Crucible of Gold

Page 11

Darkness crept up from the rim of the world, a long blue curving unbroken by anything which might have meant rest-no land, no sails, not even another reef. Temeraire did not really notice the night coming on; all the world had narrowed to the next wingbeat, and the next after that, cupping the air with each stroke and pushing it away, trying only to get enough room for a breath; trying only to draw enough breath for the next stroke. He could hear the swells breaking beneath him from his passage.
"Temeraire," Laurence said, and, "Temeraire," as though he had said it more than once already. "There away, two points to starboard, my dear." Temeraire turned and flew on; he was vaguely conscious that there was some movement upon his back, signals of lantern-light, and a few answering lights ahead, bobbing; then a blue light went hissing up from his back.
The painfully bright light flung out over the ocean for a moment, an island amid the dark, and with a final desperate effort Temeraire came over the deck and dropped down onto it-barrels and casks were hastily being cleared in every direction, and warm-oh, warm!-bodies coiling away to make room for him, and Iskierka, and Kulingile landing half on top of them both-Temeraire did not mind that in the least.
The men in the belly-netting were yelling protests and pleas. Temeraire caught Iskierka by the base of the neck and kept her from lying down upon her own load of passengers; there were knives and hatchets already at work, and the netting was coming loose, spilling men everywhere. They crawled feebly away, and Temeraire sank down gratefully; Laurence was climbing down from his back, Laurence was safe, and dimly as he fell asleep Temeraire heard him say, "We surrender."
Chapter 5
THERE WAS AN OPEN RAIN-BARREL directly before Temeraire when he awoke; he had not quite opened his eyes when he knew it was there-smell, a glimmer of light on water-and rearing up to throw off two of Iskierka's heavy coils he seized upon it and drank the whole off in one desperate gulping rush. Then he was awake-and very hungry, with his shoulders and wing-joints aching dreadfully, but awake, and he looked round and discovered he was being stared at in what could only be called contemptuous disapproval.
"I do not see what business you have, glaring so," Temeraire said, putting back his ruff and sitting up. "At least I am not all over feathers, or whatever those are," for the very peculiarly looking dragon was covered both body and wings in bright, elongated scales-or Temeraire thought they must be scales, but they had irregular edges, and were much larger and did not fit so neatly with one another as did his own. Anyway, Temeraire was larger, too, so there was no excuse; although he was unhappily conscious that it had been rather bad manners to snatch up all the water, without being sure there was enough for everyone else.
The strange dragon snorted, and said something back in a language Temeraire had never heard; then someone else said sleepily, "He says no-one who surrenders without even fighting, from only a little flying, should make much of himself."
Temeraire looked over at the young Fleur-de-Nuit lying on the other end of the deck, who had her large pale eyes half-lidded and shaded by her wing against the sun. "I am Genevieve," she added, "and that is Maila Yupanqui; he is an ambassador."
"Ambassadors, I have always understood, are meant to be especially gracious and polite," Temeraire said, eyeing Maila darkly. "What language is that?"
"Quechua," she said. "The Inca speak it."
The ship was the French transport Triomphe, fresh from the docks in Toulon and having just come around the Horn; she was sailing north, en route to the Incan empire, evidently with a project of alliance.
"I am sure it must be some mischief of Lien's," Temeraire said to a very disheartened Arthur Hammond-in Chinese, the only language in which they might have some privacy-when that gentleman had come up on deck. "But at least she is not here herself, and if we should explain all the circumstances to the Inca, I am sure they will think better of allying themselves with her and Napoleon: they cannot be pleased with him when he has been delivering strange dragons from over the ocean into their territory, or near it, anyway. Where is Laurence?"
"The French are not likely to give us an opportunity of making them any such explanations," Hammond said, seating himself on a coil of rope, "and Captain Laurence is belowdecks with Captain Granby and Demane: they are in good health. I am to inform you that they will each be allowed an airing once a day, in your sight, on the quarterdeck; so long as there is no gesture-no attempt-which might suggest a violation of parole." He spoke disconsolately.
