Tongues of Serpents

Chapter 7

Part II

Chapter 7

"MY DEAR," Laurence said, keeping his hand on Temeraire's forearm by way of both comfort and urging restraint, "we cannot be haring into the countryside unguided: aloft you cannot follow a trail, and with the quantity of timber in this country even the most unhandy thief can evade you for the price of hiding concealed the day, and traveling at night."

"We cannot be sitting here while they are carrying the egg off to who knows what fate," Temeraire said, his tail lashing so rapidly that Laurence feared he might do someone an injury; he was certainly wreaking destruction wholesale upon the vegetation in its path.

The stunted little egg sat lonesome on its nest of dry leaves and branches, the empty space beside it mutely reproachful: evidently forced to choose amongst prizes, the thieves had taken the larger Yellow Reaper egg, and left the runt behind.

Laurence had rarely seen Temeraire so roused, or Iskierka: a threat to himself or Granby offered the nearest comparison, and Laurence thought this might exceed even that passion: the greatest effort was visibly required to restrain them from immediate action, however purposeless; and Iskierka had already burnt up three trees by way of venting her feelings.

"Pray keep in mind," Granby said urgently, "that the thieves will take the very best care of the egg: they haven't stolen it to do it harm, they want a dragon of their own, plainly; although," he added more quietly to Laurence, as they went to consult with Tharkay, who had already set about examining the trail, "I don't know whatever for: I have never heard of men, ordinary men that is, wanting anything to do with a dragon."

"If Tharkay's supposition is right," Laurence said, "these may not be ordinary smugglers; if Napoleon has gone to such lengths to undermine our trade, they may as likely be French soldiers as mere profiteers."

"Even so, what would they want with an egg, here?" Granby said. "They can't mean to set up a covert of their own; it isn't as though the French have any prayer of holding a colony here, their navy being what it is, and ours being what it is."

"Why do pirates steal ships?" Tharkay said, without looking up from the ground. "They hardly need to establish a covert to make use of a dragon; they need only to evade you, and hunt enough game to feed it. A good, reliable, middle-weight beast would suit them admirably, I imagine: a transport for their goods better than a mule-train, and which leaves no trail on the ground to be followed."

What few traces he had found of the smugglers led onward to the north-west; little to give them hope, but all the intelligence Temeraire required to cast off all restraint. "Let us go at once, then; what if they are taking the egg back to the coast, to a ship? Or they might drop it, or cause it some hurt; they are certainly not properly trained aviators, and they do not have a dragon with them. What if they do not feed it when it has hatched, and only try and chain it? Oh! There are a thousand dreadful things which might be happening to it even now."

"And we are certainly not going to find it sitting here," Iskierka put in, which was true, but a species of logic which put an end to any rational design of the pursuit: the two of them would be off, at once, and when Caesar, evidently not yet inclined to so protective a view of his hypothetical year-mate, began to complain, Iskierka caught him by the ruff of his neck, shook him, and none too gently dragged him squalling and protesting up onto Temeraire's back: they refused point-blank to be constrained by his slower pace.

Laurence expected some protest from Rankin; but he made none, and Granby only shook his head and ordered his handful of men aboard. "Mr. Laurence," Forthing said, a little formally, when Laurence turned, "we have the egg ready to go aboard, if Temeraire should please: I have taken the liberty of swaddling it with more padding, and Mr. Fellowes believes we may rig it hammock-fashion, that it should not suffer from any shaking which the pursuit might make necessary."

"That is very good," Temeraire said, swinging his head around to inspect the arrangements, the first sign of approval he had offered Forthing; he nosed the well-wrapped egg a little to confirm and then squatted himself awkwardly that the fittings might be lashed to the breast-bands of his abbreviated harness, and to the broader band behind the wings, and the egg thus cradled gently rocking against his chest.

There were some sidelong and hostile looks towards Forthing and this operation, from the few officers who had accompanied Granby: if they had grudged a little before that Forthing should be situated so near the eggs, and have the best prospects of securing for himself the captaincy of the preferable Yellow Reaper, Laurence could well imagine their feelings now. They had all swallowed an assignment to a remote and undesirable posting, with few chances of seeing all-important combat or of advancement, with the only consolation the prospect of promotion for men who could not have hoped for the step otherwise.

