "and I am sure he knows it; he might fight the battle without me, then, and I expect without Kulingile, too."

Kulingile cracked open an eye at his name and asked drowsily, "Is it time to eat again yet?"

"No, but I imagine you have not long to wait; I passed a butchering on my way," Tharkay said, coming up the hill.

He shook Laurence's hand; to Temeraire's dismay, he had come to also take his leave. "The master of the Miniver informs me he means to make port at Bombay," Tharkay said, "and I know the road from there to Istanbul." He smiled a little, twistedly. "Much of my intelligence may be a little old by the time I have got there, but I have promised to deliver it."

Temeraire did not see why Tharkay should have to go so far, only to deliver news; and particularly when he did not seem as though he wished to go, very much. "But if you must, you might come back," Temeraire said, "and if you see Bezaid and Sherazde, pray tell them that their egg hatched quite safely; I have often thought that I ought to send them word. It is not their fault, of course, that Iskierka is so very irritating."

"I think we must expect to regret you a longer time," Laurence said. " - there can be very little to call you back to this part of the world anytime soon."

Tharkay paused, then said, "We spoke some time ago of endeavors which might call you away from it, however. I would have opportunity to make inquiries, if you have decided."

Laurence did not answer immediately; then he said, "No; thank you, Tenzing. I cannot see my way to it. I am very grateful - "

Tharkay waved this away. "Then I will hope some other occupation finds you; you do not seem likely to me to lie idle." He drew out a handsomely embossed card from a case in his pocket. "My direction is likely to be, as always, uncertain; but you may write me care of my lawyers: if they cannot find me, they will hold the letters until I have called for them." He gave Laurence the card; they clasped hands once more and agreed on dinner, the following day, before Tharkay went down the slope away.

"I certainly hope that he is right," Temeraire said, with a little sigh; privateering did seem to him a splendid occupation, and it was a great pity Laurence felt it was not quite the thing. It did not seem to him that anything of interest should ever happen here, nor fair that everyone but himself and Laurence should go.

Tharkay and Laurence were away at dinner the next afternoon when the gunfire erupted, late in the evening. Temeraire had just woken to enjoy the cooler hours, and had been contemplating whether he might call it worth the effort to fly a little distance to the more shaded water-hole and have a cold drink; as the crack and whistle of musketry went off, Kulingile opened his eyes and sat up.

"Is it time to fight the serpents?" he inquired hopefully: his voice had not grown lower, but a great deal more resonant in an odd, echoing manner, so that when he spoke it seemed as though several people were talking at once, saying the very same thing.

"Of course it is not time to fight the serpents," Caesar said, peering down the slope, "my captain would have come for me, and my crew. There are men fighting one another: perhaps it is duels."

"It is not duels," Temeraire said, "no one fights duels at night, and with dozens of people against one another; one fights them at dawn. I do not see why there should be so much disorder in this town, and why Laurence must always be in the midst of it, somewhere I cannot see him; oh! they are firing again."

There were a great many men in uniforms in the street, struggling now against one another with bayonets and wrestling, their rifles held like staves and battering away. Temeraire rose and peered down the hill anxiously, looking to see if he could make Laurence out anywhere at all in the melee, but his brown coat would have been difficult to see in better light than they had, so that Temeraire did not see him was no comfort; if he had seen Laurence, he might at least have had the opportunity of snatching him away to safety.

"I am going to go down there," Temeraire said, decisively, " - no, Roland, I cannot wait; plainly Laurence might be anywhere, and perhaps they will stop if I should land among them - I will only knock over that low building, which is very rickety-looking anyway, and perhaps the one beside it."

"You are not to go anywhere," Rankin said, panting up the hill, in his heartlessly plain evening clothes and great disarray, with Blincoln and his second lieutenant behind him. "Mr. Fellowes! You will rig Caesar out at once; it is a rebellion. You are to remain here," he added to Temeraire. "Laurence is in no danger whatsoever: they are advancing on the governor's mansion, and nowhere near the inn where he was dining."

"As though I were likely to take your word for it," Temeraire said scornfully, "or listen to you; I am not under your command, and if someone is rebelling, who is it, and why?"

"That," Rankin snapped, "is none of your concern; if you do mean to go blundering in, and likely crush Laurence yourself in reckless abandon, by all means do so, but you will keep out of our way. Caesar, does all lie well? That breast-band does not look secure to me, Mr. Fellowes, you will see to it."

