Tongues of Serpents

Chapter 4

"LAURENCE, I HOPE you will forgive me," Granby said, low, while across the way Caesar continued his depredations upon the livestock which Rankin had evidently intended for his first week of feedings. "I didn't mean to say a word, unless he should manage to harness the beast; but he has, and there is no way around it - you must let me go-between, and make up the quarrel."

"I beg your pardon?" Laurence said, doubtfully, certain he had misunderstood; but Granby shook his head and said, "I know it's not what you are used to; but pray don't be stiff-necked about it: there can't be two captains in a covert at dagger-ends forever and anon, and you can't fight him; so it must be made up, whatever you think of the blighted wretch," he added, rather failing at conciliation.

It was by no means what Laurence was used to; the thought of offering Rankin anything so like apology, for an act which had been richly merited by his behavior, and which Laurence would gladly have drawn swords to justify, appalled more than he could easily bear.

"You needn't think of it that way," Granby said, "for it's only that you have the heavier beast, you know: that is the rule. It's for you to make the first gesture; he can't, without looking shy. And it don't signify you aren't a captain anymore in the official way, because that doesn't make Temeraire vanish into the air."

Laurence could not be so easily reconciled, despite all the obvious sense in this policy, to a gesture which to him partook of the worst part of both withdrawal and deceit. "For I do not withdraw, John; I cannot withdraw in the least. It would be rankest falsehood for me to pretend in any way to regret my actions, or any offense which was given by them; and under the circumstances, such a withdrawal must bear a character of self-interest which I must despise."

"Lord, I am not saying you must truckle to the fellow!" Granby said, with a look half affection and half exasperation. "Nothing of the sort; you only need to let me go forward, and have a word with him, and then you shan't speak of it again, either of you: that is all. No-one will think any less of you: the contrary, for it would be rotten for the dragonet, you know. If you are giving his captain the go-by, it must make a quarrel between him and Temeraire, too, and you can't say that is fair."

This argument had too much justice for Laurence to ignore; he managed barely to make himself nod, once, by way of granting permission, and looked the other way when Rankin joined Granby's table that night, in a small hostelry, for the dinner which should honor his promotion. Granby cast a worried look at him, sidelong, and said to Rankin, in tones of slightly excessive heartiness, "I am afraid Caesar means to lead you something of a merry chase, sir; a most determined beast."

Granby, who had more knowledge of the management of a determined if not obstreperous beast than any ten men, might have been pardoned for some degree of private satisfaction in this remark. "If it is any consolation," he had said to Laurence, earlier, rather more frankly, "the little beast is his just deserts, anyway: how I will laugh to see him dragged hither and yon, protesting all he likes that Caesar must obey. That creature won't take being shot off in a corner and left to rot."

Laurence could not wholly take amusement in any part of the circumstances which forced him to endure Rankin's company; but he did not deny a certain grim satisfaction, which became incredulous when Rankin answered, coolly, "You are very mistaken, Captain Granby; I anticipate nothing of the sort.

"That there has been some mismanagement of the egg, I cannot dispute," Rankin added, "nor that his hatching did not give cause for concerns such as you have described: but I have been most heartened since those first moments to find Caesar a most complaisant creature by nature. Indeed, it is not too far to say I think him a most remarkable beast, quite out of the common way in intelligence and in tractability."

Laurence forgot his feelings in bemusement and Granby looked equally at a loss for response, when so far as they had seen, Caesar had spent the afternoon demonstrating only an insistent gluttony. Perhaps Rankin chose to deceive himself, rather than think himself overmatched, Laurence wondered; but Rankin added, with a self-satisfaction that seemed past mere wishful thinking, "I have already begun instructing him on better principles, and I have every hope of shaping him into the attentive and obedient beast which must be the ambition of every aviator. Already he begins to partake of my sentiments and understanding as he ought, and to value my opinion over all others."

"Well," Granby said doubtfully, then, "Mr. Forthing, the bottle stands by you," and the conversation limped away into a fresh direction; but in the morning Laurence was astonished to find Rankin at the promontory, with a book, to attend Caesar's breakfast. He seated himself at Caesar's side and began to read to the dragonet as the beast ate: an aviation manual of some sort, Laurence collected from what he overheard, although the language was very peculiar.

"Oh, he has never dug up that antique thing," Granby said, with disgust, and added, "It is from the Tudor age, I think; all about how to manage a dragon. We read it in school, but I cannot think of anyone who gives it a thought anymore."

Caesar listened very attentively, however, while he gnawed on a bone, and said earnestly, "My dear captain, I cannot disagree at all, it seems very sensible indeed; pray do you think I ought to try and manage another sheep? I take it quite to heart, what the book says about the importance of early feeding. If it accords with your judgment, of course: I am wholly willing to be guided by your superior experience; but I must say I find I am so much better able to attend when I am quite full."

