Crucible of Gold

Page 27

"You speak as though I had made a deliberate choice," Hammond answered, with some heat, "when I should be inexpressibly delighted to have any other avenue of communication available-any other intermediary but a dragon as ungovernable in temper as she is unconcerned with the good opinion of anyone; and the instant such should offer, I will seize upon it at once with the greatest satisfaction; on that you may rely."
Granby was if anything less consolable than Temeraire. "Laurence," he said, "if that lunatic beast of mine should go into a fit and insult the Emperor, or set fire to the palace-"
Laurence would have liked to reassure him with more honesty than platitudes; but he could not but share the liveliest alarm at any mission which should rest upon hopes of Iskierka's good conduct. "You may comfort yourself," he said at last, "that she comes to the court with a reputation which must inhibit any offhand insult from being given, having defeated a champion of so much note."
"Unless some other beast takes it into his head to challenge her," Granby said, "from revenge or ambition. Put someone on watch, would you? I will be on fire with anxiety until she comes back; and if anyone else comes near, let me know and I will go and hide until we know she hasn't started a war."
Kulingile only was content. Maila had granted them the liberty of the local herds, Demane had gone with Kulingile hunting, and they had brought back nine llamas, which already were roasting on spits under Gong Su's supervision: there were extensive roasting-pits behind the hall, evidently intended for the purpose of feeding assembled crowds, and a great supply of llama dung for fuel. Laurence only hoped this profligate hunting would not invite reproach; but when Shipley called, "Captain, there are some fellows there, and I think they must be coming to us," and they espied a small party of men approaching their encampment from across the plaza, Laurence felt they had entirely too many just causes to fear.
But when the men drew near enough to be recognized, De Guignes was in the lead, escorting on his arm Mrs. Pemberton, and he brought her to their camp with a smile at once polite and peculiarly forced, for all his usually impeccable courtesy. "I am delighted to see you all so well!" he said. "I will not pretend," he bowed, "that I am not surprised: but I am filled with admiration for your ingenuity. You must tell me how it was managed, when there is leisure; and I trust that your sojourn was not so uncomfortable as to create any lasting spirit of resentment between us."
Hammond's expression conveyed without words that the spirit of resentment was alive and well; Laurence answered more politely for their party, and added, "And I am indebted to you, sir, for having given Mrs. Pemberton your protection: indeed, madam, I would ask on your behalf if he would extend that protection a little further, as we are not-"
"But of course-"
"Captain, if I might-"
"No, I thank you," Mrs. Pemberton said very decisively, cutting short Laurence's question and De Guignes's immediate response, and Hammond's own interjection as well. "I have felt my own lapse of duty most keenly, gentlemen; and while I hope Miss Roland will pardon my having deserted her so long-" Miss Roland's expression made it abundantly clear she would more easily pardon the desertion than the reverse. "-I cannot allow it to continue.
"Thank you, M. De Guignes, for your generous hospitality, and pray give my thanks again to Mme. Récamier for her kindness, and the gift of the dress," she added, holding him out her hand, marshaling somehow in the midst of an open plaza and surrounded on all sides by ragged soldiers all the authority of a chaperone thirty years older delivering a set-down in the midst of St. James.
De Guignes took his dismissal in reluctant part, outdone only by Emily Roland's visibly truculent looks; but when he and his men had made a few more polite remarks, they at last retreated to their own distant encampment on the other side of the square, leaving Mrs. Pemberton to stand in place, incongruous in her neat gown and gloves and calm looks, until Laurence had arranged her a seat contrived from a coil of the belly-netting, with several of the local capelets thrown over it for upholstery.
De Guignes had brought her to Cusco with his party. "And regrets it now extremely, I should say," she said, when she had seated herself. "He was not in the least enthusiastic about permitting me to rejoin you, and I believe if I had not witnessed your arrival directly with my own eyes, he would have been as glad to keep the intelligence from me as long as he might."