"It is a little loose there over the shoulder, as well," Caesar reported, puffing out his chest tremendously, and then Demane said, "I don't see why we should - ow!"

Roland had kicked him soundly in the shin, and as he bent towards it caught him by the ear, twisting it painfully. "Don't be an ass," she said, "and don't you yowl at me, either," she added, when Kulingile had reared up his head in bristling protest. "It is for his good, and yours."

"Let go!" Demane hissed back at her, but she was managing to dance around him and keep hold, so he could not easily wrench loose without hurting himself worse. "Why should we let him decide, who is ruling the colony and everyone in it - "

"We shouldn't," she hissed, "but you aren't the son of an earl with twenty thousand a year and half the Lords in his pocket; if you look a rebel, someone will just shoot you, you ass, and not bother with trial about it, either; you haven't a scrap of influence. And anyway," she added, "if he hasn't any business deciding, you have less; you don't even know who it is rebelling, or why: and I dare say they are all just drunk."

"They are certainly not drunk," Temeraire said, "for they have got off three volleys: and it is no joke to reload a gun even when one is sober; it was the greatest difficulty for our artillery company to manage it, with seven men to a cannon, so it must be even more trouble for one person with a musket, it seems to me; and I do wish I knew who they were - "

"It is the New South Wales Corps," Lieutenant Forthing said, panting; he had dashed up the hill. "Mr. Laurence is coming, Temeraire; he says to tell you he is quite well, and you are not to come in search of him."

"Where is he, pray?" Temeraire said, still a little wary; Laurence, he knew, thought a little better of Forthing after their journey, but Temeraire did not see that he had done anything of particular value; he would much rather have had Ferris back, or perhaps his midwingman Martin; except of course Martin had given them the cut direct, after the trial.

It was grown too dark to see, but there was a lantern coming up the hill, and then Caesar said, "All lies well, Captain Rankin," very satisfied with himself, and stood waiting while the company of officers began to go aboard with their rifles and their pistols, and as they mounted, he added aside to Temeraire and Kulingile, in a tone of unpardonable condescension, "Well, fellows, we will settle this in a trice, and be back; pray don't trouble yourselves over it."

"I do not see why we do not get any fighting, and you do?" Kulingile said queryingly, which Temeraire felt was a remarkably appropriate question. "I have been very sleepy, but no one can sleep when there are guns going. And if it is the New South Wales Corps, have they not been giving us those sheep? and the cows?"

"Well," Temeraire said judiciously, "so far as that goes, Governor Macquarie did provide us with some cattle." One ought, he felt, be scrupulously fair in such circumstances. "But he does mean to start a war with China, which no one would like; Laurence," he said, swinging his head around, "I am so very relieved to see you: I had meant to go down, but Forthing came sooner. We are discussing whether we ought help Governor Macquarie, or the Corps, who are rebelling again."

"Yes," Laurence said, grimly, " - Roland, my glass."

The battle, if one might call it that, had gone all the distance to the governor's mansion now, and seemed so far as Temeraire could see it to be quite reduced in scope; there was very little fighting, and the soldiers who had stood in the way now seemed to be walking with the rest, except for the small company of Marines, who had fled. There was singing going on, and a great many of the townspeople had come out with lanterns and also flagons and bottles: one could see the light shining on the glass as they drank and cheered, and pistols were shot off into the air.

Laurence closed the glass and gave it to Roland. "Caesar," Rankin said, "put me up."

"Temeraire," Laurence said, "you will not permit him to go aloft, if you please. Sir," he said to Rankin, "the event has run past you: you will not turn your beast against a crowd of civilians. God knows there has been enough of that in this war: I will not see it done again."

Rankin's face went very pale with anger, and his hand clenched upon the straps of his carabiners, which he held ready. "Mr. Laurence, if you should dare interfere - "

"I do," Laurence said flatly, and whatever Rankin might have said foundered: there was no threat he could offer.

"If you had the least ambition of pardon," he said after a stifled, furious struggle briefly contorted his narrow, aristocratic mouth, "you may leave it aside forever; if you think the account I shall give of you will not suffice, Governor Macquarie will surely damn you as thoroughly."

"I have no doubt of it," Laurence said, and turned away; he did not care to give Rankin his face.

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