"This," Iskierka said, "is what comes of worrying about hatchlings."

Temeraire did not think that was very just: he had not worried about Caesar for very long, certainly, and at the present moment he would not have given one scrap of liver for all Caesar's health and happiness; not, of course, that Caesar seemed to be in any short supply of either. In one week he had eaten nine sheep, an entire cow, a tunny, and even three kangaroos, after Rankin had been forced to reconsider the speed at which he was depleting his funds.

That would have been quite enough to make the dragonet intolerable, particularly the smacking, gloating way in which he took his gluttonous meals, but apart from these offensive habits, he would strut, and wake one up out of a pleasant drowse in the midday heat by singing out loudly, "Oh, my captain is coming to see me," and he would with very great satisfaction inform Rankin that he was looking very fine, that day, and make a pointed note of every bit of gold or decoration which he wore.

The one consolation which Temeraire had promised himself, Rankin's certain neglect, which should also ensure his absence, did not materialize: instead Rankin was forever coming, and so Temeraire had to endure not only Caesar, but Rankin also, and hear his irritating voice all the day, reading out from this absurd book full of nonsense about how one ought to never ask questions of one's captain, and spend all one's time practicing formation-maneuvers.

"I cannot understand in the least," Temeraire complained, "why when he had the very nicest of dragons, he was never to be seen; and now one cannot be rid of him. I have even hinted a little that he might take himself off, in the afternoons when it is so very hot and one wishes only to sleep, but he will never go."

"I imagine he had a better chance of society more to his liking, in Britain," Laurence said. "He was a courier-captain on light duty, and might easily visit friends of his social order; he has never been a particular favorite, among other aviators."

"No, I am sure he has not," Temeraire said, disgustedly.

Meanwhile there was no end of trouble to be seen, because the company Rankin did keep, aside from Caesar, was Governor Bligh, whom Temeraire had now classed a thoroughly unpleasant sort of person: not surprising when one considered he was part of Government. Bligh certainly had some notion that when Caesar was a little more grown, Rankin would help put him back in his post; Temeraire had even overheard Rankin discussing the matter with Caesar.

"Oh, certainly," Caesar said, "I will always be happy to oblige you, my dear captain; and Governor Bligh. It is of the first importance that our colony - " Our colony, Temeraire fumed silently. " - that our colony should have the finest leadership. I understand," he added, "that governors have quite a great deal of power, isn't it? They may give grants of land?"

Rankin paused and said, " - yes; unclaimed land is in the governor's gift."

"Just so, just so," Caesar said. "I understand it takes a great deal of land to raise cattle, and sheep; I am sure Governor Bligh must be well aware of it."

"A clever beast," Laurence said dryly, when Temeraire with indignation had repeated this exchange to him. "I am afraid, my dear, we may find ourselves quite at a stand."

"Laurence," Temeraire said, shocked, "Laurence, surely you do not imagine he could beat me. If ever he tried to cause us any difficulty - "

"If you were ever to come on to blows," Laurence said, "we should already be well in the soup; such a conflict must at all costs be avoided. Even in defeat, he might easily do you a terrible injury, and to run such a risk, for the reward only of making yourself more an outlaw and terrifying to the local populace, cannot be a rational choice. Consider that every week now brings us closer to word from England, and I trust the establishment of a new order."

"Which," Temeraire said, "is likely to be just as bad as Bligh, I expect."

"So long as we are not responsible for either its establishment or its destruction," Laurence said, grimly, "and neither its hated enemy nor its cosseted ally, our situation can only be improved."

"I do not see very well how," Temeraire said, brooding over the matter; he was not quite certain he saw it the same way. "Laurence, if we must stay here for some time - ?" He paused, interrogatively.

Laurence did not immediately answer. "I am afraid so," he said, at last, quietly. "The waste of your abilities is very nearly criminal, my dear, and Jane will do her best by us, of course; but with matters as they are amongst the unharnessed beasts in England, and such reports as Bligh is already likely to make of us, I must not counsel you to hope for a quick recall."

Temeraire could not fail to see that Laurence was quite downcast by his own words. "Why, I am sure it will be perfectly pleasant to remain awhile," Temeraire said, stoutly, making sure to tuck his wings to his sides in a complaisant sort of way. "Only if we are to remain," he did not allow any disappointment to color his words, "then it seems to me that Caesar is right on this one point: we ought have better leadership, who can arrange it so we can have proper food, and everything nice - perhaps even a pavilion, with some shade and water, against all this heat. We might even build some roads as wide as in China, and put the pavilions directly in the town; just like a properly civilized country."

