Crucible of Gold

Page 29

They looked back at the courtyard, where Iskierka and Maila continued their tête-à-tête, and Temeraire his sulk. "I do not suppose, John, that you have any notion how seriously Iskierka has engaged herself with Maila?" Laurence asked him.
"No; and I wonder at it, for ordinarily she will brag of anything and everything to me, at all hours of the day," Granby said. "I will try and get it out of her, if you like; but don't let Hammond fret you to pieces. There shan't be any fighting over her, much though she would like. She has been chasing Temeraire for a year and ten thousand miles or thereabouts without much luck; I expect she is only trying to annoy him into it, instead, and sees this fellow as a handy way to do it.
"You might try and persuade him instead," he added. "I don't mind saying it would be a great thing for the Corps, if we could get an egg out of the two of them."
Laurence demurred at doing any such thing: if he could recognize the desirability of the mating, he felt still more strongly the very great officiousness of interference in such a matter; and even if Temeraire's attitude towards the proposals of England's breeders had at first been less outraged than flattered, he had lately been given a disgust for the business through excessive solicitation. "And in any case, if Temeraire should apply to her, at present, and find himself rejected-whether for Maila's sake or as mere stratagem on Iskierka's part-it cannot ameliorate the situation; indeed it must provoke a still more passionate feeling on his part, as regards setting himself against Maila."
"Well, I don't count on her doing any such thing," Granby said, "if only he gave her a little encouragement; but I will have a word with her, and see what she is about; not," he added resignedly, "that I expect to be able to persuade her to do anything differently, if she is determined to go on playing cat-among-the-pigeons, but at least you can whisper a word in Temeraire's ear, and maybe that will settle him down."
He stood to call to her; but before he could do so Iskierka had gone aloft again with Maila, and Temeraire had abandoned his fiction of disinterest and looked after them with his ruff alarmingly wide.
"If I may say so, Captain, I would rather propose a cooling draught," Gong Su said to Laurence, who had approached him to prepare a consolatory dinner of some unusual style, to divert Temeraire's attention. "The local peppers are excellent, but not to be recommended in the present circumstances. I am afraid her excess of yang makes Iskierka a difficult companion for Temeraire, from time to time," he added, with delicacy.
"I see he is tolerably transparent," Laurence said.
"If you will permit me," Gong Su said, "I will see if I can invite his attention into a more calming direction," and he shortly enlisted Temeraire's aid in fetching a great block of ice, cut from the peaks which overlooked the city, and then a bar of iron. This Temeraire and Kulingile laid upon the ice block and drew along its surface to shave a great heap of soft ice into a waiting trough; meanwhile Gong Su had prepared a syrup of some kind in his great cauldron. When he judged the ice sufficient and the alarmingly green concoction had cooled, he directed the dragons to pour it over the shaved ice.
"Oh!" Temeraire said, lifting his snout out of the resulting heap, "oh, it is splendid beyond anything, Gong Su; I might eat it forever." Kulingile did not interrupt his own ecstatic consumption long enough to compliment the receipt; but when he had finished he settled back on his haunches and sighed with wordless delight.
"I am afraid we could not reserve any of it," Temeraire informed Iskierka, with an air of smugness, when she returned that afternoon from yet another excursion, "for of course the ice would not stay; it is a pity you could not have any."
"I will have it sometime, I expect," Iskierka said, dismissively.
"All right," Granby said to Laurence, "I am going to have it out with her. I should not have thought it out of the ordinary if she had snatched Gong Su and stormed off to fetch more ice at once, even if she were only gone for pleasure; and if she did mean to be prodding Temeraire, she would be mad as fire to-day."
"I do not care about a sweet; I am concerned with much more important matters," Iskierka said, when Granby had asked her. "As," she added, with a sidelong look at Temeraire, "it seems to me others ought to have been; I have not neglected our mission, and meanwhile you are all doing nothing but wringing your hands, or making some treat, selfishly."
"Oh!" Temeraire said, "as though you were really negotiating anything, when you are only busy making up to Maila-"
"I have been carrying out our mission!" Iskierka said. "The Empress only wished to see Granby because of me; if it were up to you, I dare say she would marry Napoleon. Maila has told me she thought of it, and the French have made her a great many promises."
"What? And you have not said a word, all this while-!" Hammond said. "Do you know anything of their offers? Would their marriage give him in any way charge of their army in some fashion-of the aerial forces? But surely she must go to France, if she accepts him-would she install some governor-"
"No, no! I would have told you, if it was of any concern, but you may stop fretting; she will not marry him at all," Iskierka said, and jetted some steam, smugly. "She will marry Granby."
"What?" Hammond said.
"What?" Granby said.
The only ones at all pleased with the situation were Iskierka, and Hammond, who once past the initial shock urged them to take no hasty measures. "After all, we must have some alternative to offer them," he said. "If the Sapa Inca indeed is willing to consider-"
"Damn you, Hammond," Granby said, "don't you see Iskierka must have lied her tongue black to bring this about? You don't suppose the Incan Empress wants to marry a serving-officer, or that her people would let her, if they knew; she is not proposing some little fiction like you arranged in China, which everyone can forget as soon as the ink is dry on the paper."
"We know nothing of the proposal, or what obligations have been assumed on our behalf," Hammond said in placating tones, putting a hand upon Granby's arm earnestly, "and just so we must go carefully until we do understand, or risk giving offense. I hope," he added, "I am sure, Captain Granby, that my knowledge of your character is not mistaken: you would not refuse to undertake any singular duty, for your country, which only you could perform-"
"Laurence," Granby said, calm with horror after Hammond had eeled off with some excuse, "that damned diplomat and my thrice-damned dragon are going to marry me off to an Empress if they can do it: they are both run mad."