Laurence did not think they would find the lost egg. Tharkay's expression, looking at the trail, had not been sanguine, even if discretion had prevented him from conveying a discouraging opinion in the hearing of the excessively interested dragons. The smugglers must know their course, and anticipate pursuit: they had already found themselves at least this one route through the wilderness, and likely knew other passages.

So there was one chance only left, the stunted egg: undesirable by comparison yet priceless now, and to make matters worse, this must substantially worsen the breeding prospects of the new colony. Jane meant to send them more eggs, Laurence knew, but these three had been intended as the foundation, and the Yellow Reaper perhaps the most critical. If the egg had hatched a sire, who might be bred against many other lines, Jane would have sent a wider variety of the eggs of many more desirable breeds, for which men already here and established in service could aim to be preferred. If the egg had hatched a dam, the aviators likely hoped that a lack of alternatives might incline Temeraire to affection.

Whatever they might think of Temeraire's personal habits of free-thinking, these they generally credited, Laurence knew, to his own account: when, he was dryly amused to think, the reverse was by far the truth of the matter. They certainly none of them had any objections to Temeraire's capabilities from a military perspective.

"A cross with a Reaper would be just the thing," Laurence had overheard, more than once - marrying Temeraire's virtues with the tractability and general good humor traditional to the Reaper breed, which had made it so widely preferred for service.

But there would certainly be no hope of a crossing between Temeraire and the little creature that would come out of the final egg: and therefore likely no hope of any mating at all until more eggs arrived, unless the runt proved female, and willing to be interested in Caesar - who had not risen in the estimation of the aviators since his hatching; the possibility did not excite great anticipation.

But there was nothing to be done. The Reaper egg was gone, and likely beyond all hope, even though they should have to go and search: Temeraire's and Iskierka's spirits could not bear otherwise. Only the slow grinding of time and failure would ease their grief and the disappointment to manageable levels. "We may hope, I suppose," Laurence said to Tharkay quietly, as they parted to go aboard, "that this search will at least be of some use in your quest: if we do overshoot the smugglers, at least we can follow the trail to its culmination, and the source of their goods, which if it is a harbor of any consequence will not be easily replaced, when we have denied it to them with regular patrols."

"From my perspective, nothing could be better," Tharkay said. "My fee was for tracing the smugglers' methods; it would not extend to the hire of dragons and a company of men to hunt them down, nor certainly to their destruction: but I imagine the greatest difficulty will be cutting a few of them out for questioning, if our friends continue in their present sentiments."

Tharkay went to join Granby; Laurence swung himself up to Temeraire's back without ceremony, and latched on to the harness at the back; Rankin was already hooked on and speaking quietly with the sulky Caesar.

"If you wish it, my dear captain, of course I will oblige, even though I am sure I don't see what the fuss is," Caesar said, "or why we should be bundled about like bag and baggage, when we might just as easily stay here and keep watch over the cows."

He said it quietly, though, and Temeraire ignored him entirely, only swinging his head briefly about to say, "Laurence, you are quite secure?" and cast a glittering eye over the rest of his passengers: the slitted pupil was open unnaturally wide, with almost a hint of red glowing within, the reflection of the lowering sun.

"I am," Laurence said, and they were airborne: the valley and its green curves falling away, away, and the sandstone cliffs; its serenity already a distant memory, and the drumming of wings like the beat for the turning of the capstan, bringing the anchor up.

The greatest danger, of course, Temeraire realized even through the distancing haze of fury, was they should overshoot the thieves, and miss them entirely: the men were carrying the egg, which should be a difficult burden for them, if they did not have waggons - Tharkay thought they did not - and of course, they were walking upon the ground in so tiresome a way, having to work through the brush.

"We cannot only fly straight after them on the trail," he told Iskierka. "Otherwise, we should soon go much further than they could possibly be, and meanwhile I am sure they should have hidden themselves somewhere aside, and be waiting for us to pass. We must be sure they are not in any countryside before we fly on out of it."

"I think we must fly sweeps," Laurence said, and sketched for them the pattern: they should keep the trail in the center of their course, and fly first zigging west, and then north, in arcs like a swinging broom.