"We cannot hope to promote such a project, however desirable, without the support of civil authority; you cannot force the change wholesale," Laurence said; he paused and added, low, "We might make such a bargain with Bligh, I expect; he cannot be insensible of your much greater strength, and he knows he requires at least our complaisance, even if he has Rankin's aid."

"But Laurence, I do not like Bligh at all," Temeraire said. "I have quite settled it that he is a bounder: he will say anything, and do anything, and be friendly to anyone, only to be back as governor; but I do not think it is because he wishes so much to do anything pleasant or nice for anyone."

"No, he wishes only to be vindicated, I believe," Laurence answered, " - and revenged. Not without cause," he added, "but - " He stopped and shook his head. "There would be a species of tyranny in it, when they have ruled so long and without argument from the citizenry."

Temeraire brooded on further afterwards, that afternoon, while Caesar discussed enthusiastically with Rankin plans for an elaborate cattle farm, quite exploding Temeraire's hopes of napping. He was beginning to understand strongly the sentiment that beggars could not be choosers. No one would ever have chosen to be trapped here; but now he must make the best of it, for himself and for Laurence. Temeraire dismally recognized that he had solaced himself, by thinking that Iskierka was only a wretched pirate, really, and her excesses for Granby in poor taste, which Laurence would not have liked, anyway. But now here was Rankin, too, also wearing gold buttons, and he was a captain still, as Laurence ought have been. There was no thinking two ways about it: Temeraire had not taken proper care of him; he had quite mismanaged the situation.

"Demane," Temeraire said, lifting his head, and speaking in the Xhosa language, so Rankin could not sneak and overhear, nor Caesar; Demane looked up from where he was figuring sums with Roland - or rather, giving his sums to Sipho to figure for him, while he instead cleaned yet another old flintlock; he had acquired another four in the town, lately. "Demane, do you remember that fellow who was here the other day, MacArthur? Will you go into town and find out where he lives; and take him a message?"

"I cannot but feel I have - I am - mismanaging the situation," Laurence said somberly, tapping his hand restlessly upon the table until he noticed his own fidgeting, which even then required an effort to cease.

From wishing only to have the decision taken out of his own hands, Laurence now found he did not think he could be easy in his mind to watch the colony's leaders deposed and, as he increasingly thought Bligh's intention, executed without even awaiting word from England. "But if Rankin should move in his support, I cannot avoid the decision: either we must stand by or intervene. I hope," he added ruefully, "that I am not so petty as to have more sympathy for Johnston and MacArthur, and the less for Bligh, only because Rankin has ranged himself alongside him."

"You might have a worse reason," Tharkay said. "At least you cannot call the decision self-interested; his restoration would be more to your advantage."

"Not unless it is by my own doing," Laurence said, "which I cannot reconcile with a sense of justice; and I doubt even that would serve," he added, pessimism sharp in his mouth. "Even to act must rouse fresh suspicions; we are damned in either direction, when all they want of us is quiet obedience."

"If you will pardon my saying so," Tharkay said, "you will never satisfy them on that point: the last thing you or Temeraire will ever give anyone is quiet obedience. Have you considered it might be better not to try?"

Laurence would have liked to protest this remark: he believed in the discipline of the service, and still felt himself at heart a serving-officer; if he had been forced beyond the bounds of proper submission to authority, it had been most unwillingly. But denial froze in his throat; that excuse was worth precisely the value that their Lordships would have put upon it, which was none.

Tharkay left him to wrestle with it a moment, then added, "There are alternatives, if you wished to consider them."

"To sit here on the far side of the world, seeing Temeraire wholly wasted on the business of breeding, and condemned to tedium and the absence of all society?" Laurence said, tiredly. "We might, I suppose, do some work for the colony: ferry goods, and assist with the construction of roads - "

"You might go to sea," Tharkay said, and Laurence looked at him in surprise. "No, I am not speaking fancifully. You remember, perhaps, Avram Maden?"

Laurence nodded, a little surprised: he had not heard the merchant's name from Tharkay since they had left Istanbul, nor that of Maden's daughter; and Laurence had himself avoided any mention of either for fear of giving pain. "I must consider myself yet in his debt; I hope he does well - he did not come under any suspicion, after our escape?"

"No; I believe we made a sufficiently dramatic exit to satisfy the Turks without their seeking for conspirators." Tharkay paused, and then his mouth twisted a little. "He has been lately presented with his first grandson," he added.

"Ah," Laurence said, and reached over to fill Tharkay's glass.

Tharkay raised it to him silently and drank. A minute passed, then leaving the subject with nothing more said, he abruptly added, "I am engaged to perform a service for the directors of the East India Company, at his request; and as I understand it, several of those gentlemen are interested in outfitting privateers, to strike at the French trade in the Pacific."

