Crucible of Gold

Page 28

"Yes," Laurence said, grimly folding back the sleeves of his robes. "I recall."
Their introduction took place at a hall which faced upon another great plaza called the Cusipata: Iskierka led them on proudly and descended at nearly the far end of the long courtyard so their approach might have the best effect, in defiance of Hammond's advice. Under the roofed building, a great dais stood awaiting them: a stepped platform with a low stool set atop it, and enormous plates of gold affixed to every side all around.
Maila Yupanqui and three other great beasts were disposed about the dais in heavy coils, the burnished shine of the metal gleaming out only here and there between their bodies; they shifted in restless anxiety, and all their heads weaved in the air. Laurence might almost have called it an absurdity, to have four immense dragons watching himself and Granby with so much cold anxiety, and with not half so much attention on Iskierka and Temeraire; but the tense suggestion of waiting violence leached any quality of humor from the circumstances.
Two rows of guards stood also to either side of the dais, armed with swords and muskets-of Spanish or of Portuguese make, Laurence judged, and likely traded for at the coast, or from Brazil itself-and wearing a sort of armor made of thick wool; which might have been merely intended to add to the imperial state, but the atmosphere conveyed was not one of formality but of an armed camp, and the unfriendly looks bent upon them would have been merited more by assassins than by honored guests.
The Empress sat upon the stool on the dais: a tall and slender woman with incongruously broad shoulders, she wore a deep scarlet turban with feathers thrust into it, bound in gold, and her very long black hair hung down in plaits clasped with gold and emeralds; her garments were of wool of extraordinary fineness, splendidly woven in small patterned squares of bright colors, and ornamented with jewels. As they neared, Laurence saw she had also a scattering of pox-marks over one cheek, which had been brushed with gold dust and shone in the sunlight that spilled down from the ceiling in great shafts.
"Laurence, only look at the fountain," Temeraire whispered: a great leaping construction, the basin all of solid gold catching sunlight, so the water as it leapt seemed to have caught fire; also carved and set with gems: and to either side of them the walls themselves were sheathed in gold.
Temeraire and Iskierka seated themselves in leonine fashion, though Maila and the other Inca dragons, six in number, remained on their haunches, and there was a tension in their limbs which suggested a readiness to spring. "We shan't make a fuss about their behaving rudely," Temeraire said to Laurence, in what was likely intended to have been a whispered aside, "because they are so very nervous; but pray do not be the least worried, Laurence, for if they should attack us I shall certainly not allow any harm to come to you; if I had the least doubt on that subject we should not have come."
Laurence sighed: there was a firm insistence on this final point which he did not think boded well for Temeraire's complacency, in future, when duty should compel him into danger. He halted where they stood and bowed to the Inca, who looked at them with a thoughtful expression: not a particularly handsome woman, and made less so by the scarring, but her eyes were exceptionally dark, and a shrewd calculation looked out of them.
"I am Anahuarque Inca, and I welcome you to Pusantinsuyo," the Empress said, in English only lightly accented, and then changed to surprisingly excellent French to invite them to be comfortable; woven cloths, thickly padded, were brought and laid out on the floor for them to sit upon.
"At least that makes it plain enough how near to approach," Granby muttered to Laurence, very gingerly lowering himself onto one of the blankets; and then started: the Empress rose from her throne and descended to the floor of the hall, and even as her warriors and her dragons stirred uneasily, she seated herself on another woven cloth not five paces distant.
"Are you comfortable?" she asked, looking at him with an attitude of curiosity. "This is the custom of your people: to sit while you talk?"
"Oh, er," Granby said. "Well-thank you, yes, most comfortable-"
"And the conditions of your journey? The roads were in good repair, and the storehouses full?" she inquired.
Granby threw Laurence a desperate look, but she was too clearly addressing him directly. "Yes, ma'am-Your Majesty?"
He would gladly have stopped there, but Iskierka put down her head and nudged him, hissing, "Say something more, Granby: why are you being so stupid? She will think you are not clever."
