Crucible of Gold

Page 17

"And it's not like you and Mother, you know," she added, unconsciously heaping coals of fire onto Laurence's already-burdened conscience. "The service is everything with her, and Excidium is next, so she doesn't mind; she doesn't want more than-" She shrugged in lieu of specification, with enough eloquence to make Laurence inwardly writhe. "But I don't want someone I want, if I can't be sure of seeing him one week in the year. What's the use of only having the right to be jealous?"
Laurence was left not knowing how to answer her; despite the separation that was the common lot of Navy officers and their families he could not persuade himself the circumstances were the same. There, one might have the assurance that only one party was gone abroad; the other remained and gave the home its character. Correspondence might be more or less reliably managed, and a wife could reasonably hope to see her husband for long stretches on shore, even if he were absent years at a time.
Aviators could take no such leave, even if they wished; dragons did not go into dry-dock. And Roland had the right of it: Kulingile would not be used merely defensively, if Laurence was any judge. He had besides the advantage of his immense weight the particularly vicious talons inherited from his Parnassian progenitor, and the spiked tail of the Chequered Nettle from the other side. He would surely in time be given his own formation, when the Admiralty had swallowed Demane as his captain, and the odds that formation would be assigned to the Channel were, Laurence thought, slim.
"None," Roland said despondently. "They'll want him at Gibraltar: I hear Laetificat's never gained back her weight, since the consumption, and she is sure to go to the breeding grounds soon. She's only been hanging on until the breeders got another Regal Copper over twenty tons."
The path had been cleared: she pushed herself up and went over to show where they might continue, through a curtain of hanging vines; her shoulders were stooped.
They came soon to a clearing with a fat gopher-like rodent hanging suspended in a rope-trap: Demane's work of the previous day, forgotten in the urgency of the discovery. No-one would have disdained a bite; it was cut down and taken along. The sound of the surf, which had been muffled away by the thickness of the jungle, became again audible as they continued; and then they came out onto an unpromising rocky beach, which curving plunged back behind a massive tangle of strangler vines that concealed anything behind them so thoroughly, Laurence could not envision how Roland and Demane had even thought to explore.
"There," Roland said, pointing where the sun gleamed on the picked-clean white of bone lying in a small pocket of sand; they clambered across the rocks and stood over the jumbled skeleton, in rags, disordered by the birds and lacking nearly all fingers and toes. The skull and one thigh-bone rested against a rock shallowly inscribed: HERE LAYS BASSEY AND GEORGE, GODE SHIPMATES, GOD HAV MERCEY.
"You can't say fairer than that," old Jergens muttered, one of the men Forthing had chosen; the low grumbling of complaint which had emanated from the sailors died as they climbed past the grave and lifted the vines to expose the rotting hull, and the jagged rock-torn hole.
She had certainly been a pirate: when they had cut away the growth and let some light into the hold, Laurence made his way ankle-deep in water and the remnants of assorted plunder: great gobs of whale oil floating around old barrels, burst chests of silk taken from some hapless East Indiaman. He ignored the furtive poking of the sailors behind him, as they followed him cautiously inside.
"Sir, if you would wait outside-" Forthing tried, looking at the beams phosphorescently green with rot. Laurence did not answer, but in the well-remembered crouch necessary to so cramped a vessel made his way towards the back of the hold, where the stores should have been, and stopping reached up to pull a corner of oilcloth wrapping away.
"Ah," he said: a coil of twice-laid hawser rope, the thickness of a man's wrist, lay dry and clean beneath.
It was no easy task to get the goods out: impossible to rig any kind of hoist or pulley from the rotten wood above, and the tide coming and going pulled at their legs even if they only stood in one place. More than one man fell, and came up pierced and bloody with splinters: when they at last emerged from the hold with the first bundles carried straining by four men apiece, some dozen sharks had come to look in on their efforts and were circling in the deeper water.