"Yes?" Laurence said politely, wondering how this should apply to his situation. What service those merchant lords might require, in this still-small port, Laurence could not understand, though it explained at least why Tharkay had come - and then he realized, startling back a little in his chair, that Tharkay meant this as a suggestion.

"I could scarcely fit Temeraire on a privateer," he said, wondering a little that Tharkay could imagine it done: it was not as though he had not seen Temeraire.

"Without having broached the subject with the gentlemen in question," Tharkay said, "I will nevertheless go so far as to assure you that the practicalities would be managed, if you were willing. Ships can be built to carry dragons, where interest exists; and a dragon who can sink any vessel afloat must command interest."

He spoke with certainty; and Laurence could take his point. A dragon could never ordinarily be obtained for such a purpose; as yet they were the exclusive province of the state. They and the first-rates and transports which could bear a dragon were devoted to blockade-duty, and to naval warfare, not to the quick and stinging pursuit of the enemy's shipping. Temeraire would be unopposed, and a privateer so armed would be virtually at liberty to take any ship which it encountered.

Laurence did not know how to answer. There was nothing dishonorable in privateering - nothing dishonorable in the least. He had known several men formerly of the Navy to embark on the enterprise, and he had not diminished in respect for them at all.

"I doubt the Government would deny you a letter of marque," Tharkay said.

"No," Laurence said. It would surely suit their Lordships admirably. Temeraire wreaking a wholesale destruction among French shipping would be a great improvement over Temeraire sitting idly in New South Wales, with none of the risks attendant on bringing him back to the front and once again into the company of other impressionable beasts, which he might lure into sedition.

"I will not urge it on you," Tharkay said. "If you should care for the introduction, however, I would be at your service."

"But that sounds quite splendid," Temeraire said, with real enthusiasm, when Laurence had laid the proposal before him in only the barest terms. "I am sure we should take any number of prizes; Iskierka should have nothing on it. How long do you suppose it would be, for them to build us a ship?"

Laurence only with difficulty persuaded him to consider it as anything other than a settled thing; Temeraire was already inclined to be making plans for the use of his future wealth. "You could not wish to remain here, instead?" Temeraire said. "Not, of course, that I mean to suggest there is anything wrong here," he added unconvincingly.

The mornings and late evenings were now the only and scarcely bearable times of day, and they had begun to stretch them with early rising and late nights; the sun was only just up, spilling a broad swath of light across the water running into all the bays of the harbor, making them glow out brilliantly white against the dark curve of the land rising away, blackish green and silent. Temeraire had not eaten in two days: the stretch was not markedly unhealthy, given his inaction, but Laurence feared it was due largely to a secret disdain for his food, the regrettable consequence of Temeraire's having grown nice in his tastes, a grave danger for a military man - and there Laurence was forced again to the recollection that they were neither of them military, any longer.

Even so, there was an advantage to a stronger stomach: he himself, subject to shipboard provisions during the most ravenous years of his life, could subsist on weeviled biscuit and salt pork indefinitely; even though he had not often had to endure those conditions. Temeraire had too early in his life developed a finicky palate; Gong Su had done what was in his power, but he had made quite clear one could not turn a lean, scrub-fed game animal, half bone and sinew and anatomical oddities, into a fat and nicely marbled piece of beef; Laurence was considering if his finances could stretch to the provision of some cattle, at least for a treat.

"There is Caesar's breakfast," Temeraire said, with a sigh, as the mournful lowing of a cow came towards them from the bottom of the hill; but when it was brought up, by an only slightly less reluctant youth, he delivered it not to Caesar but to them, stammering compliments of Mr. MacArthur, and for Laurence there was an invitation card, asking him to supper.

"I wonder he should make such a gesture," Laurence said, rather taken aback; one thing for MacArthur to bring himself to the covert - however irregularly organized, still in the nature of an official outpost - and quite another to invite Laurence to his home, in mixed company likely overseen by his wife. "I wonder at it indeed; unless," he added, low, "he has had some intelligence of Rankin's interest in Bligh's case: that might make sufficient motive even for this."

"Umm," Temeraire said indistinctly, nibbling around a substantial thigh-bone; his attention was fixed notably on Gong Su's enthusiastic preparations: the cow had been butchered, and was going into the earth with what greenstuffs had passed muster, and some cracked wheat; even Caesar had peeled open an eye and was looking over with covert interest.

The hour was fixed sufficiently late they could wait until the heat of the day had passed and travel at the beginning of twilight; Temeraire, having made a splendid meal, carried Laurence aloft into the softening but yet unbroken blue: no clouds, yet again, all the day. What would have made an hour's journey on horse, across rough country, was an easy ten minutes' flight dragon-back, and there was a wide fallow field open near the house, where Temeraire could set down.

