Laurence was prepared to find a handsome settlement at Lake Titicaca, from the quality and regularity of the roads and the general excellence of the construction, but his expectations were inadequate for the vista, when they at last saw the blue haze of the water: some distance from the shores, a great city was laid out before them, centered on a raised plaza dotted by immense carved figures, and surrounded by curious fields carved into rows flooded with water.
"Is that your home?" he asked Taruca, as they drew near. "There is a city of red stone-"
Taruca shook his head. "No, that is Tiwanaku; but there is no-one who lives there now," and as they flew past, Laurence saw that the broad roads were deserted, and the great temple, for so it seemed to him, stood empty; the fields were fallow and dry.
They continued to the lake: or the inland sea, Laurence might as easily have called it, stretching enormously wide and cupped by mountains, and of a piercing and almost unnatural shade of blue. There were villages scattered about on the lake islands, and the largest of these supported more than one settlement and was nearly ringed round with the cultivated terraces.
Taruca directed them towards the island's southern end, where a broad hillside cut with terraces rose up from a series of storehouses at its base, and at the summit a great courtyard where a truly immense dragon slept: longer than Kulingile even, and perhaps near him in weight, although that was difficult to tell beneath the feathery scales; she was burnt orange and violet in her markings, but the scales were faded along their length and nearly grey at the tips, and her eyes, opening as they landed before her, were filmy with age.
Four other dragons took to the air from other points around the lake directly they put down, and came winging over: all hatchlings of her get, Laurence gathered from the debate which followed between the dragons. "We are not here to steal anything, or anyone," Temeraire said, exasperated at last, "indeed, if anything we are here to give you someone back: here is Taruca, who asked us to bring him to you."
"Taruca was stolen eleven years and three months ago," the ancient dragon said, "and none of my hatchlings could find him; what do you mean, you are here to bring him back?"
Taruca waved an arm from Temeraire's back, and called, "I am here, curaca; I am here."
The dragon's enormous head swung around towards him, and she reared up her forequarters with an effort to lean forward and sniff at him. "It is Taruca," she said, "it is-how dare you take him? I will call the law upon you at once, if you do not give him back."
"We are giving him back!" Temeraire said. "That is why we are here; I have already told you so."
The exchange was prolonged for several minutes more by mistrust before at last Curicuillor both understood and believed that they truly meant to give Taruca back, and without any recompense. The final resolution was indeed only achieved when he had been helped down from Temeraire's back and guided over to her, and she had nosed him over thoroughly to make sure of him.
"Why, your nation has been unfairly maligned," she said at last, settling slowly and painfully back onto her stone bed. "You must forgive an old beast her confusion: but indeed I cannot recall a more astonishing example of generosity to mind, from all my days. Taruca returned to us, after so long, and when we had quite given up! We must celebrate, and we must do you honor: we must feast all together, and give special thanks to Inti."
"Yes!" Iskierka said, with enthusiasm, when Temeraire had translated the offer: they had flown the last three days with no sign of an untended herd, and they had been obliged to ration even the dried meat.
Though hastily assembled, the dinner was splendid indeed: a tender and pleasantly gamy sort of llama, lightly grilled, and five kinds of fish; with this masses of potatoes and of maize, roasted and salted and heaped with melted fat. Great cauldrons of soup were brought by one of the dragons, full of lumps later revealed to be frogs, nevertheless delicious; and were accompanied by the whole fried guinea pigs that so delighted Temeraire and the other dragons.
Besides the four dragons who had already swung over, three more came, each carrying a sizable clan, and two more dragons alone, evidently younger beasts.
"Yes; we have prospered," Curicuillor said, with pardonable pride as she swung her faded vision over the extent of her sprawling clan. "I have given my offspring each two families, when they had grown wise enough to have charge of an ayllu of their own; and if they have done particularly well, I have let them have more." She sighed and rearranged herself for more comfort, scales rasping faintly over the stone. "And I will do so again, soon. I am not one of those greedy clutching creatures; I will not need so many people to look after when I have gone to the other world."