"I should be sorry to imagine M. De Guignes would ever behave so little like a gentleman," Laurence said, startled by her condemnation of one who, it seemed to him, had only intended to assure her comfort.
"Oh, I do not say a word against him, Captain, I assure you," Mrs. Pemberton said. "He has let me go, after all, and one cannot really blame him for regret in the present circumstances; he scarcely can rely on my discretion."
"Certainly not," Hammond said with enthusiasm, "of course not; how should he expect that a subject of the King should keep his confidences, in any matter that concerned her own nation; madam, pray tell me: have the French been admitted to the presence of the Sapa Inca, themselves, or only their beasts?"
"Not all their party," Mrs. Pemberton said, "but yes: they are at court every day-"
"Every day!" Hammond cried, dismayed. "Good Heavens: we must find a way to persuade them to let us in; Captain Granby, you must exert all your powers over Iskierka-you must convince her to promote an invitation-"
"Sir," Mrs. Pemberton said, "I have been invited to come again tomorrow, myself; I would of course be happy to-"
"What? You have met him?" Hammond said. "How was it arranged, were-"
"Her, Mr. Hammond," Mrs. Pemberton said.
"I beg your pardon?" Hammond said.
"The Sapa Inca is a woman," Mrs. Pemberton said.
The Empress, Mrs. Pemberton was able to explain to them, was the widow of the previous lord, and the daughter of the one before him. "So far as I can tell," she said, "he died of the pox. As she herself had by then already survived the illness, while he kept his sickbed she took on the role of intermediary and spoke for him to the court; and he seems to have taken an unconscionable deal of time dying. They have a most peculiar custom of preserving the dead here, instead of a proper burial, but I gather his remains are not fit to be seen, and have been sequestered away instead under a shroud."
"Properly gruesome," Granby said. "And when she couldn't prop him up in a corner any longer?"
"By then, I gather," Mrs. Pemberton said, "she had persuaded the chief dragons of the court that a woman was better suited to the role of empress: where it would be the duty of a man to go forth and lead the army, she might remain at home under their protection. The argument has carried a great deal of weight with them."
Laurence asked, "Ma'am, how certain are you of this intelligence?"
"Perfectly certain," she said . "I have had most of it from the Empress herself, or her handmaidens: she speaks French already, and has asked me to tutor her in English."
The Frenchwomen whom they had seen aboard the Triomphe, it transpired, were here for no lesser purpose than to carry on negotiations with the Inca on De Guignes's behalf. "And if possible to persuade her to see him, but so far they have in this respect been unsuccessful. I have been made a member of their party, and welcome to join them in their regular attendance at court, but I have not," Mrs. Pemberton said, "been privy to all their conversations with the Sapa Inca: and the ladies are far too shrewd to allow their intentions to slip in mere gossiping. You can imagine better than I, sir, what terms they are likely to have offered and to seek."
"An exchange," Hammond said thoughtfully. "I should not be in the least surprised if they proposed an exchange-of people, I mean, for dragons; I am quite sure Napoleon would be delighted to receive a number of beasts in France at the price, I suppose, of the population of his prisons. But I am sure he would also settle for a mere vague agreement of friendship-a truce of sorts-he does not require an ally on this continent, when he is already delivering the Tswana here by the boatload.
"Perhaps they are here only to prevent our acquiring one-? Only," he paused, and gnawed absently upon his thumb a moment, "only, would De Guignes come on so incidental a mission? And bind himself to a dragon for its sake? No-! Blast."
He muttered to himself in this vein for several moments more; Mrs. Pemberton listened until he ran down again and had turned away from her to his teapot, for a fresh cup of the coca tea; then she said calmly, "I will see what I can find out in more earnest, sir; and present Miss Roland to Her Majesty tomorrow morning, with your permission."
The steaming cup in his hand momentarily forgotten, Hammond looked up doubtfully at her and then at Emily Roland, who stared equally doubtful back.