"Pray thank him for my cow," Temeraire said, contentedly settling himself to nap. "It was very handsome of him, and I do not think he is a coward anymore, after all."

Laurence crossed the field to the house, and paused to knock the dirt from his boots before he stepped into the lane: he had worn trousers, and Hessians, more suitable to flying; but in concession to the invitation, he had made an effort with his cravat, and put on his better coat. A groom came out, and looked about confused for Laurence's horse before pointing him to the door: the house was comfortable but not especially grand, built practically and made for work, but there was an elegance and taste in the arrangements.

He was shown into the salon, and a company heavily slanted: only four women to seven men, most of those in officers' uniforms; one of the women rose, as Mr. MacArthur came to join him, and he presented her to Laurence as his wife, Elizabeth.

"I hope you will forgive the informality of our society, Mr. Laurence," she said, when he had bowed over her hand. "We are grown sadly careless in this wild country, and the heat crushes all aspirations to stiffness. I hope you did not have a very tiring ride."

"Not at all; Temeraire brought me," Laurence said. "He is in your southwest field; I trust it no inconvenience."

"Why, none," she said, though her eyes had widened, and one of the officers said, "Do you mean you have that monster sitting out in the yard?"

"That monster's sharpest weapon is his tongue," MacArthur said. "I am pretty well cut to ribbons yet: did the cow sweeten him at all?"

"As much as you might like, sir," Laurence said, dryly. " - you have quite hit on the point of weakness."

The supper was, for all the ulterior motives likely to have been its inspiration, a comfortable and civilized affair: Laurence had not quite known what to expect, from the colonial society, but Mrs. MacArthur was plainly a woman of some character, and though indeed never striving for a formality which both the climate and the situation of the colony would have rendered tiresome and a little absurd, she directed the style of their gathering nevertheless. She could not have a balanced table, so she served the meal in two courses, inviting her guests to refresh themselves in between with a little walking in the gardens, illuminated with lamps, and rearranging the seating on their return to partner the ladies afresh.

The meal was thoughtfully suited to the weather as well: a cool soup of fresh cucumber and mint, meat served in jellied aspic, beef very thinly carved from the joint, lightly boiled chicken; and instead of pudding an array of cakes, with pots of jam, and excellent, fragrant tea; all served on porcelain of the very highest quality, the one real extravagance Laurence remarked: dishes of white and that particularly delicate shade of blue which could not be achieved by any European art, and the strength of real quality.

He noticed it to his hostess with compliments; to his surprise she looked a little crestfallen, and said, "Oh, you have found out my weakness, Mr. Laurence; I could not resist them, although I know very well I oughtn't: they must be smuggled, of course."

"Do not say it aloud!" MacArthur cried. "So long as you do not know it for certain, you may ha'e your dishes, and we our tea; and long may the rascals thrive."

One of the many charges Bligh had laid at the rebels' door had been the practice of smuggling: the back alleys and trading houses of Sydney were flooded with goods from China, which from the price alone one could tell had evaded the East India Company's monopoly on such trade. "And I expect he would blame us for the drought, too, if he heard me say I thought the weather would hold clear another month," MacArthur said, offering a glass of port, when the ladies had left them.

"I don't say we have never brought in some goods which a governor might not approve of," he continued, "but I am speaking of rum, which we must have; you cannot get a man to work here, except you fill his glass, and with more than you can pour at five shillings the bottle. A damned folly, too: a pickled liver cannot tell good dark West Indian rum from the Bengali stuff. But we cannot even bring in that, now: there is not a smell of any kind of goods, from Africa, since the Cape was lost.

"As for the China goods, by God! If I could make a profit selling China ware at two pounds a box in Sydney, with all the cost and risk of freight, I would be packing it on ships for England, instead, and die rich as Croesus. There are fellows making a pretty penny selling it on, I believe, even when they can only buy it one box at a time."

There was a general murmur of agreement, and some anecdotes of trading agreements followed: it seemed to Laurence the officers all were tradesmen also, in some measure, and the tradesmen all former officers, and many of them landed as well: they made no distinction amongst themselves, and perhaps could not have, if there were not men of business enough established in the colony to provide opportunities for investment, or their rough-and-tumble fortunes not yet sufficiently realized in coin to take advantage of them.

MacArthur drew him aside, as the cigars were offered around and lit, and to the open doors looking into the gardens: squeaking small bats were flying now in clouds around the trees where earlier they had slept, hanging. "I am grateful to you for coming," he said. "We gave you little enough reason to do so."

"You are a good host, sir," Laurence said, "and it is a welcome I had not looked for."

