Crucible of Gold

Page 20

"You have yourself expressed confusion as to the means the French had found to open negotiations," Laurence said to him. "If the Inca will receive a dragon as ambassador, when they will not any man, the mystery is explained: you must not disavow Temeraire's authority, if you desire any chance of forming relations with them ourselves."
"Yes-yes, of course," Hammond said, reluctantly dragging, and at last conveyed the same to Hualpa, not without doing his best to extract from Laurence a commitment to make Temeraire say only what Hammond first approved.
"You know my own sentiments on this matter," Laurence said, while Hammond spoke to Hualpa, "and I am sorry-very sorry indeed-to learn that slavery is practiced here; but in justice to Hammond, we cannot hope to effect any change in their society, if we begin with antagonism; and indeed we are in poor circumstances to do so when our own nation can be reproached with its own share of barbarism in this regard."
"Well, of course I will be polite," Temeraire answered him, "but I must say it is rather much to be called thieves, only because we do not go about keeping slaves, and chaining them up, and selling them away from their families. It seems to me that it is only a compliment to them that I believed they were not slavers, either, and not an insult-"
"Not an insult!" another voice said, behind them, when Temeraire had turned to mention this to Hualpa; Temeraire looked over his shoulder to see that another dragon had come pacing into the hall: only a little larger than Palta had been, and in plumage entirely of green, "not an insult, when you talk as though I had treated him like a llama-chaining! selling! oh!"
The newcomer, a dragon called Cuarla, having bobbed his head to Governor Hualpa, proceeded to identify himself as Taruca's injured owner. "And it is not to be borne," he added, "that this burned dragon should be allowed to take him away: I am sure he would chain him up."
"I would not chain anyone!" Temeraire said, "and I did not take him, anyway: Iskierka did."
"What are you saying about me?" Iskierka demanded, rousing from her rapt contemplation of the wall; she had grown weary of the conversation, which she could not understand, and wandered off across the floor to go stare upon the panels. Several of the sailors were creeping along on her flanks and trying to use her to hide their attempts to break off small pieces; Ferris had every few minutes to go and chivvy several of them back into place.
"Nothing that is not the truth," Temeraire said, "so you may lump it; you did take Taruca, and this dragon is here to complain of you and make trouble for all of us because you did."
Iskierka looked Cuarla up and down and snorted comprehensively. "That little creature may complain of me all day if he likes; what does he mean to do about it?"
"Good God," Hammond said. "Temeraire, do not-"
"Of course I will not translate that," Temeraire said, with a flip of his ruff; he was not stupid, although he had to admit that Iskierka's remark, however unkind, was rather to the point. The snort, however, did not require any translation: even without an intelligible word said to him, Cuarla puffed all his scales out so as to make himself nearly twice his size-which still left him somewhat less than a quarter of Iskierka's.
"I will not have it," he said furiously, "I will not! I demand a challenge, if she will not give him back; and apologize; and give me one of her men, too; she ought not have so many if it only makes her greedy for more." And he glared at Iskierka with slitted fury.
Temeraire regarded him in some perplexity: surely he could not be a sensible creature. "He wants to fight you," Temeraire said, to Iskierka's demands for more translation. "No, I am not mistaken; and no, he does not think it is some other dragon he must fight; you can see perfectly well he is staring right at you, even if you do not know his language."
"Perhaps," Hammond said anxiously, "perhaps we might reconsider-Captain Laurence, it seems to me-the dragon seems very attached, and not at all likely to have mistreated-"
Overhearing, Iskierka swung her head around, outraged. "I am not going to lose to him."
"It can scarcely forward our cause for you to maim or perhaps even kill a native beast, after you have already begun by stealing one of his-" Hammond paused, and groped around for a word which should sound nicer than slave, Temeraire supposed.