"Well, as long as they are here anyway," Temeraire said, and snaking his head out seized two in his jaws at once and lifted his head, swallowing down the thrashing grey tails: Sipho had run back to camp, and directed him. They could not risk his touching the fragile wreck, and the scrap of shore was not large enough for him to land, but he might cling to the shoals out in the water, and wait for them to finish bringing out the newfound treasure: rope and sailcloth and even some knives not entirely eaten by rust.
The sun was sinking low when they had carried out enough to merit loading him up: the men unwound one coil of rope, and set to sawing off a length to use to net up their takings for Temeraire to carry back to camp. It was a long and laborious task; while the men took the knife in turns, Laurence looked up where the stumps of the masts could barely be seen from between the vines, and below them the reflection of the sunset upon a pane of glass yet unbroken.
The vines offered no challenge to a man who had been used to go into the rigging since the age of twelve. Beneath a carpeting of moss and his cautious step, the ship's deck creaked but did not break, and he made his way to the small cabin behind the ship's wheel: odd to look through the stern window onto a garden view, with birdsong and tiny pale green curlers of vines coming in through the missing panes.
Whatever storm had driven the ship from anchor and onto the rocks had not left her captain time to knock down his things into the hold. The rotted remnants of a hanging cot were fallen to the floor, and a writing desk still locked lay in a corner alongside a guilty copy of Fanny Hill, which his experience of the midshipmen's berth permitted Laurence to identify by the much-faded cover. And beside them, still wrapped in oilskins, a sheaf of charts annotated in an old-fashioned hand. Whatever words there had once been were mere smudges now, but Laurence required none: only the scattered misshapen atolls drawn in. Each had surely been a refuge of pirates; they dotted the ocean like the broad-spaced paving-stones of an overgrown garden path, all the way to the continent; the last was marked not a hundred miles from the coast: the coast of the Incan empire.
Part II
Chapter 7
LAURENCE STIRRED AWAKE on Temeraire's back early in the morning hours, half-aware of something altered: and when he raised his head he could see as a faint jagged line the great Andean peaks standing on the horizon, lit from behind by the sun.
They had hop-scotched from one small island to another across several hundred miles of ocean. Laurence and Hammond sat aloft, tied on to the links of Temeraire's breastplate; a makeshift belly-netting of rope and tarpaulins slung below held the sailors, much to Temeraire's displeasure . But Kulingile had flatly refused to carry anyone but Demane at all, and as Iskierka made an inconvenient transport she had only been allotted the other aviators, a smaller group.
"Are you awake, Laurence?" Temeraire asked, glancing back as he flew. "Those mountains are very far away; where do you suppose we ought to land? And do you think they will have anything to eat besides fish?"
The coastline coming visible before them was a stand of rough brown cliffs that so far as Laurence could see through his glass supported only a barren desert plain: save for one green slashing line away to the north. "That must be a river there, I imagine, coming down from the mountains," he said, pointing Temeraire in its direction. "If nothing else we will be glad of fresh water."
There was more to be found as they drew near: the river and ocean had together cut the cliffs down at their junction, and a large and prosperous fishing village had grown up around the river mouth where the access to the sea should be easiest. A great number of good-sized houses, thatched roofs high and deeply sloped, and even one larger structure of smooth stone; there were broad and stone-paved streets quiet even at daybreak but for the pale dots of cream and brown: grazing sheep, wandering freely.
"I hope the Inca will be gracious hosts," Temeraire said, looking on these last with an acquisitive eye as he swiftly beat on towards the coast.
"Pray remember, Captain-Temeraire," Hammond said anxiously, "Pizarro and his adventurers landed on this same coast, perhaps even in this very settlement-they, too, called themselves an embassy and accepted local hospitality, and then, of course-in short, we must remember we are not come to a virgin land, but one with cause for the deepest suspicion-we must exercise the greatest caution-"
Laurence had only the vaguest notion of the history of the conquistadors, a dredging from schoolroom days, but the story of Pizarro's gruesome end had been a favorite of the tutors whose task it had been to keep several young boys occupied, particularly when approved of as a morality tale by their father. "I trust, sir," he said dryly, "that though we are not a pretty crew, we will prove able to restrain ourselves from rapine and pillage; and I will go so far as to assure you of our not abducting and murdering the present Inca chieftain, should we encounter that person."