"What is he saying about Granby?" Iskierka said, picking up her head, and when Hammond had repeated the intelligence for her in English, she hissed in displeasure. "I do not see we have given our parole at all; I did not surrender, and I am sure the three of us can take this ship, if we like: what is this nonsense of keeping my captain away from me?" she demanded.
"We needn't have let you land last night," Genevieve said, with some heat-she had been taught English, as well, it seemed-"and then you and your captains would be drowned. It is all very well to say now that you can take the ship: you ought have done it then, if you liked to try."
Iskierka snorted a curl of smoky flame from her lip-much to the alarm of the crew, whose urgent shouting she ignored-but there was no answering Genevieve's argument, however much one might have liked to do so.
It was hard to find oneself aboard a perfectly splendid prize, a French transport only just built, and not be allowed to take it when they could have. Besides Genevieve, who was not even fully grown, there was only a Chanson-de-Guerre named Ardenteuse, and a Grand Chevalier absurdly named Piccolo, both of them presently aloft overhead to make room on the deck for the visitors. Piccolo was flying back and forth over the ship and peering downwards narrowly, trying to see just how big Kulingile was-somewhat difficult as Temeraire and Iskierka were coiled up over him.
So that was three against three, or three against four if one counted Maila on the French side-he was disagreeable enough that Temeraire was perfectly willing to do so-and none of them able to breathe fire, or anything like. Oh! They would certainly have been victorious, in a fair fight; only it would not have been fair when they had just come from three days' flying.
Maila, watching Iskierka, said something to Genevieve without turning his head; she ruffled up her wings and answered him shortly, then after a second exchange she turned and said to Iskierka, "He asks if that is as much fire as you can breathe, at a time."
"Of course not," Iskierka said, and put her head to the leeward side and blew out a rippling streamer of flame which reached nearly the full length of the ship and shimmered all the air about it. "And more than that, if I care to," she added, with a flip of her wings.
This was too much for the sailors: a few minutes later the ship's captain, a M . Thibaux, mounted the dragondeck with lips grimly set and his hand upon the hilt of his sword, to express his objections to open flame aboard his ship. That was quite understandable, Temeraire felt, but the captain carried it too far, saying to Hammond, "I must beg you to convey to the beast, in whatever terms you think best, that her captain must suffer the consequences of her behavior-I would be sorry to have to execute such a threat, but monsieur, it cannot be tolerated; the next time, I will have him flogged."
"You will do nothing of the sort to Granby," Temeraire said indignantly, in French, "and if you should try, Iskierka would set the ship on fire; and I would not stop her, either."
"What is he saying?" Iskierka demanded, coiling up onto Kulingile's shoulders to peer down at the captain, jetting steam from her spikes. "Oh! Why do you all not speak so anyone can understand; what is it about Granby?"
"He says he would flog him," Temeraire said, still angry, "and I am telling him he mayn't at all: it is not Granby's fault," he added to the captain, "when your guest all but asks her to show away, and anyway she was perfectly careful." Not that Iskierka needed to be breathing fire all over the place, and ordinarily Temeraire would have been all too pleased to issue her a reproof himself, but he did not mean to yield any ground on this point.
Iskierka hissed in a dozen voices at once, from throat and spikes together; and woke Kulingile: he cracked a sleepy eye and rolled it upwards to peer at her as she jounced on his shoulders in fury, and asked, "Is there anything to eat?"
It was maddening to hear the rising uproar on deck, some two feet directly overhead, while powerless to have anything to do with it. "I suppose we may call it a blessing if this ship isn't sunk, when we are done," Granby said from the hanging cot where he lay, without opening his eyes; his face was drawn and deeply lined with pain.
Captain Thibaux had been everything gracious-had brought his surgeon to see to Granby's arm, and his servant to give them an excellent dinner, though their hunger would have made it easy to do justice to one far inferior. But there was still a guard upon the door, four men well-armed and with a look of sturdy competence, and Laurence had no illusions as to their orders: the soldiers looked anxiously at one another, and above, as the noise of quarreling dragons grew all the louder.