"Governor Bligh would call me a traitor, so far as that goes: has done oft enough, I imagine," MacArthur said, "and would hang me for it, too. I will not pretend, sir, to be anything less than deeply interested, under the circumstances. I said to you, I believe, that I am ready to stand judgment for my acts; and so I am, but I don't care to be marched to the scaffold before it is handed down."

Laurence looked out at the gardens a little grimly - wilting in the heat and yet still restful to look upon, neatly arranged, and beyond them the wide spreading fields. He was conscious that MacArthur's establishment made a powerful argument in support of his claim to have made something of himself, and in an isolate and difficult country to have carried forward the banner of civilization: uniting all the taste and respectability which was absent from the sad and rackety condition of the town. So long from England and longer yet from any respectability, Laurence could feel the force of that argument all the more strongly.

"Sir," he answered, "I can well understand your desire; but forgive me, I will not commit myself, and moreover Temeraire, to any course of action in advance. I have a reputation which may make me seem more a friend to rebellion than I am by any willing choice; and for that part, my assistance might not be an unmitigated boon to you, if you had it."

"And, if you will allow me to be blunt," MacArthur said, "for your part, you would be in a pretty position, standing in the way of seeing Governor Bligh restored, if a frigate should come in a couple of weeks, declare us the worst unhanged scoundrels south of the line, and the governor to be put back into place at gun-point. No, sir; I do not ask any man, so unconnected to me as you are, to put his neck on the chopping-block with mine; but if you are amenable enough to listen, I had rather propose to you a means of evading the issue entirely."

He drew Laurence into his study, and on the desk drew out the maps of the colony, and the penning mountain range about it, a great labyrinthine mass of gorges and peaks, only vaguely sketched. "All our purposes can march together," MacArthur said. "You wish to be well out of the affair; just so: I wish you out of it also, and every other dragon in the place with you, at least long enough for our doom to arrive. It cannot be long now, when the last frigate brought the post only a month behind our news."

His proposal was an expedition whose purpose should be to find a crossing over the Blue Mountains, and establish a cattle-drive road from the colony to the open territory beyond, "where," he continued, "you may set up this covert your beasts will require, and take yourselves all the land you might like: I cannot see how anyone can complain, when you have opened the passage yourselves.

"Captain Granby is senior, I think," he added, "and can I suppose order this Captain Rankin on such a mission: if this new creature means to go on eating as he has begun, it seems to me you had all better be thinking of how to feed him, particularly as you have two more hatchlings to come."

"I am afraid it must keep you here a little longer," Laurence said, rather diffident in making the suggestion: he could not like asking Granby to enter into such a stratagem, however practical.

He felt himself caught between shoals and a lee-shore, in an unfamiliar channel: MacArthur's machinations were no more noble than Bligh's in their ends, and likely less; even if in their forthrightness more appealing, and with the benefit of MacArthur's greater charm of person. And they were neither of them looking beyond the parochial boundaries of their quarrel, to the titanic struggle creeping ever more widely over the world. If either of them gave a thought to the war, Laurence could not discover it, and though they might gladly make him any promises which would make of him the useful ally they desired, they neither of them recognized in any real way the colossal folly of wasting Temeraire in this isolate part of the world.

It was enough to make him look again at Tharkay's suggestion: Laurence could easily long for the sea-wind in his face and the open ocean, and at least the comfort of doing some rather than no good, even if that small and diversionary. Something in his heart curled away from the mercenary life; but he was not certain he ought let that stand in his way, and Temeraire's. If there was no honor in it, neither could he see any here, at best errand-runners for an indifferent overseer, and at worst pawns in a selfish squabbling.

MacArthur's proposal offered, however, at least a temporary escape from all these alternatives; if it could not answer for long, Laurence was at present in the mood to be satisfied with small blessings. "But I would not in the least press it upon you," he added, "and I hope you will not act in any way contrary to your judgment, nor - "

Nor, he meant to add, in excessive haste, but Granby broke in on him before he could. "For God's sake let us go first thing in the morning," Granby said, passionately. "I have been living in mortal terror every day I should wake up and find myself a hundred miles into the interior: she keeps talking of going to look for elephants. What I am to do if Rankin will not come, though, I cannot tell you. No one can argue Iskierka isn't in a different class, but I have no official orders to be here, where he does; and seniority is a sad puzzle: he was a captain first, even if he hasn't had a dragon for years."

"I suggest you do not concern yourselves until the event," Tharkay said, "if it should arise," and shrugged when Rankin, to Laurence's private surprise, made no objections either to the project or to Granby's assertion of rank. "Bligh's support was desirable to him when he thought you might try to deny him the egg," Tharkay said. "Now he can only gain very little and risk much by committing himself; I imagine he is perfectly satisfied to have you provide him a convenient excuse to withdraw, particularly when Granby must soon depart and restore his precedence."

