Crucible of Gold

Page 26

The man at its bridle had seen as much; he drew a pistol from his waist and threw Laurence a swift unhappy look, found no reprieve in Laurence's nod, and clapping the gun to the animal's head put a period to its misery. "Temeraire," Laurence called up, "can you take this carcass off?"
"Not very easily, I am afraid," Temeraire said, craning his head about, "but I had a llama this morning: Kulingile, would you care for it?" he called: the other dragons had withdrawn to the far side of the gorge, and perched themselves where they could upon the bare stone.
"Arrêtez, arrêtez!" the handler said, pointing to the fallen animal's belly, which Laurence only then saw was grossly distended with pregnancy; as they watched a tiny hoof might be seen pushing out from within as if in protest.
"What the devil does he want to do, cut it out in mid-air while we are all hanging fire?" Ferris said: he had clambered back out to Laurence's side, and the bridge yet undulated beneath them like a blowing veil.
Kulingile came off the wall of the gorge and sweeping low took the dead horse off in one massive talon, and laid it in the same pass upon the far side; Demane slid down his shoulder and was by the side of the carcass in a moment, knife out, to slice open the belly. The handler looked long enough to see that Demane knew his work, then turned back to the last of the horses; with his assistance and that of the third horseman, they had the beasts off at last, and in the meantime the llama-train and their handlers had retreated to the other side of the gorge.
The little foal had been extracted from the body of its dam and was tottering feebly on stick legs; the handler had wiped it gently clean. "What does he mean to feed it?" Demane said, frowning, but the third animal, another mare, was not much less forward in pregnancy as well. Though she seemed justly perplexed to be applied to by a foal before having given birth, she did not make great objection, and shortly the small animal was suckling energetically enough to give hope of its survival.
"Mille fois merci," the handler of the horses said, coming away from the nursing foal to seize and shake Laurence's hand vigorously.
"De rien," Laurence said, bowing politely, and then belatedly realized they were speaking French: and also that his hand was now all over blood. The horseman noticed as much in the same moment, and in some embarrassment left off his clasp.
"Do you mean to tell me," Granby said, when Iskierka had landed-they were encamping for the night only a little way off from the men they had rescued-"that we have just been risking our necks to save a French baggage-train?"
"Yes," Laurence said. "They are on their way to Cusco overland, following De Guignes: he and his embassy are certainly there already."
"And a baggage-train of gifts, I have no doubt," Hammond said, "meant for the Sapa Inca: those horses are breeding stock." He spoke half-reproachfully, as though he blamed Laurence for having rescued the Frenchmen and their goods. "And here we look little more than beggars."
"As we have none to give, sir," Laurence said, "let us hope instead that the ruler of a mighty nation will not be so easily swayed by trinkets and gifts."
"Let us hope that without them, we will be admitted into his presence at all," Hammond said.
Chapter 11
CUSCO STOOD IN THE BOWL of a mountaintop, cupped round by jagged short peaks, green and mossy, and overlaid with a veil of clouds. The city from aloft had a curious and peculiarly deliberate shape: a lion in profile, its head an immense fortress of carven stones built upon a hill, and the city its great body, lying alongside the banks of a river and formed of many large houses of fine construction, many with deeply sloping roofs thrust high into the air, of thickly layered thatch. The buildings were established in groups around courtyards: in several of these dragons lay sleeping, in others sitting alert and watchful, all of them in an array of brilliant plumage and adorned in gold and silver, so a faint chiming might be heard even from aloft.
So far as Laurence could see, there were no hovels, not even smaller houses, and no sign of any market within the proper bounds of the city: these practicalities seemed to be constrained to villages that huddled around the city walls in clusters, along short and well-used roads.
Several dragons in the ensign of the patrol came winging to meet them, long before they had reached those walls: the patrol-beasts flew in rings around them peering at Temeraire's safe-conduct, and exchanging a yammering conversation with Churki. They were at last escorted-whether as guests or prisoners was difficult to ascertain-towards an immense raised plaza, directly to the north of the river, plainly of ceremonial function and which would have admitted even a small army of dragons.