"We cannot suffer by having another pair of eyes and ears admitted to the Sapa Inca's presence," Mrs. Pemberton pointed out. "Miss Roland and myself will extend whatever offers you might wish to Her Majesty, Mr. Hammond; and I am sure we should be glad to do our very best to accomplish whatever you would like."
"What I would like," Hammond said to Laurence several days later, nearly pulling upon his hair: all efforts at obtaining his admission to the Empress's presence had failed, "what I would like, would be the liberty of carrying on my own negotiations, without recourse to intermediaries: untrained intermediaries! A violently quarrelsome dragon, a governess, and a fifteen-year-old girl! And I must credential them-I hope no-one in England may hear of it."
"You may at least comfort yourself that the French can be only a little better prepared than are we, for the circumstances of such a negotiation," Laurence said.
"Can they not?" Hammond said. "They at least have known what to expect-they have surely been sending spies over here through Brazil these last two years. We already know that Mme. Récamier is here on their part; I thought she loathed Bonaparte, but I suppose she loves an opportunity of intrigue on such a scale enough to compensate. And at least De Guignes's beast has not taken it into her head to form a distaste for the foremost Incan dragon."
Laurence could not dispute the justice of this last complaint: Temeraire and Maila Yupanqui were only just short of daggers-drawn with one another. There would have been every cause to despair of progress, indeed, if Maila were not more than ready to be pleased by the rest of them, most notably Iskierka, to whom he applied regularly for private conversation, on the excuse of continuing his efforts to acquire English.
"I am sure I do not see any reason why Iskierka must put up with being annoyed," Temeraire said.
"I am sure I cannot name a single other advantage we have to hand," Hammond said, "so you will oblige me by not interfering."
So Temeraire remained resentful, and grew only more so when Iskierka landed shortly thereafter and announced, "I have been out flying with Maila: he has shown me a mine where they take gold directly out of the ground; cartloads of it; and he tells me they could take still more than they do, but they do not have so many hands as they need for the work, as it is only men who can do it properly."
"Laurence, do you suppose there might be a mine of that sort in England?" Temeraire asked him in low tones, shortly after his scornful dismissal of Iskierka's report had provoked them to a quarrel which left them sitting at opposite ends of the hall. "Or perhaps in our valley, in New South Wales?"
"I cannot think it at all likely," Laurence said. "Gold mines are not a common occurrence; from what we saw on our journey across the Australian continent I should think the country might more likely have opal mines."
"Oh!" Temeraire said. "Like those stones which they sewed to your robes? That would do splendidly; I would rather have opals than a like quantity of gold. Laurence, will you not wear your robes, perhaps to walk across the plaza, where you might be seen?"
Laurence only with difficulty made demur, on the grounds of the occasion lacking sufficient importance, but that afternoon Iskierka landed and announced triumphantly, "Well, I have arranged it all, as perfectly as any of you might possibly have wished: the Inca will see you, Granby!-oh, and you and Laurence may come as well, Temeraire, if you like."
Temeraire was inclined to be indignant at this offhand invitation, but then he brightened and said to Laurence, "So you shall put the robes on, now; and I am sure the Inca will see at once that you are the senior officer of our expedition."
"Pray be certain not to move towards her uninvited," Hammond said anxiously. "Not without very plain invitation-and if possible, avoid any nearer approach at all, indeed-save, of course, if you should gather the impression such avoidance might give offense-"
"I don't see why you oughtn't go, instead of me," Granby said. "I am no hand for diplomatic affairs; and if they still have their backs up over their quarrel with those Spaniards two centuries ago, surely they would rather have an ambassador than an officer."
"Of course you must go," Iskierka said, overruling all objection. "You are my captain; naturally she would like to meet you."
"We cannot say-perhaps there is some particular favor in their society, some distinction, conferred upon military men-certainly their chief men are generals, and soldiers," Hammond said. "We cannot take the risk; certainly we have been particularly favored to receive any invitation whatsoever-Mrs. Pemberton assures me De Guignes has had none, so far as she knows, and he must be quite wild about it. Captain Laurence, you do recall-no approach unless you are very clearly beckoned-"

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