"Enough," Laurence said, finally, while Granby spoke urgently to Iskierka, who huffed a little steam but subsided. "Temeraire," Laurence said, "pray convey to these-gentlemen-that we cannot see our way clear to handing over Taruca at present, as he does not wish it, but there can be no question of a battle: the governor at least, I hope, will not imagine that Cuarla has any chance of success, nor promote such an unequal contest."
But when Temeraire had tried to explain, Hualpa shook his head, the gold ringing like bells. "Of course Cuarla is not going to fight her in his person," he said. "What use would laws be, if that were the only recourse? We might as well be living without any civilization at all. No: if you refuse to return the man, and make acceptable restitution-"
"Well, we certainly are not going to give him any of our crew, only because we made a mistake; that is just nonsense," Temeraire put in; he did not feel any need to discuss that with Hammond, as it went nearly without saying.
"-then she must fight the representative of the state," Hualpa said, "and not merely the dragon she has injured."
"Oh," Temeraire said.
"I am sure I do not care in the least," Iskierka said. "I will fight anyone he likes; and it will serve them right."
That Iskierka was willing at any time to enter herself into a contest of violence was undisputed; but Laurence was no happier than Hammond to find them engaged in such an enterprise: aside from all the risks of failure, the risks of success were nearly as great, in its likelihood of provoking resentment and hostility.
"Sir," he said to Taruca, having recruited Temeraire to translate for him, "I must beg you to take no offense; but if Iskierka is to hazard her life for your freedom, I will know, first, that there is no better alternative than this challenge."
When Temeraire had explained, Taruca said, "What better alternative can there be? It is not Cuarla's fault, poor creature; he did not take me from hiding. He exchanged a young man to my last ayllu for me: I had no kin there, either, and the boy wished to marry one of the young women, so I said I would come. So now of course Cuarla has the right to a battle."
"Temeraire, you are certain he says he went to Cuarla by choice?" Laurence said, baffled. "Is it not his contention he was seized illegally?"
"I was, but that was many ayllu ago," Taruca said, quite evidently seeing no contradiction between his right to liberty and Cuarla's right to satisfaction, and puzzled that Laurence should even ask . "And you are not of my ayllu; you have no standing to demand that the champion of the state should fight for you."
"Have you no right to appeal to the governor yourself?" Laurence asked.
"He is a dragon," Taruca said with even more confusion.
"Then to-the governor of men?" Laurence said, a vague guess, and Taruca in some frustration raised his hands and let them drop again.
"What would I ask the governor? I have no complaint to make of Cuarla, to seek a different ayllu near-by, and I cannot live without any at all: I am blind, and I am too old. Besides, I was first taken in Collasuyo, a different province and a long way from here; even if I were a young man, chances are I would be snatched if I tried to walk the roads all that way alone.
"Why did you take me, and why did you say you would take me to my home, if you were not willing to give challenge? I am an old man to have my hopes raised so. At least when I asked Cuarla, and he refused, I understood: it is not in the natural order of things that a little dragon with a small ayllu should give me up. But you pressed me and I thought: you have three mighty dragons, and I can hear that your ayllu is large and full of young men; perhaps you could truly mean to be so generous. But it seems you only took me from my ayllu without any understanding of the law."
Laurence was silenced; he could not dispute the justice of Taruca's charge. And if they had not meant to keep him a servant, that was little excuse; Iskierka had still taken him for their own selfish benefit; and Laurence had no confidence that Taruca would not face reprisal from his owner, however previously mild, now that he had been so vocal about his desire to be elsewhere.
"Temeraire," he said finally, "pray tell the governor that intending no offense, we are sorry to have nevertheless given it; and that honor demands we see Taruca to his home. If by this challenge we can secure his liberty without further injuring relations between our nations, we will venture it, so long as Iskierka is willing."
"I might as easily fight, instead," Temeraire said, belatedly regretting having been quite so forceful about Iskierka's responsibility, when Hualpa explained that she must be properly attired to enter the arena, and some twelve young women he called mamaconas came out of a storeroom of the hall carrying together a golden neck-collar very like the one Hualpa wore, with the fringe splendidly woven of black wool. "After all, we are all of one party."