"We are to stay in the kallanka there to the side," Churki informed Hammond, indicating a great covered hall alongside the plaza. "The other foreigners, they say, are on the other side-"
"The other foreigners?" Hammond said. "De Guignes is here, then?"
And as they landed, across the plaza Laurence could see Genevieve asleep beneath another covered hall, the Fleur-de-Nuit's immense lamp-eyes lidded down to pale slits.
The patrol-dragons settled down around them as they landed, with an air of intending to remain; Churki held still more discussion with them, and at one moment turned and hissed something aside to Hammond, who started and then said to Laurence, "Pray, Captain, shall we let the men down? Churki is of the opinion that-that it cannot but convey our peaceful intentions, when they have seen us disembark-"
From his awkward looks, Laurence doubted whether Churki's exact meaning had been translated, but Temeraire was distracted at the moment by low argument with Iskierka on the subject of the ornamentation of an immense temple visible a little to the southeast: "Laurence," he said, swinging his head around, "do you think that can really be gold, there on the outside of that building? Surely no-one would put gold out where it might be rained upon, and dirtied."
"You had better apply to Churki, for an answer which might have some authority behind it; it may be gold leaf only," Laurence said, doubtful himself: certainly the frieze looked golden, but it seemed implausible. "Mr. Fer-Mr. Forthing, I think we will let down the men, if you please."
The disembarkation of nearly two hundred men certainly had an effect: as the belly-netting was let down and the sailors gratefully spread out to stretch their legs, and set up a clamoring for beer, the patrol-dragons stretched out their necks to peer at them with interest and low murmurs of appreciation and, Laurence thought, perhaps of envy. In any case, they looked on Temeraire and Iskierka and Kulingile with a less suspicious eye.
"Yes," Churki said, "now they begin to believe me, when I tell them you brought back one of my mother's own stolen ones: they thought I must be mistaken somehow . And of course they are very impressed; you see, there is no reason for you to be distressed that the French are bringing horses and jewels; what is that, to what you have brought?"
Temeraire added to his translation, "I have no notion what she can mean; surely she sees we are quite destitute," and asked her.
Churki shook her wings out, with a great jingling noise. "Why, all these men, of course."
"Mr. Forthing," Laurence said, as they began to lay out pallets and rig a few rough tents for more shelter against the cool mountain air, "you will post a watch of trusted men, and let there always be an officer on duty with them, if you please." A guard which he meant for protection in all directions: Laurence was unpleasantly certain that Hammond would not have scrupled to exchange even two hundred men for any advantage he might gain thereby over the French, in establishing diplomatic relations with the Inca.
The letter, or khipu, had gone to the authorities; Churki also left them, to convey her assurances to a more significant representative. But the day wore away around them without an answer, and meanwhile across the plaza they saw the great French Grand Chevalier Piccolo make a landing accompanied by several Incan dragons who bore many slaughtered llamas in their talons, to share out as a repast with Genevieve.
"I would not mind a llama," Kulingile said, watching intently. "Mayn't we go hunting? It is getting late."
But Hammond would not have any of them leave, before some authorization came; he was not without justice anxious should any of the dragons, flying alone, provoke a local beast to challenge their presence in the heart of the empire. He was still more adamant when Churki at last returned, to inform them that their messages had gone home, and some representative of the court would shortly come and see them: "We cannot fail to meet them in whatever state we can manage," he said, and would have the dragons line themselves up, and arrange the men in ranks around them, dispersed in such a way as to suggest their numbers were even greater than they were.
"You might put on your robes now, Laurence," Temeraire suggested, egged on by Hammond's enthusiasm; Laurence could only with difficulty divert him to the task of assuring his own appearance: the talon-sheaths were brought out, and the breastplate polished, and under Roland's guidance a party of the sailors were formed into a line to carry water from the great fountain at the center of the courtyard to the dragons, and pour it over their backs.