Iskierka jetted steam from her spikes, restlessly. "How far do you think they might manage, to the side of the trail?" she asked. "If we go flying off all over the place, they will get ahead of us after all; and they might have horses, even if they don't have waggons."

They decided after some debate on a span of five miles in either direction, and continuing north-west began the flying pattern. It was hard, distressing flying - every bit of pale stone that caught the eye made Temeraire's heart leap uncomfortably in his chest, lest it should be the smooth creamy-pale shell, speckled black; so he was reminded at every turn of their dreadfully urgent purpose, and his head ached, too, from staring fixedly down at the ground.

Iskierka, who did not have so many people to carry, dived over and over towards some flash of movement - and over and over came away only with some useless bit of game, a wretched kangaroo or one of the stringy-legged cassowaries. She shared with Temeraire, at least, so they might eat as they flew and thus waste no further time; and she was, he could not deny, very quick to see the little flashes of movement.

It was comforting, not to be quite alone in the search; Iskierka was wrongheaded and irresponsible in almost every particular, and no one could enjoy her company, but in this one instance where they were of united mind and purpose, he might acknowledge her a valuable presence. On occasion - very few occasions, of course - she even saw something which he himself had not just yet noticed.

"Is that - " he began, and Iskierka dived at once: there was a knot of trees and low, coarse shrubbery, where he thought he had seen a glimmer of movement. She blasted the stand with fire, a quick hot roaring which did not properly catch in the greenery, but would have stunned any enemy within, and then tore into the trees: saplings and bushes cast aside into a singed heap, while she thrust her head within and searched, reaching in her talons to claw and snatch at the ground.

And withdrew: she had a few small rodents collected in a handful of dirt, asphyxiated dead and barely each of them a bite. They ate them anyway, raw and uncleaned. It was of a piece with the sensation Temeraire recognized, of being removed from a place of conscious thought: but then, at present thought was not necessary, nor desirable; and neither was anything like sensibility. They needed only fly, and seek, and hunt so far as was needed to sustain life: he could not be very sorry to be reduced to an animal state, at present, when he must suffer otherwise a fresh dose of self-recrimination.

Iskierka, he had to admit, had not accused him. She might have said, What were you about, to let the egg be left unguarded? Or she might have reproached him for sleeping, or sleeping so soundly, that someone had managed to spirit it away. She had not. Of course, Temeraire might have answered back with the same charge; but he had kept charge of the eggs all the long way from Britain: Iskierka had not had a full share in looking after them. He had not let her have it; and if he had, he was miserably forced to consider, perhaps she would have been more wary, or more alert; perhaps she would not have let the egg be taken.

He had much rather not think at all, than think along such lines. He tore into his little wombats for what virtue they had: they were thin and lean, but each one a small hot bite of juice, revitalizing.

"Are you hungry, Laurence?" Temeraire asked, surfacing only so far from his intent preoccupation.

"No; we do well enough with biscuit, have no fear on that score," Laurence said, "but my dear, we cannot keep searching for very much longer tonight. The light is failing."

"We can make torches," Iskierka said, and turning set her claws into one of the larger eucalypts, shaking it back and forth until at last its roots came loose; a torrent of fire ignited the tree-top and made an oily flame, pungent and queerly medicinal in smell.

But it was not quite so easy as it might have sounded to throw the light properly onto the ground, and when Iskierka had made a torch for Temeraire, he found that holding it was awkward, particularly as he had to be careful of the last little egg hanging forward on his breast, and the convicts slung below in his netting, whenever the wind pushed the fire towards his belly.

He saw the torchlight flicker in reflection, on something on the ground, and turned quite by instinct; cries warned him, and he jerked the torch abruptly aside, but in so doing singed his talons painfully, and dropped it. He half-reached for the falling torch, but then he reconsidered: and went instead for that small reflection, while he yet could place where it had come from.

But he only landed upon stone, and clawing away found only more. Iskierka brought her light over, and it shone abruptly in red and green and pearlescent fire, on a narrow vein his scraping had exposed in the rock.

"Opal," Tharkay said. The stone was beautiful, and under any other circumstance Temeraire would have greeted the discovery with the utmost pleasure: he could feel nothing for it now, nothing in the least, but only the sharp and bitter disappointment of failure and regret.