Laurence hardly knew what to say; with all Iskierka's assurances he hardly believed it could be possible, until Temeraire landed in the courtyard, bursting with fresh indignation . "For I have spoken with Churki," he said, "who has spoken to the other courtiers; and she says it is all a-hum: the Inca has not promised to marry Granby at all."
"Oh, thank Heaven," Granby said.
"She is only considering it," Temeraire went on, "and-"
"The devil she is!" Granby said. "What has Iskierka told them, about me? Does Her Majesty know I am the third son of a Newcastle coal-merchant? What is she thinking-"
"Oh! The Inca does not care for any of that, at all, Granby," Temeraire said. "She is thinking that if she marries you, Iskierka will have eggs for them, and the next Sapa Inca will have a great dragon who breathes fire: that is what she has promised."
Which to Granby's dismay rendered the arrangement more plausible by far: Britain itself had all but emptied the treasury to purchase Iskierka in the egg, and a nation so dependent on aerial power to preserve its sovereignty against the hunger of its neighbors would surely crave even more a fire-breather on such a scale. Though there were some native beasts which possessed the ability, they were small and their flames of a different variety altogether: low and coming only in short bursts, burning cool red and fading quickly; their value was more domestic than military, save as a distraction and a weapon in close quarters.
"You needn't be dog-in-the-manger, either," Iskierka said to Temeraire, when they confronted her. "I have said I will have an egg by you; and I will, too, but first I will have one by Maila: and I am sure you haven't the least right to be jealous, when you have been shy all these months, all because you are afraid you cannot."
"I am not jealous, and I am especially not afraid; I do not want to have an egg by you," Temeraire said, "in the least."
"That is nonsense," Iskierka said, "why wouldn't you? And Granby will be an emperor," she added, and jetted so much steam in her delight that with the sunlight reflected off the wall-panels of gold, she was wreathed in a wholly undeserved gauzy halo of light.
"This certainly alters the complexion of the situation," Hammond said thoughtfully, when informed. "I confess I had been concerned regarding what obligations she might have established-what promises might have been made-but if we are quite certain she has so far committed only herself, in her person-"
"And me," Granby said, sharply.
"Yes, of course," Hammond said, with a look which said plainly he did not care two pins for that.
Further inquiry determined that Iskierka's promises had not been quite so scanty as that: she had airily assured Maila of the British gladly sending tens of thousands of men to repopulate the ayllus of many an Incan dragon; with vague hints that the sailors daily on display in the courtyard might themselves be delivered to the dragons of the court. But in doing so she had offered nothing to which Hammond greatly objected; indeed, Laurence thought Hammond would gladly have put the men up on a chopping-block and auctioned them off to the highest bidder.
"Of course their feelings must be consulted in the matter, Captain, but if there are men who wish to make their home in such luxurious circumstances," Hammond said, "-who wish to serve their country in such a fashion-I can see no real objection. In any case," he added hastily, "that, I think, is not truly the appeal of Iskierka's proposal: you see, Captain Laurence, you were correct. For all her delay, the Empress must marry, and if she were to marry Napoleon, she must go to France: a nation torn by revolution and in the midst of war. I think the consideration must weigh with the dragons of her court greatly."
"Which is as much to say," Granby said, "that if she marries me, she shan't be going anywhere; and I am meant to live out my days knocking around a palace. You might ask, Hammond, or at least make a pretense of it."
"Captain Granby, I beg you do not refine on what we must as yet consider a most remote possibility," Hammond said, beginning to sidle out of the hall in what could not be called a subtle manner. "Pray excuse me: I will just have a word with Iskierka-" and was gone.
"I think we must soon wish you happy," Laurence said dryly to Granby, who stood flushed with choler, "with such enthusiastic matchmakers taking your part."
"There, Captain Granby, sir," O'Dea said in comforting tones, from where he had been sitting by the communal fire enjoying a tot of rum and very likely some eavesdropping, "sure and there is no harm in marriage, after all: though it all must end in a vale of tears, there's naught better to be looked for in the ash of this sad and worldly life: why not."
"Damn your impudence, O'Dea," Granby said. "Whatever do you know of it?"
"Why, and I've buried four wives," O'Dea said, and raised his glass in the air. "Katherine, Felidia, Willis, and Kate: the loveliest women ever to grace the earth, for to take pity on an old wretch like myself, and may the Good Lord be looking after them even now in his marble halls among the saints; although true enough there's no certainty of salvation."
He drained his tot and wheedling the other men at the fire said, "Come, lads: give me another drop if any of you have it to spare, a man needs a little heart in him when he thinks on love long gone."
"Then there's enough heart in you to dwell on the wreck of Rome," Granby said, and stalked away.
That night Granby came to Laurence's chamber, and knocking quietly asked him to go out. They went together through the courtyard and ascended the terraces that mounted up the hillside, silently; at the summit they looked down upon the broad plaza circled by the blue-gas lamps, and the orange glow of firelight out of the windows of the hall. "I suppose I am a fool; it didn't occur to me at first any of it could really be true-still less that Hammond could really mean it to happen, and now-" Granby stopped.
"I scarcely know how to counsel you," Laurence said, troubled; he had been no less reluctant to make himself over to be a pawn in Hammond's negotiations in China, even if they had ended greatly to his advantage; and the present arrangement should mean a far greater upheaval for Granby.
"It's worse than that," Granby said. "Laurence, I can't marry her. I know I ought to have spoken at once, and not left it so late; but there-it would scarce have made much of a difference, when Iskierka has kept the whole matter under her wing so long to begin with. Anyway, I couldn't-cannot-tell Hammond. I won't trust him so; but if I don't tell him, I don't know how to-what to-" He cut off the uncharacteristic stammer, and ran his hand down over his jaw, pulling it long and frustrate.

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