"For I cannot but agree with Mr. Hammond that we must present a respectable appearance, if we can," Temeraire said defensively, when he had roared in a small way at a few of the sailors who had unwarily expressed objections to being put to this labor, "and I am sorry to say it, but for that we can only rely on Kulingile and Iskierka and myself: there is no denying we have a very strange look, as a party, with all that Curicuillor was kind enough to do for us in the article of clothing. You would not wish us to give this Incan nobleman a disgust of us, Laurence, surely; and are you certain you would not consider-"
Fortunately, before Temeraire could renew his efforts to push Laurence into the robes, Churki said, "There: he comes now, and look, it is a lord of the Sapa Inca's own ayllu, himself; did I not promise, Hammond?"
Temeraire sat up sharply, arranging his wings against his back, looking around the empty courtyard as vainly as the rest of them; then he looked aloft and said, "Oh: not him again?" and drooped his wings, as Maila Yupanqui descended into the square before them.
"I do not see why you insist on being so unfriendly," Iskierka said, and made rather a spectacle of herself in Temeraire's opinion nodding to Maila, who simpered back at her even while he answered Hammond's shouted inquiries.
"There is certainly some official who might meet with you, if you wish. Perhaps the political officer for Antisuyo: you wish to travel through the jungle, do you not, to this country of Brazil?"
"Yes-yes, of course," Hammond said, darting a cautious glance at Laurence, "but naturally as I am here, as representative of His Majesty's Government it is incumbent upon me-it would be inexcusable-not to make my bows to the Sapa Inca: to convey His Majesty's affections and to bring greetings from the ruler of one great nation to another; and information regarding the present circumstances of the war in Europe-"
"Well, you are a man," Maila said dismissively. "It is not yet clear to me such a meeting must be necessary. But," he turned to Iskierka, "there is no reason you might not visit the court, and be presented: the Sapa Inca has heard of your victory in the arena of Talcahuano, and is most eager to see you: the great Manca Copacati has not been defeated in battle in twenty-three years, and all would know how it was done."
Temeraire flattened his ruff in indignation: as though he would not have defeated the Copacati himself, without any difficulty; and as though he were not the senior dragon of their party-
"Of course I will come," Iskierka said, preening in the most absurdly self-satisfied manner, "and meet the Sapa Inca, and I would be happy to explain how I won: it was a great battle, of course, and he was a very dangerous enemy, but that is nothing to me. Will we go at once?"
"But-" Hammond said, "but-"
"There is no reason to wait," Maila said. "The court is meeting now: the Sapa Inca will be glad to see you, if you can come."
"What are you doing?" Temeraire demanded. "Mr. Hammond, you surely cannot allow her to go and speak for England-"
"Whyever not!" Iskierka said. "If the Sapa Inca does not want to see you, most likely because you want to speak of tiresome things like trade, and politics, and everything dull, why should I not go instead; unless you mean for us all to sit here and watch the French go back and forth to the court."
This argument, Temeraire was distressed to see, struck Hammond very forcefully: he said to Iskierka, "You must understand that you must in no wise represent yourself as speaking for His Majesty's Government, without approving even your particular turns of phrase with me: and your first objective must of course in all things be to persuade the Sapa Inca to see me, as His Majesty's representative-"
"Yes, yes," Iskierka said, with a flip of her tail. "Pray lead on," she added to Maila, who inclined his head and leapt aloft, while Temeraire stared after them in astonished betrayal that all the order of the world had so upended itself.
"She will not persuade the Sapa Inca to do any such thing," he said stormily to Hammond, "she will not even try; she will only come back and lord it over us that she has been to the court and we have not: you must see that is perfectly clear. Oh! To send Iskierka on a diplomatic mission-one would think you had never met her, nor spent ten minutes in her company; I dare say she will lose her temper, and start a fresh war for us."

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