Laurence could of course not look upon the expedition with anything like pleasure, save the meager sort involved in escaping a worse outcome. There was nothing attractive in the prospect of shepherding a gang of convicts, and a month in Rankin's company would have been a most effective punishment in quarters less confined than a small encampment; for insult to add upon these injuries, he might also expect the hostility of the rest of the aviators.

"I know they have made clods of themselves, but you had better have at least one officer," Granby said, scratching out a haphazard list of the aviators on the back of a napkin, in his shipboard cabin, as he chose which men to assign to Temeraire and to Iskierka, as temporary crews. Laurence of course had been stripped of his subordinates with his rank, and Iskierka had left her own back in Britain when she had decamped without permission to follow them, taking only Granby. "Will you take Forthing?"

"Temeraire has taken him a little in dislike, I find," Laurence said.

"Yes, I know," Granby said. "I should like to give Forthing a chance to make it up with him; otherwise we will have a job of it to persuade Temeraire to let him make a try for one of the eggs. Not that Forthing is any less a clod than the rest, but at least he is a competent clod. Most of the rest are the flotsam of the Corps as much as the eggs are. That fellow Blincoln is pleased with himself if he manages to round up half-a-dozen men to put away harness in good order; and I suppose he may as well be, because it don't happen very often."

Laurence nodded. "We will take Fellowes and Dorset, of course; and Roland and Demane can manage the rest, I expect," he said. "We ought not take more men than necessary; there can be no need to burden the dragons."

"I hope," Tharkay said, "that I may form one of your party, as well, if it is not inconvenient."

They looked at him with surprise. After a moment, Laurence said, "Certainly, if you like," forcibly repressing his curiosity; Granby said, "But Lord above, whyever for? We will end with pickaxing our way through solid rock for a month in the worst heat of summer, and there is not a blessed soul out there to be found: unless we see some of the natives, and with three dragons I am pretty sure we won't."

Tharkay paused, and then said quietly, "You will be surveying first, from aloft; if there is a route in use, that will offer the best chance of seeing it."

"If there were a route in use, we shouldn't have to build one," Granby said.

"I am not expecting to find a road suitable for general use," Tharkay said. "A mule-track at most, I should think."

"But - " Laurence said, and only barely restrained himself; Granby also had stopped, with an open mouth: but it was too plain Tharkay did not choose to volunteer more; he might easily have done so. "Oh, if you like, then," Granby said awkwardly, after a moment, looking at Laurence.

"We should be glad of your company," Laurence said, with a bow, and only later, privately to Temeraire, expressed his confusion.

"Maybe he is looking for the smugglers," Temeraire said, unconcernedly, nibbling up another portion of sheep stuffed with raisins and grains: MacArthur had sent another present that morning, letting no grass grow. Laurence stared. "Well, if someone has a secret road and has not said anything to anyone about it," Temeraire offered, having swallowed, "it stands to reason they must be hiding it for cause; and you were just telling me of all these goods from China which are coming in."

"It would be a very peculiar way to bring goods into a port city," Laurence said, doubtfully, but he recalled Tharkay had engaged himself in service to the directors of the East India Company: at Maden's request, he might well have undertaken such a task, even if it did not seem a likely explanation for his wishing to accompany their party.

"But anyone could think of searching the ships and the dockyards, to catch them," Temeraire said, and Laurence after a little more consideration had to acknowledge that if the intention was ultimately to ship the goods on to England, the arrangement was ideal: slip the goods into the markets unsuspected, and then any legitimate captain might openly purchase them and carry them onward.

"They must be landing them in a convenient bay, then, somewhere further up the coast," Laurence said, "and taking them around by land; but it would be a most circuitous route, through unsettled and dangerous countryside."

"There is nothing very dangerous when there is nothing but kangaroos about," Temeraire said dismissively.

They decamped in accord with Granby's fondest wishes, the very next morning, with all the speed and disorder usual to the Aerial Corps and more when traveling so light: the bulk of their baggage was made of simple pickaxes and hammers and shovels, instead of bombshells and gunpowder, and the few tents which would be their shelter. The mountains were richly green despite the summer, even seen from a distance; they might rely on finding sufficient water without trying to carry very much of it as supply, and with a few sacks of biscuit and barrels of salt pork they were ready to depart.

The work gang had been assembled with equal haste: some dozen convicts, having been promised their liberty in exchange for this one service, were herded with difficulty up to the promontory and thence into Temeraire's belly-rigging. They were an odd, ill-favored assortment of men, for the most part thin and leathery, with a peculiar similarity to their faces perhaps born of suffering and their preferred mode of consolation: fine traceworks of broken red capillaries about the base of their noses, and eyes shot through with blood.