"I am very sorry; I beg you will not press on again. You cannot help but miss more than you find, with this method," Laurence said quietly. "The nights are grown short, in this part of the world; dawn will come soon, and you must have some rest in any case. Better to sleep a little while, and rise at the earliest traces of light."

The fallen torch was burning down to embers, a little distance off, the only gleam of light anywhere around; all the night seemed very black but for the spray of stars above, and that last orange glow. Iskierka with a low hiss of frustration and wrath flung her own torch aside, and cast herself down in a restless, coiling tumble to sleep.

Temeraire stayed only long enough to be unloaded, although he said, "No; you may leave it there, and the harness; I find I can sleep quite well with it on after all," when they would have taken off the little egg. He felt very weary suddenly, although he would not have stopped, not for anything, if only there had been any way of continuing the search. He arranged himself carefully on the ground, propped up a little and with the last egg bracketed within his arms, where no one could have come at it without disturbing him.

It did not quite answer, though; uneasily he realized he was used to people clambering over him; so small and light as they were, he might never notice. He decided he should only rest. But sleep stole treacherously over him: his head drooped, his eyelids sank shut, and then the wind shifted, or a branch rubbed along his wing, and he managed to jerk awake again; he nosed anxiously at the egg and made sure all was well, and then the enemy sleep was creeping up again.

He was so tired; and then Laurence, dear Laurence, put a hand on his forearm and climbed over, to sit beside the egg. "Pray get as much rest as you can," he said. "I can sleep tomorrow when you must be flying."

"Thank you, Laurence; it should be the greatest comfort to me," Temeraire said gratefully, and sleep might be allowed to come at last; he closed his eyes on the deeply reassuring sight of the gleam of Laurence's drawn sword, lying across his knees to be sharpened, and fell at once into slumber.

In the morning, however, the sustaining wrath had fled. All that remained was a grey, grinding misery, the sensation of failure mingled with the certainty that however futile, the search must continue, until the egg's final fate - dreadful though it was likely to be - should be known. Temeraire nosed at the last, littlest egg to comfort himself: it had begun to harden, he thought, and would soon cease to be in danger; the event could not come quickly enough to suit him.

"You might hurry, if you liked," he told the egg quietly, "although certainly not so you do yourself any harm; only if you felt hungry, perhaps, or ready to try a little flying, you might come out sooner rather than late."

Iskierka was pacing, meanwhile: a restless abbreviated movement back and forth, so her long and coiling tail lagged behind when she made her turns, and continued in her original direction for a while, until she lashed it up behind her again. "Well?" she said. "Let us be going; it is light again."

It was not yet quite light; there was just enough of a paler quality to the sky to see her shape silhouetted black against the horizon, and the faint white clouds of steam issuing from her spikes. But the men had still to be got aboard: the sun was near the horizon as they finally leapt back aloft, and in their climb they broke into the sunlight before it had struck the land.

They had a little while searching before they found the trail itself again, and were obliged to land several times that Tharkay might look for signs. The repeated delays were extremely wearing to the spirit, but Temeraire held back the complaints which he might have wanted to make; he could see that their insistence on continuing to search, into the night, had made it quite impossible for Tharkay to keep any sight of the trail. He could not be unreasonable, he told himself, and added to Iskierka at the fourth such pause, "And the chances of finding the egg must be so much smaller if we should lose the trail entirely; it is only sensible, and we are not wasting time, really, but gaining it."

"Yes, yes," Iskierka said. "Is he not done yet? Whyever must it take so long, only to peer at the ground; and why must there be so many trees here?"

"As long as they are here, you might let me down to rest under them; I am very hot again," Caesar put in, from Temeraire's back, where he had been sternly instructed to remain; naturally, just to make more of a nuisance of himself, he had put on another five or six stone of weight overnight, Temeraire thought.

It was very inconvenient to be hunting over such forested country: they had crossed now over the mountains, and there were everywhere trees, so one might look as far as one liked without seeing a break in them, except for the river below flowing south- and westward, away from the ocean. "It must flow to the southern coast, or empty into some lake or inland sea, I suppose," Laurence said, looking at them, and at his spread-out maps of the coastline of the continent, sadly incomplete.