"I beg you will not joke upon the matter," Hammond said, without any marked decrease in anxiety. "If the Inca are indeed prepared to entertain negotiations-exchange ambassadors-if they are now at last willing to be persuadable, and the French have already made inroads-"
Hammond did not need to expound too greatly on this theme. Pizarro had correctly realized that he had discovered a great empire; he had written accurate and detailed reports of the excellent roads, the wealth in gold and silver, the full granaries; he had recognized without any subsequent contradiction the value of the territory which he had found. His only error had been to mistake the abundant dragons for feral creatures, spread wide for lack of guns-an error disabused with marked speed and ferocity when his last act of murder removed the one hostage whose safety had stayed their retribution.
But his error had been only in favor of the Incan empire's might, and since then some two hundred years had surely brought advances to their army and their nation; there was no question that a French alliance with them could alter the course of the war.
"As little as I like to countenance any delay in our mission to Brazil," Hammond said, "I cannot call it anything but Providential that we should have the opportunity to intervene in such a negotiation, which but for the greatest good fortune we should have known nothing of, and been unable to answer."
Laurence could not call it greatest good fortune to have lost the Allegiance, or to be made prisoner and marooned; but he had no argument with Hammond's conclusion: that they ought make every effort to put Britain on friendly terms with the Inca, even at the cost of delay. Yet without disagreement on this point, Laurence nevertheless could not care for Hammond's hinted suggestions of a covert approach.
"We will not avert suspicion by creeping past their coast stealthily and falling upon their water or taking their game without invitation," Laurence said. "And both we must have imminently; I must think it better to ask first, and hope we are met hospitably."
"As much as one can call it asking, when we appear with three dragons in tow," Hammond said, dismally.
But there was no alternative. The pirates' map had not led them astray, but many of the islands marked upon it had scarcely deserved the name, and certainly could offer no safe harbor. The two weeks of their journey leaping from one to another, with only a few string bags of cocoanuts and salt pork for refreshment, had not left them in a condition to recommend themselves as guests, even while increasing their urgency to do so. Unshaven faces dirty and sunken-cheeked, ragged clothing and cracked boots: they looked very beggars, and were suitably perishing of hunger and thirst to match that state.
"I do not mean to steal anything, and I will just say a word in Kulingile's ear, and Iskierka's, so they shan't, either," Temeraire said. "But those sheep do look so very nice and fat: surely they can spare us one or two; or three, even. We might put that wall back up for them, that has fallen into the ocean, if they liked to be repaid; or perhaps if we should begin by doing it, they would feel grateful and inclined to be courteous."
Laurence examined the damage from aloft: a retaining wall around the grounds of the great stone structure, a low pyramid of broad stepped levels, and a portion of it had tumbled over as a single block now lying in the surf being battened on by the waves. "Where? Oh; yes, I see it-no, that is a house-" Hammond said, peering through the glass futilely, until he surrendered it again to Laurence. "It cannot but help to have some way to reconcile them to our arrival, I suppose-"
They signaled Iskierka and Kulingile on to a landing place a little south of the village, to avoid coming upon them in force, and Temeraire flew on. "Can you land on their beach, without disturbing those boats?" Laurence asked Temeraire, as they drew near: these were a handful of small craft drawn far up on the sand; Laurence wondered if perhaps a greater part of the village's fleet might already be out to sea.
"That would be a piece of good luck," Temeraire said, "if it means fewer men about whom we must persuade we are friendly, and not like those conquistadors; I will set down very carefully." He did manage to alight without causing harm to anything more than one large raft, which lying at an angle caught the draught of his wings and was lifted halfway into the water: but Temeraire hastily snagged it with one talon and drew it back up the sand without worse than a few gouges in the wood.

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