There were a few men who looked a little more suited to the work which lay ahead: a Jonas Green, who might himself have been cut none-too-neatly out of rock, with bulk in his shoulders and his arms; he alone of the convicts was not drunk when they came up to the promontory. A Robert Maynard was rather more fat than substantial, and no one could have accused him of abstinence, but he had reportedly a little skill at stonemasonry, and his hands showed the evidence: callused hard as iron and large out of all proportion, thick-fingered.

"You had better not mistake him," MacArthur said, handing over the manifest of men. "Transported for pickpocketing. He cannot do much harm out in the wilderness, but I would advise you keep your purses close when you are coming back."

Though they were nearly one and all a little intoxicated, and the hour early enough to yet be dark when they had been marched up to the promontory, the convicts balked at dragon transport, seeing Temeraire's head swinging towards them through the foggy dimness, and were inclined to withdraw at once.

"It's more than you can ask a man," one almost fragile, reedy-voiced fellow said: Jack Telly, sad-eyed and disappointed in his face, his stunted person incongruous with the aggression of his protest. "I can swing a pick all day and all night, and will, too, but I ain't to be thrown in a dragon's belly without so much as a by-your-leave."

The general agreement with this sentiment resisted all logic and was only overcome with sufficient doses of rum and cajolery to leave the men in a more or less stupefied state - not unlike the methods used for transporting cattle, Laurence with some resignation noted - before they could at last be marched aboard. Green alone refused the bribery, with a shake of his head when offered a glass; he was one of the convicts who had only lately been brought over in the Allegiance, and climbed aboard rather with no confidence but a stoic resignation: as though he did not care very greatly if he were to be fed to a dragon.

Forthing saw the loading managed efficiently under Temeraire's darkling gaze and said, "I believe we are ready, Mr. Laurence," a little stiffly but without open discourtesy: Granby, Laurence thought, had made him a few pointed remarks, on the subject of his prospects and how likely these were to be advanced through behavior which should irritate the dragon overseeing the remaining eggs that were all his hope of promotion.

"The eggs are quite secure?" Temeraire said, nosing down at his own belly, where they had been snugged in: he had utterly refused to leave them behind, even in Riley's care.

"No: for Bligh is still aboard the ship," Temeraire had said, "and apart from any other mischief he might do them, if one should hatch, I should not be at all surprised if Bligh should try and take it for himself, since Rankin is not going to oblige him after all. I would not worry ordinarily, but plainly the sea-voyage has affected the eggs badly: that is the only explanation for Caesar, in my opinion," with great disapproval.

"Pray be sure that the little one is in properly," Temeraire added now. "It would be quite dreadful if it were to slip out."

"The netting is tight, and the padding will not shift," Laurence said, pulling against the thick hawsers of the belly-netting with his hand, and leaning his weight against it, without much yielding. "And we cannot have any fear of the temperature falling too far. Try away, if you will."

Temeraire reared himself up on his hindquarters and shook; not with quite the usual vigor, as he had too much care for the eggs, but enough to be sure nothing was ready to tumble free or break loose. "All lies well," he said.

"If you are quite ready," Iskierka said, "perhaps we might leave in reasonable time, instead of sitting about for hours."

"Some of us," Temeraire returned smartly, "are carrying things, instead of being quite useless; and if you would not mind being careless with the eggs, I would."

Iskierka could not easily be used for transport: her spikes, which jetted steam almost perpetually, rendered her hazardous to all but trained men and packages securely wrapped in oilcloth; so she was a good deal more unburdened, carrying only Granby and her makeshift skeleton crew.

"I don't see why we must be in such a hurry," Caesar said, disconsolately, to take the opposing position; he was not inclined to do much of anything yet but sleep and eat, in the way of new hatchlings, and did not seem much affected by the boredom which had rendered Iskierka an imminent danger. "We might leave tomorrow; or when it is less hot."

"That," Temeraire said, "will not be for three months; now stop complaining, and let us be off."

For all the apprehension of difficulty and tedium, Laurence could not yet repress a sensation of pleasure in climbing aboard Temeraire's back, the familiar and solid snap of the metal carabiners locking in his hands, securely fixed on to the harness-rings; the sense of a crew, however small, moving about behind him; other beasts in company. And then the great coiling leap upwards: Temeraire's wings snapping outstretched to cup the rushing hot air, endless blue above welcoming and glitter on the water below.

The Allegiance and all Sydney herself were reduced to charming picturesque, the dusty roads become gold ribbons from the air, and beyond the city's bounds the neat squares of cultivated fields and orchards unrolling before them like a spreading carpet; and the dragons' shadows fell upon them like cut-out silhouettes, rising over the hills, with the mountains rising in their blue haze in the distance.

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