"I am not in the least clever, in conversation, and less so in French!" Granby answered her with some heat, and groped about feebly for something to say. "The storehouses are remarkable, Your Majesty," he added. "We scarcely had to hunt along the way-oh, hell," he said, reverting to English and muttering to Laurence, "ought we admit to taking from them all along the route?"
"I am glad to hear it," Anahuarque said, however, without any sign of objecting to their pillaging. "The harvest has been good in the south, so I hear; I believe you have said it was so, Ninan?"
She repeated this question, directed to one of the hovering warriors, in Quechua: the gentleman in question, a tall and fiercely glaring young man, whose hand rested on the butt of a pistol thrust into a sash at his waist, started and answered her after a moment. She turned back to French and asked Granby about his satisfaction with their quarters; then discussed the weather and the approaching change of season, in each case weaving her own attendant men into the conversation.
Laurence, who had been used from childhood to hang his head from the banister overlooking his mother's political dinners, even before he had been old enough to join the table, realized in short order there was no accident in the seeming banality of the conversation, but rather a masterful degree of management. He might have blamed it on Anahuarque's being hampered by speaking as she did in a tongue other than her own, but this would have more naturally led to stammering and pauses; of which there were none.
As the conversation continued, and poor Granby bore the brunt of it, Laurence looked closer and saw the warriors around her throne were plainly not mere guards. Several of them were older men, others visibly battle-hardened; and all of them adorned both with large disks of gold embedded in their ear-lobes, and woven and fringed turbans which he began to think denoted perhaps nobility, or military rank. And the suspicious looks these men cast were not confined to Granby and to Laurence: they scowled at one another with equal fervor.
"She is playing Penelope's game, I think," Laurence said to Granby, when they had at last been dismissed the Empress's presence and landed at the hall again. "She is being pressed to take a consort, who surely would seek to assert his authority direct; and she is playing her rivals off one against another."
"And we are as good as a circus for distraction," Granby said. "She can't have had the least wish to speak to us for any other reason, when all she did was ask me about the weather in England, and I can scarcely tell you if it is summer or winter there at present . Laurence, she will keep us all here dancing attendance endlessly, along with the rest of those fellows, if only we give her a chance."
"Yes," Laurence said, and added to Hammond, who had been waiting to meet them, "but I think we can at least give you this assurance, sir: I do not think she can intend any serious alliance with France, at least not one which would engage her to commit any portion of her forces. She cannot afford to raise one of those men above the others; if she makes a great general, or allows any one of them to build repute as the foremost warrior of her realm, she at once puts herself in that man's power."
"Unless," Hammond said bitterly, "she puts into place a counterbalance," beckoning them inside the inner chamber.
"What do you mean?" Laurence said. "Have you heard something?"
This last was addressed to Emily Roland who yet wore the gown which Mrs. Pemberton insisted upon, for their visits to the women's court, so they had come straight from there: Roland would otherwise have immediately cast it off for her uniform. Mrs. Pemberton stood in the corner of the room chafing her hands over the small brazier of coals, almost wringing them in an uncharacteristic betrayal of anxiety.
"Yes, sir," Roland said. "The Empress wasn't at court this afternoon, for she was meeting you, and so none of us had anything to do but sit and watch her ladies weave; and then that French lady, Mme. Récamier, blabbed a bit to one of the others: 'Yes, poor Josephine; but not quite so poor as she was: she has got Fontainebleu, and not him.' "
"What?" Granby said. "What the devil does that mean?"
"It means, Captain, that Napoleon has divorced Josephine at last," Mrs. Pemberton said. "He is at liberty to wed."
Chapter 12
"IT IS NOT REASONABLE," Temeraire said to Iskierka, "that Napoleon should also try to become Emperor of the Incas; one would think he might be satisfied with France, not to mention Italy and Prussia and Spain, and all the other places which he has conquered. It is quite outrageous; and I suppose that fellow Maila has been encouraging them, or else they should never have come here with him: I hope you do not think so much of him now."