"That would be something to look forward to, I suppose," Granby said, wiping his sleeve across his forehead. "I would not mind coming across a lake. These smugglers must have water somewhere along their road?" he added.

It was very hard to endure the slow pace, the endless trees slipping by, the river winding away from them. Iskierka was of the opinion they had better be done with it, and fly onward straight; and Temeraire found it a grave struggle to persuade her otherwise: he had to argue with himself and not only her, even though Laurence and Granby were so very certain.

Temeraire tried to fly as cautiously and slowly as he might, but several days went by without a sign, and Tharkay began insisting for all their efforts they had overshot and must go back. Temeraire could not quite believe it - they had been going so very slowly - but Laurence at last persuaded him to pause, one morning before they had gone aloft, to let him draw out a diagramme, showing him the fastest pace the thieves could have made: and Temeraire could not deny it; they had gone too far.

They had another three days flying back over the same ground, retreating to the last traces they had found and repeating their search, before at last Tharkay allowed them to continue further: but he had found nothing new. Temeraire landed dully for water that afternoon by the river, full of despair; he could not help but drink thirstily, but he did not feel he deserved it.

"Laurence," Tharkay said, rising, "a word, if you please." Temeraire pricked up his ruff, and valiantly resisted the temptation to eavesdrop; whatever could Tharkay be saying, which he should not like the rest of them to hear? And Laurence looked quite serious, when he said it; of course one could not go prying into a secret conversation, but -

"I cannot hear them at all," Iskierka said. "Granby, go and tell us what they are saying."

"Well, I shan't," Granby said firmly, "and you shan't go nearer, either; you have enough sins to your account with adding on the vice of listening."

But then Laurence came back and said, very gently, "My dear, I must ask you to exert the greatest restraint, and to persuade Iskierka to do the same, before I should - " and Temeraire stricken said, "Oh - oh, he has found - a bit of the egg - "

"No," Laurence said, "no, my dear; quite the contrary, but you must not disturb the trail, nor lose it. Tharkay thinks they were here, only last night, and that they kept the egg here on this low hillock of sand: but he cannot be certain - "

"They are near, then!" Iskierka exclaimed, rearing up on her hind legs.

"Stop, stop!" Temeraire said, and leaping pinned down several of her coils to the ground. "You must not flap and stir the ground, otherwise he will lose everything; we must wait. Tharkay, can you tell at all where they have gone?"

His wings wished to tremble with excitement; all the grimy sense of despair quite swept away. They had not failed: the thieves had not got clear with their prize. "Why, we have only been flying a few hours this morning," Temeraire said, exultantly, "and stopping so often; surely we must find them and catch them up before to-day is spent, after all. And you are quite sure, I hope, that the egg was well when they were here?" he asked. "Was it near their campfire, perhaps, could you tell?"

"I have already provided you the best part of a phantasy," Tharkay said, "to speculate the egg was here at all," but that was only his dry way, Temeraire decided.

Iskierka was all for going at once, with all speed on a direct course, but Granby and Laurence were insistent on the subject: they had to keep flying their sweeps, for the thieves likely should know by now that they were being so closely pursued. "It is very inconvenient that we should be so large, and they so small," Temeraire said to Laurence unhappily, "for I dare say they are hiding somewhere in the trees looking at us this same instant, thinking, There they are, and they cannot see us at all! in a very unpleasant gloating way."

"I will go so far as to assure you," Laurence said, "that if the thieves are anywhere and under any sort of cover imaginable, where they can see you and the treatment you have been meting out to the surrounding vegetation, they are not in the least inclined either to gloating or laughter. Prayer might be more to the point."

Temeraire could no longer complain at all whenever Tharkay wished them to stop again, and neither could Iskierka; instead they peered over his shoulder, at whatever speck of dirt or dust he might be inspecting, and tried to work out whatever traces he had found. Temeraire saw nothing at all, himself, although he nodded and tried to look wise when Tharkay should point at some perfectly indistinguishable patch of ground and call it a footprint, or at an unremarkable bush and call it a trace of passage.