That noise soon subsided, however, and shortly thereafter a tapping came on the cabin door.
"Captain Laurence, I regret we are fated always to be meeting in the most uncomfortable circumstances," M. De Guignes said. "Do you permit?" He poured: an excellent Madeira. "When this endless war is over, I insist that you shall visit me, and I may give you better hospitality, if God wills we should both be spared."
"You are very kind, sir; it would give me great pleasure," Laurence said, taking the glass with more politeness than enthusiasm; at present he could hope only that he would not be spending the interval in a French prison, with very little reason to encourage that hope. "I am afraid you might find Temeraire less convenient to host."
De Guignes smiled. "He should pose no more difficulties than my Genevieve," he said, touching with pride a small decoration upon his sleeve: the Legion de l'Aile, a singular honor lately created by Napoleon which came accompanied by a dragon egg and an endowment for the beast's future maintenance, together. Laurence heard this explanation in some astonishment, and later, when De Guignes had gone again, Granby coughed out a laugh from his cot and said, "Lord, trust Bonaparte to bring having a dragon into fashion: I suppose every one of his new aristos will want one, now."
"Mme. Lien has condescended to offer her advice on the most profitable of crosses to attempt," De Guignes now added. "Genevieve has now five tongues to her credit, and the last acquired after she was already out of the shell."
It had not before occurred to Laurence that Lien might improve the French breeding lines through such a mechanism: the Admiralty had rather congratulated themselves that Lien, being female, could only produce a handful of offspring for Napoleon's benefit. Laurence himself had strongly doubted she could be induced to do even so much, given her pride in her own lineage and disdain for Western breeds. Certainly the Chinese were acknowledged supreme in dragon-breeding techniques, but Laurence had imagined that these must be the province of some band of expert gentlemen very like those who served in the role in Britain and in France. But that was absurd, he belatedly realized: who better to direct the breeding of dragons than the dragons themselves, and if Lien had made any study of the matter, her knowledge would benefit the breeders of France far more than any individual contribution she might have made.
"The captain grants you should have the liberty of the quarterdeck from two to four bells of the afternoon watch, one of you at a time," De Guignes said, "and you will of course wish to see to the comfort of your men; I am desolate to inform you they must remain in the ship's gaol, in consequence of their numbers, but every effort will be made-"
"I understand entirely, and your assurances must satisfy me," Laurence said, interrupting: he did not much object if the rescued sailors were kept in chains and sustained on weeviled biscuit and bilgewater. "If I might solicit some better housing for our officers and crew, I would be grateful: I will stand surety for their parole, if they are willing to give it."
De Guignes bowed acquiescence.
He had managed to quiet the earlier uproar among the dragons-"Nothing to concern you, gentlemen," he said, "only the least of misunderstandings, owing to Captain Thibaux's unfamiliarity with the nature of dragons: he is new to his command, you see. But all has now been made clear: although I cannot greatly envy you, Captain Granby," he added in a touch of raillery, which Granby's set mouth did not appreciate.
"But sir," Laurence said, "I must ask you to confide in me: will we not overmatch your resources? Three dragons of heavy-weight class added to your complement-"
"We are perhaps a little incommoded," De Guignes said, "but I beg you not to fear: I have discussed the matter with the captain and our aviators, and I am assured we have no cause for alarm. The dragons shall take it in turns to spend some hours aloft, and by rationing and attention to fishing we will arrange to feed them all, if not quite so well as they might like."
"Everything is quite all right," Temeraire said the next afternoon, calling down to the quarterdeck-in English; De Guignes had very gently hinted that efforts at concealing the captains' conversation with their respective dragons might be taken amiss. "Iskierka is complaining of the seaweed-"
"As anyone would," she put in, without opening her eyes or raising her head, "-it is perfectly foul, and it is all great nonsense to say it is a delicacy in China: we are not in China, and I would much rather have a cow."

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