So she said, but a certain reluctance in her tone made Laurence skeptical of her claims, and her foreleg curled in jealous protection around Taruca. He made no objection, however, but sat with beatific expression holding on his lap one of his great-grandchildren, a child too young to speak and sucking thoughtfully on a rattle, made of gold and which would likely have fetched a thousand pounds at a low estimate, despite the toothmarks.
"I am endlessly grateful to you, Captain," he said, when Laurence and Hammond had opportunity to speak with him, albeit over Curicuillor's foreleg. "I did not believe truly until I heard the voices of my children: but you have brought me home. This is my daughter, Choque-Ocllo," he reached out his hand, groping, to a matronly woman sitting beside him. "I have been telling her of your wish to see the Sapa Inca."
Choque-Ocllo nodded to them equably, and said, "I do not see why it should be impossible to arrange. It has been a long time since Atahualpa, after all, and those were plainly lawless men. Your king has sent a great ayllu to speak for him, and you have proven that you are men of a different character; it is only fitting that the Sapa Inca should receive you. Although it is unfortunate you have no women with you; that girl cannot have had a child yet."
Hammond looked confusion at Laurence, but bowed and said, "Madam, the rigors of so great a journey and a sea-voyage are sufficient to bar our subjecting a woman to them without cause; I hope their absence will give no offense, as I assure you no lack of confidence in our hosts is meant."
"Offense?" she said. "No, none at all; but that is not the same as letting you see the Sapa Inca. But I am sending a message with you-my son Ronpa there is weaving it already, you see-and my father will add his personal testimony; if they will not let you see the Sapa Inca directly, at least the governor of Collasuyo-that is this province-will see you, and he is high in the councils of the Sapa Inca."
The message was a peculiarly knotted cord, which Taruca called a khipu, from which long strands descended in colors; the young man was expertly forming the cord from a heap of yarn, and tying knots in irregular distances. When he had finished, he passed it along to Taruca himself, who despite his blindness ran his fingers over the cords, consulted once or twice as to the color of various strands, and then swiftly knotted on another sequence
"Yes, here you can feel the words," Taruca said, putting Laurence's hand on the knots. "Some young people these days put markings on paper instead, the way you Europeans do: it is quicker, I imagine, but the old ways are best when it is information of any importance. What if it should get wet, or be torn; or chewed by insects? You could not rely upon such a thing."
"I only wish there were some way to inquire, without giving offense, what standing his daughter has to send such a message," Hammond said in an undertone to Laurence back at their own seats, irresolute as he turned over the mass of the knotted cord in his hands. "Are we carrying a note from a family matron, a noblewoman, or-" He shrugged helplessly.
"Any note of introduction must be an advantage," Laurence said, "regardless; and sir, you have only to look about you: this is no private householding, but a great estate. You may surely ask the population of the place."
When Hammond did inquire, of Choque-Ocllo, several of the dragons put up their heads at once and answered before she could-evidently with slightly different numbers, which produced an argument among them; while they quarreled, Choque-Ocllo said, "Some of them do not like to count children until they are old enough to walk: it distresses them too greatly to lose any. But in all the ayllus which have at least one chief of Curicuillor's line, there are a little more than four thousand people: that, of course, is why other dragons will come here to steal men, sometimes; and you would be wise to keep a close watch on your own party yourselves."
"Do they come so very often?" Temeraire turned to ask Curicuillor, having overheard Laurence's conversation: it occurred to him, casting an eye over his crew and the sailors, that it would be as well to organize some more systematic guard, and to know just what sort of threat they faced.
"Things are better now than they were, before the patrols were formed. But still it is not as it was when I hatched," Curicuillor said, wistful. "There was no stealing then: if a man from another's ayllu wished to marry one of my women, he would come, and I would send a gift back; or if one took a particular fancy to a person, one would merely try and persuade them to come and stay. Why, I found a young girl once in the mountains, with a splendid voice, in an ayllu only of people with no dragon at all; so I took in all her ayllu with her and they were so very happy to come-but she died of the spotted fever, a hundred years ago."