A few days later, still at the creeping sluggish pace, they had struck away into open country away from the river, only creeks and smaller tributaries left: traveling north-west. The forests were clearing out of the way into scrubby grassland, so Temeraire could not mind the dust, however much there was of it: which was a great deal; he coughed and sneezed as he flew, and when they stopped for the nights.

Laurence was anxious on the subject of water. Temeraire could not let such small concerns distract him, and though it was certainly not as convenient to leave behind the river, if the smugglers had done so, then there must be water. "That does not mean we may find it as easily as have they, my dear," Laurence said, when the last little stream dried away and fell behind them as they flew, "and you must consider: a small party of men may carry their own supply of water for several days, where we have not that luxury."

"But there is so much less cover, too," Temeraire said, "and so it must be easier to see the water even from quite far away, and the thieves, too; if only we can find them, we needn't worry about anything else."

"We'd best worry about it, I warrant," Jack Telly said to the other men, from the belly-netting. "If there's water found, there's some gullets as it'll go down first, and maybe none left for the rest of us."

Temeraire snorted in disdain at this. "And there is a perfectly nice water-hole directly there," he added, "so you need not complain."

It was easy to see: a faint silvery gleam amid the dusty country, ringed invitingly by many shrubs and a few thin trees, and after they had drunk, Tharkay called their attention to the small hill a little way off, where at the summit he had found the mid-day camp where the thieves had paused to eat a little.

Tharkay said, "I imagine they had a fire, here," pointing at a bare patch of ground, with a little mess of twigs perhaps. Temeraire sniffed unobtrusively at this last after Tharkay had stood to move to another part of the camp, but he could not even make out any smell of smoke until he put out his tongue, and then he thought he just barely might have a sense of faintly burnt wood.

But then, then, then, Tharkay said, " - and the egg was here," and Temeraire turning saw it very plainly: there was a nest of leaves and grasses scraped quite close together, around a little framework of thin branches, and the nest had a smooth, curved hollow depressed within it, just the right size and shape to hold an egg: Temeraire might have scraped together something very like for the same purpose.

"You have brought us up on their heels out of ten thousand acres of wilderness," Laurence said. " - I should not have credited it."

Tharkay shook his head. "You may praise me when we have them in hand, and I do not see them; do you?"

Temeraire went aloft, for them all to peer about, and indeed he could not see any sign of anyone walking in any direction - there was a little dust going up a few hills over, but that was only some cassowaries running, and in the distance a few wild dogs. "But we must be close, if they ate here so lately," he said, rallying his spirits as he landed.

"I do not care to be discouraging," Tharkay said to Laurence, "but they seem to know this country uncommonly well. There is no hesitation in their trail - no false starts. They ate quickly - they had food with them, or knew where nearby to get it. They came directly to this camp, knowing there would be water here; and they did not have the advantage of an aerial view."

"I hope I may not be called over-optimistic," Laurence said, "but I will indulge in a little more confidence, even so: they may know their route, but they cannot know the countryside well enough to stray very far from it, and we have the advantage of being able to cover it in wide swaths."

"We had better use that advantage, then," Temeraire said. "Pray let everyone come back aboard." The convicts reluctantly came up and out of the shade to go back into the belly-netting, even Caesar was prodded up whining, and then Lieutenant Forthing said, "Where has that blasted fellow Telly got to?"

Jack Telly was quite gone.

"But where can he have got to?" Temeraire said: there was not much of anything for several miles around, and even if the man had wanted to run away from them, there was nowhere he might have run away to; they had covered a good ten miles of country, even flying the tedious sweeps, since their camp that morning.

It turned out, however, that the last anyone remembered of him, he had gone down to get a drink at the water-hole, and had taken with him a canteen: one of the other convicts had seen him go with it in his hand.

"So he has deserted and taken to the wilderness," Rankin said impatiently, " - looking for this idiot notion of China reachable by land, no doubt; and we may consider ourselves lucky he did not steal anything more necessary than a single can of water. Do you propose to spend an hour hunting him out from under whichever bit of scrub he has secreted himself beneath, or do you suppose we might value a little more highly the prize that has brought us out this far, than preserving a fool from his chosen folly?"

"We cannot spare the time, surely," Temeraire said anxiously to Laurence.