"As she is the offender, she must face the trial," Hualpa said. "Come: you may sit on her side of the court."
Temeraire sighed. "Yes, that is for you," he said, as the mamaconas brought the collar to Iskierka, who was eyeing it with wretchedly undisguised greed; she did not need to advertise their nearly destitute state. "And Laurence, the rest of us must go outside to the courtyard."
Which was if anything more magnificent than the hall itself: open to the sky and with two fountains at either end, and the dragon Iskierka was to fight at the other side, sunning himself on the hard stone: a sleek creature with long silver scales tipped with green, and enormously long black fangs overhanging his lower jaw.
"What dragon is that?" Granby asked, from Temeraire's back, where he had climbed up with Laurence to be carried to the stands. Temeraire regretfully recalled when that was Granby's proper place, and none other; that now Forthing occupied that position was too distressful to contemplate long: as though Temeraire had come very low in the world, from those first days.
"His name is Manca Copacati," Temeraire said, having consulted Hualpa, and settling himself upon one of the stepped platforms of the temple wall overlooking the long end of the court.
"Copacati?" Granby said. "The venom-spitters?"
Across the court, the silver dragon yawned enormously and shaking his head spat once on the ground in the manner of an old sailor clearing his throat: a thin greenish kind of ichor, which put up small trailers of steam in the sunlight.
Iskierka, who had come out of a passageway yielding onto the other side-and in Temeraire's opinion doing nothing short of prancing-looked up at them over her shoulder and called, "Oh! A real fight: Granby, are you watching? Is your view all it ought to be? You might turn a little, Temeraire, so Granby can better see me win."
"Damn her posturing; have they a surgeon, at least?" Granby said.
"I am sure I would win, too," Temeraire said, under his breath: and to sharpen his regret, the battle would not have been brawling at all, but for an excellent cause, which Laurence approved.
"I would, too," Kulingile said to Demane, anxiously. "I am much bigger than that dragon."
"Cui?" Hualpa said, gesturing, and some young men came dragging a cart laden with hot baskets of delicious-smelling things: guinea pigs, skinned, stuffed with a sort of nutty bean, and roasted: and the baskets themselves made of maize husks, so one might pick them up and eat the entire thing at once. Temeraire ate five for consolation.
Granby, meanwhile, drank as many cups of the cloudy beer. Laurence could hardly chide him under the circumstances: an interminable wait while a crowd of spectators assembled with the air of coming to see an entertainment, and at the other end of the court the Copacati amusing himself by loudly recounting stories of his former victories to his acquaintance sitting by his end of the courtyard. Iskierka demanded translations of these, which Temeraire grudgingly provided; they made a narrative of maiming and destruction which even if exaggerated tenfold would have remained upsetting.
Seeing Granby's distress, Hualpa said something to Temeraire which made his ruff bristle wide. "As though I would allow anything of the sort," Temeraire said, indignantly.
"What now?" Granby said, dully; he was bent forward against Temeraire's neck and had his forehead pressed against his good arm, against the sun which was climbing towards its zenith.
"He says that you should not be afraid, because Manca has an excellent ayllu and will take you into it, if he should kill Iskierka. But there is no need to worry: I have told him you would of course stay with me: and if that silver dragon should try to take you, I will fight him."
"Sir, I make noon," Forthing said, and at the same time Hualpa sat up on his haunches and shook his head in evident signal. The Copacati left off his conversation and turned to face Iskierka across the court, his feathered wings outspread with the tips brushing the ground.
Iskierka followed his model, drawing her coiling length beneath her and stretching wide her own wings, the membrane translucent in the bright sun and the color flat in comparison with the Incan dragon's long, glittering scales. "What effect do you suppose it may have, upon the beast's prowess; the feathers, I mean?" Hammond asked Forthing interestedly, tone-deaf to the situation.

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