The dreadful decimation of the last two centuries had altered the circumstances: dragons whose entire ayllu died would steal others to replace them. "And of course they will particularly try for those like my Taruca," Curicuillor said, nosing at him gently, "for anyone can see he will not die, at least of the pox.
"And there are laws in place now," she continued, "against the practice; but even so some dragons will sneak about and try to steal men from very far away, so they will not be tracked down and caught: and then we cannot even find them, to challenge or to take them back."
"And the Sapa Inca will sometimes take men and move them about, if one beast has very many and another beast has lost all of hers," added Churki, one of her younger offspring, with a faintly resentful air, "and there is no refusing: otherwise we would have even more than we do."
"Ah, well," Curicuillor said, adjusting a few of her coils and resettling, "you cannot expect someone to go on if all their ayllu are dead, as though they were some savage beast in the wilderness; of course they will go raiding, then, if some measure is not taken."
When the splendid dinner had been cleared away, at Laurence's prompting Temeraire asked her for further direction. "Cusco is there," Curicuillor said, showing him the way upon a wonderful map laid out in a courtyard of her home, a sort of model made of gold and gemstones, showing all the surrounding countryside, "and also we will give you another safe-conduct which you should wear upon your breast: it may help to reassure the guards as you approach the city, despite your appearance."
Temeraire flattened his ruff; there was nothing in the least the matter with his appearance, in his opinion.
"And if you like," Curicuillor added thoughtfully, "when you have concluded your business there, you might come back; or for that matter not go at all, as all this business of foreign wars sounds foolish to me. It is easy to get excited over fighting, but that is not mature behavior: you ought to be ready to fight if you must, to defend your ayllu or to expand your territory so they may prosper, but not just to be making noise for the sake of it. Why, here you are with nearly two hundred men, all of them of an age to sire children, and only two little ones; which is no wonder when you have no women with you."
"Oh," Temeraire said doubtfully. It struck him as uncomfortably remarkable: here he was across a great ocean from China, and yet this dragon who was plainly very old and wise-even if one occasionally had to repeat things several times over before she would believe them-was of nearly the same opinion regarding fighting as his own mother, Qian. He had almost convinced himself that in this one respect, perhaps the Chinese practice might be considered inferior to the West; but to have it echoed so forcefully and independently here on the other side of the world undermined his conclusion.
"We do not miss having women about," he said, "that is, wives, which is what I suppose you mean; I should be perfectly happy to have more women like Roland about. But I have not thought of Laurence marrying." He did not see why it should be at all desirable.
"How are there to be children, otherwise?" Curicuillor said, in a faintly exasperated tone. "I hope you do not set your heart only on one person. What if he should die with no children at all, because you are wanting all his attention: then you will be quite alone and it will serve you right, for not planning."
Temeraire did not see why Laurence should die, at all, but he was uneasily aware that men did do so, quite often; he thought of Riley and was silent.
"Well, you are all very young," Curicuillor said with a sigh. "I do not know what things can be like in your country, when hatchlings your age have already an ayllu of their own. You are of an age to be fighting, but so you should be with the army, and not responsible for others; it is no wonder to me that we hear such strange reports of your men."
Heaving herself up, she padded down to the edge of the water. When Temeraire came up beside her, she shook her head out towards the far side of the lake, where a handsome clear white beach stood out from the trees. "I have meant to have Churki begin there with her ayllu, when a few more children are born," she said, "for then we should command this part of the lake on all sides, and it would take a very brazen thief to make an attempt at us then. But there is no need to wait. Why do you not think better of this war of yours? You and your friends might stay: I will exchange with you, so you will have enough young women to start some proper families, and we will have new blood, so it will be good for all of us."