But Iskierka refused to acknowledge the very dire situation, and was only quite dismissive. "I am sure the Inca is not going to marry Napoleon; why would anyone marry Napoleon, when we are going to beat him? You do not need to worry. Although," she added, "you all have made a great muddle of the negotiations. It is just as well that I am here. I am sure the Inca would not have had anything to say to any of us, otherwise."
"She is quite absurdly partial, only because Maila is so very impressed that she fights so well, and can breathe fire," Temeraire said to Laurence, "which is ridiculous in itself: they have fire-breathers here also."
"Rather small creatures, from what we have seen; and with limited range, my dear," Laurence said. Temeraire sniffed; he did not see why that should alone make so great a difference.
"If she should have any intelligence to suggest the Inca will not marry Napoleon-" Hammond began. "If, perhaps, Maila might have conveyed privately-" He glanced at Laurence and added hurriedly, "Not to suggest she should violate a true confidence, but any suggestion-any cause to believe-she would need only hint-"
"I am quite certain she has no such thing," Temeraire said, and stalked away to the courtyard and went aloft to go and take a couple of vicuña for dinner; when he had brought them back, however, Gong Su was already occupied: Maila had sent over a brace of pigs-real pigs, which had been acquired from trade with the colonial nations-as a gift; and Iskierka was sitting in the courtyard watching Gong Su roast them on spits, with an expression that one could only call smug.
"No, thank you," Temeraire said coldly, when he was offered a portion.
"I will take them, then, if you don't mean to eat them," Kulingile put in.
"You may do whatever you like," Temeraire said. "I will wait for my own catch to be ready, if you will be so kind, Gong Su; that pork does not look particularly fresh, to me."
"It eats excellently," Kulingile said, crunching through a rib cage; Temeraire settled himself upwind of the smell of roasted pork, and ignored the general feasting.
"I hope," Hammond said, "I hope, Captain Laurence, that we will not have any trouble. Any open quarrel must be dreadfully prejudicial to our cause. Churki has assured me that in a challenge, even victory on Temeraire's part-which we must of course hope for if matters should come to such a pass-would scarcely leave us the better off than an ignominious defeat: Maila is not merely respected, but considered the guardian of the royal house, and any injury even to his pride would be widely resented."
Laurence looked soberly out at the courtyard: Maila had come again, and was speaking with Iskierka at the far end too quietly to overhear, their heads intimate and conspiratorial; and Temeraire was sitting nearer their hall with his head raised haughtily, hearing Sipho recite some poetry to him. Or at least pretending to do so: his head was tilted ever so slightly at an angle calculated to give him the best chance of overhearing the distant conversation, and when Sipho paused for a question it was several moments before Temeraire looked down and replied.
"I cannot easily answer you, Mr. Hammond," Laurence said. "I should not have said that Temeraire's affections were engaged in such a way as to enable Iskierka to cause him pain; even now I must believe that it is his pride which is wounded, more than his heart."
"The cause matters very little," Hammond said, "if it should lead to the same end; the question is only whether you can restrain him; for I must call it increasingly evident that restraint will be called for."
Laurence disliked that he was not sure of his power to do so, and disliked still more discussing the subject with Hammond; he excused himself and stepped outside, to join Granby in his usual haunt of late: sitting in what might have been a casual manner upon the roof of the hall, which offered him an excellent vantage point over the city: as dragons came and went, he sketched them and made note of their points in a crabbed and awkward hand which contrasted peculiarly with the precision and clean lines of his sketchwork. His left arm was at last out of its sling, though it still gave him some pain; but he could now rest it atop the sketchbook to keep it in place for his work.
"I have two new catches so far to-day," Granby said, showing Laurence the results: one middle-weight beast marked as being all over yellow with green eyes, and a small, bright-eyed creature with a wingspan twice its length, which according to his notes could play the flute. "What? Oh-that says, fly backwards," Granby said, when Laurence asked a translation. "I have never quite seen the like: she pulled up mid-air and went back on herself as easy as winking. That makes twenty-six distinct breeds," he added, "and I have seen another half-a-dozen new beasts come and go, also."

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