"We can and shall spare the time," Laurence said, "at least to fly some passes overhead around the immediate countryside and call out to him: this man is in our charge, and one of our party. If he has deserted, that is one thing; but desertion would be strange indeed in our present situation, so far from any sign of civilization; far more likely that from an excess of heat or air-sickness he has grown disoriented and wandered into the scrub, and lost his way back."

"I don't see why we should care, if he is silly enough to go roaming around in the wild without coming back," Iskierka said. "He is not an egg, being dragged about wherever anyone likes who has a hold of it, and quite unable to manage for itself."

Temeraire would of course not quarrel with Laurence, but he inclined to Iskierka's view of the situation, particularly after he heard one of the convicts say to another, "Ask me, he is well out of it and no mistake; halfway to China, I warrant, and here we sit swinging like the dugs of a back-alley sixpence whore under this monster's belly," while they were supposed to be yelling out Jack, Jack as Temeraire flew his circles. Jack himself seemed to agree with them; at least he did not answer, or step out from behind a shrub and wave an arm.

"He must be choosing to stay hidden," Temeraire said, "surely, Laurence; we have made such a tremendous noise no one anywhere near-by could fail to hear us. I hope," he added, only a little reproachfully, "that the thieves have not, for they must be warned if they have."

He did not add, although he might have, that Telly had been quite a regular nuisance since even before they had left Sydney: had complained quite incessantly. It did not seem to Temeraire that he would be a very great loss, if he did not wish to come with them any further.

"I cannot account for it," Laurence said. "Pray go below and ask those men, Demane, what was his sentence, and his profession?"

Demane climbed down Temeraire's side, to speak with the convicts in the belly-netting; and swung back up again to report: Telly had been trained up as a carpenter, once, and had so called himself; but convicted of debt in the amount of £2 5d 7s at the age of sixteen had gone through a window in London to snatch a few goods to repay; finding this a more lucrative profession, he had given over hopes of respectability; he was, in short, a thief: a second-story man, sentenced to twenty years of transportation and hard labor.

"What business has such a man in the open wilderness, and running out into it?" Laurence said.

"I cannot see why you insist on crediting such a man with more wit than willfullness," Rankin said. "I am sure he imagines all will be charmingly easy: a man with prospects of a respectable profession, who runs himself into a debt ludicrous to his station, turns thief, and runs riot in London until he is seized for transportation, surely cannot be allowed to have the remotest powers of reason.

"Nor," Rankin added cuttingly, "any value to society; and meanwhile a beast priceless to our situation is being trundled away by, I gather your Chinaman friend suspects, some party of French spies. If you insist on pursuing this course of action, we will surely lose the trail; and you may be sure I will not stint in speaking my mind on the subject in my own report to their Lordships, or about Captain Granby's ill-judgment in yielding to your wishes."

It was very unpleasant to be in any way of the same mind as Rankin, particularly when he spoke in so offensive a way, and Temeraire thought he had not much value to society, either. But - the egg must be paramount, that was incontrovertible; and even as Temeraire steeled himself to speak to Laurence, Iskierka was swinging back towards them. Granby called over, "Laurence, I am damned sorry, but the fellow don't want to be found, if he hasn't broken his neck somewhere; and Iskierka won't stand for looking any longer."

"Very well," Laurence said, after a moment, " - let us go onward."

"You are not very distressed, Laurence, I hope?" Temeraire asked, as he and Iskierka fell again into the sweeping pattern he had worked out that morning: she flying slightly above, and the two of them interweaving, and looking in opposite directions always, that both of them should have cast an eye over the same ground, to be sure not to overlook anything.

"No," Laurence said, "only I must find it strange; I have known men desert, often enough, but only at the prospect of some immediate gain and a nearby harbor: with women, generally, and I would be the more likely to credit him with deliberate flight if he had taken a cask of rum instead of the canteen. I imagine Granby has it right, and the poor devil took a wrong step and fell into some crevasse; where he will likely die of thirst, if those wild dogs we have heard at night do not come on him first. This is not a kind country, and I cannot think very much of abandoning a man in it."

They did not find the smugglers that afternoon, nor that evening. They flew on through the deepening dusk, which took all the color out of the countryside, and their sweeps grew more narrow while they peered in every direction for the tiniest glow of a campfire; but there was nothing.

The ground cover rapidly thinned out further as the twilight advanced; even the shrubs had begun to diminish and crouch lower to the ground, small dark lumps as they flew. The only trees to be seen looked dark stick-like things against the fading sky, much like the brushes Mr. Fellowes used for scrubbing the harness-buckles or carabiners: long thin trunks like young saplings and a small lump of twiggy branches and small leaves atop. The stars were very bright and clear, above: cold and brilliant speckles of light, and the spray of the Milky Way pearly grey in a wide swath.

At last they had to give up again, and they settled for the night with somewhat diminished spirits. "And I am hungry," Iskierka said irritably: the hunting had not been as good.

But Temeraire could not feel quite so low as he had yesterday. "After all, we have nearly caught them twice now," he said. "At least, we have seen where they were, and it stands to reason we will get closer tomorrow, too, and we do know," he added, "that the egg is well: that alone is worth all our pains."

"Only if by well you mean, is not yet broken into bits," Iskierka said dampeningly, and curled herself up to sleep.

There was no water to drink here, either; the last gleam of water they had seen in the day's flying was some eight miles back in the distance, and three miles sweeping out from the line of the trail. The aviators rationed out cupfuls of water to themselves and the convicts; and smaller ones of rum, which were drunk up first, before the shares of biscuit went about.

While they ate, to Temeraire's great dismay O'Dea said, quite loudly, "I expect we won't find them at all, now we've left Jack Telly behind to starve and die, food for dogs in a strange country. Tisn't right, and I have a mind his spirit is following us while his body lies behind rotting. We won't smoke out their trail with a curse upon us; Jack wants company, fellows, in his lonely grave. We'll search and we'll look, and we'll never find another living soul, though we go until we are all grey and bent as widows."

"Laurence," Temeraire said, in high anxiety after overhearing this, "Laurence, you do not suppose that might be so, at all? I did not think of that, when we left; I should never have suggested we go away so quickly, if I thought he would curse us to stop our finding the egg."

"I do not suppose," Laurence said, "and I am surprised, very surprised, my dear, to find you grown so sadly superstitious," but this offered limited comfort. Privately, Temeraire was forced to admit that Laurence was unreasonably deadly on the subject of superstition, even though it did not make any sense, as he was equally firm on the subject of the Holy Spirit; Temeraire did not see how one could deny other spirits, when you had allowed one.

"Well, I don't think there is anything to it, either," Roland said, when Temeraire quietly asked her, after Laurence had gone to discuss their next day's course with Tharkay and Granby.

"I do," Demane said, examining his knives. "I would haunt us, too, if we had left me behind."

"He might like to," Roland said, "but if a fellow could haunt us, then he ought be able to do a little more to help us find him, in the first place."

"That don't mean anything; spirits aren't the same as bodies," Demane said, scornfully dismissive; and Roland did not seem to have an answer for this.

"Anyway, it ain't as though we flew off straightaway, or left him on purpose," Roland said, but this was not a settled thing amongst the men.

"Jack made a fuss, didn't he," Bob Maynard said, slurred with rum and not so quietly that he could not be heard, and rolling a significant glance towards Rankin where he stood speaking with Caesar. "Some as are high-in-the-instep didn't much like him saying what was what, when we are being hauled into the back of beyond; some here were mighty quick to hurry us off, and not a tear to shed for old Jack."

Though Maynard was given to persuading the other men to game away their rum to him, and while being nearly twice as large as most of the other poor thin convicts scarcely managed half the work of anyone else, he was endlessly ready to oblige with a song, in a fine deep baritone, or an entertaining story; not at all wont to complain, ordinarily, so the accusation struck with more than ordinary force, from him. Temeraire could not easily repress a start of guilt; he had himself thought - for just a moment, though, and not spoken aloud, he excused himself - that it would not be so dreadful not to have Jack Telly along always complaining.

"Still, it was not on purpose; no one asked him to go away and jump into a pit," Temeraire said, "and we did look, for quite some time," but he could not quite convince himself that Jack Telly would have accepted these arguments, and as it should be his decision whether to haunt them or not, Temeraire could not find any relief; he could only lie down curled very close about the last remaining egg, to make sure no malevolent spirits could creep in at it.

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