Crucible of Gold

Page 3

"You doubt their continued willingness to permit our passage," Laurence said.
Hammond nodded. "We must have Portugal," he repeated.
Temeraire had scarcely understood at first what Hammond was about; it did not seem reasonable to him that anything so momentous should be attended with so little ceremony or notice, but he recalled that just so had it happened to begin with that Laurence had lost his rank. Temeraire had known nothing of it, until one afternoon someone was calling him Mr. Laurence, and the golden bars had gone; and now here they appeared again as swiftly, a lovely gleam in Hammond's palm.
Laurence was silent, when Hammond had finished expounding on the mission; Temeraire looked at him anxiously. "It does not seem to me there is anything very unpleasant in what Hammond is asking," he ventured. He could not-naturally he did not wish Laurence to accept his commission back, if it only meant being ordered to do something dreadful, which they should have to refuse, and then have the same unpleasantness of being called traitors all over again; but it was very hard to have such a chance extended and then snatched away.
"You must be tired, sir, after your journey," Laurence said to Hammond. "If you would care to refresh yourself, my hut is at your disposal, and there is clean water to hand here above the falls; Mr. Shipley will, I hope, be so good as to show you the way," beckoning to that fellow.
"Oh-oh, certainly," Hammond said, and went away, though he looked over his shoulder more than once, despite the rough ground, as if to read Laurence's thoughts off his face.
"Of course you shall not do anything you would dislike, Laurence," Temeraire said, when Hammond had gone away, and left them in privacy, "only, it does not seem to me there is anything to object to in going to Brazil, and you should have your title back, and your rank."
"That, my dear, can be nothing more than a polite fiction," Laurence said. "I cannot pretend that I am in any real sense an officer of any corps when I am determined never again to submit to orders which my own judgment should find immoral."
A fiction which brought with it bars of gold, and changed entirely the mode in which persons addressed you, seemed to Temeraire real enough for anyone's taste. "And after all, it is not as though they must give you dreadful orders: perhaps they will have learned their lesson, and think better of it, from now on," he said hopefully. He did not have any great reliance on the wisdom of the Government, but anyone might be expected to learn, after so many proofs, that he and Laurence were not to be cowed into doing anything which was not just.
"I am sure they will not rely upon either of us to any extent further than they must," Laurence said.
He was silent again: standing, with his hands clasped behind his back, and looking out over the great expanse of the valley; even in his rough clothes his shoulders were as straight as though they still bore the golden epaulets in which Temeraire had first seen him, and only a little imagination was required to restore to him his uniform, his green coat and the leather harness, and the golden bars. Laurence paused and after a moment longer asked, "Do you wish to go, then?"
It only then occurred to Temeraire that of course, the mission would require leaving their valley. He turned and looked at the pavilion, and the herd of cattle milling below among the grass; the prospect of tree-furred gorges stretched out before them, carved through the yellow and ochre rock of the mountains. He curled his tail in, the tip wanting to switch uneasily through the air; it seemed as though they had only just come and begun the work.
Perhaps it was not so exciting as battles-Temeraire could not argue that-but there was something splendid even in seeing plants grow, when one had helped to sow the fields, and the pavilion half-finished seemed already lonely and abandoned when he thought of going away.
"I suppose-we have been happy here?" Temeraire said, half-questioning. "And I would not like to leave things undone, but-" He looked at Laurence. "Would you rather stay?"
Temeraire drowsed off a few hours later; the handful of small fires near the campsite died away to embers yellow as cream, and the great swath of southern stars came out overhead. From the far side of the valley Laurence heard faintly a song, rising and falling, too distantly for words: the Wiradjuri in their summer camp along the river.
Tomorrow was Tuesday: he should ordinarily have gone down to meet with them and exchange goods, and present for their approval Temeraire's next intended step in the pavilion's construction, the acquisition of timber from a stand of large old trees to the north, for the wall-paneling and to build out the rooms which Laurence himself should occupy, and any of their human guests.
O'Dea would go to Sydney with the mail, and return in a week's time perhaps with some new book. In the meantime, there was the rest of the floor to be laid down, and two of the men had already been set to working upon the shingles for the eventual roof. In a few days the cattle would be moved to fresh pasture; in the evenings Laurence would puzzle out the new volume of Chinese poetry under Temeraire's guidance: the ordinary daily course of their new life.
Or instead they might be aloft for Port Jackson and Brazil: a couple of pebbles briefly cast up and allowed to rest on the shore, carried away again into the ocean by the retreating tide.
Laurence knew his decision already made; perhaps had been made even before Hammond had spoken. He wished he could be certain his choice was not driven by pride, by the lingering grip of shame: he had done his best to make his peace with his own treason, since it had been a necessary evil, but he could not deny Hammond had laid out a potent bribe. Easy enough to hope, to plan, that they should do more good than evil in the grander orbits of the world, if they should re-enter that sphere; easier still for those hopes to prove false.
Easier than that, to allow those fears to imprison them more securely even than the miles of ocean. Laurence laid a hand on the warm scaled hide of Temeraire's foreleg. If nothing else, Temeraire was not made to lie idle, in a peaceful valley at the far ends of the earth.
Temeraire slitted open one blue eye and made an interrogative noise, not quite awake.
"No; go back to sleep, all is well," Laurence said, and when the heavy lid had slid closed again, he stood up; and went down to the river to shave.
Chapter 2
"I CANNOT SAY MUCH FOR A PAVILION without a roof," Iskierka said, with quite unbearable superiority, "and anyway you cannot bring it along, so even if it were finished, it would not be of any use. I do not think anyone can disagree I have used my time better."
Temeraire could disagree, very vehemently, but when Iskierka had chivvied a few of her crew-newly brought on in Madras-into bringing up the sea-chests from below, and throwing open the lids to let the sunlight in upon the heaped golden vessels, and even one small casket of beautifully cut gemstones, he found his arguments did ring a little hollow. It seemed the Allegiance had in her lumbering way still managed to get into flying distance of not one but three lawful prizes, on the way to Madras, and another one on the way back, when Hammond's urgent need of a transport to carry Temeraire to Rio had necessitated her abrupt about-face and return.
"It does not seem very fair," Temeraire said to Laurence, "when one considers how much sea-journeying we have done, without even one French merchantman coming anywhere in reach; and I do not find that Riley expects we should meet others on the way to Brazil, either."
"No, but we may meet a whaler or two, if you like," Laurence said absently. Temeraire was not mollified; whales were perfectly tolerable creatures, very good eating when not excessively large, but no-one could compare them to cartloads of gems and gold; and as for ambergris, he did not care for the scent.
Laurence was presently interviewing the aviators at the covert to form their new crew-a small and undistinguished group to choose from, even though swelled by other men whom Granby had brought back from Madras, the coverts there having been half-emptied of dragons by the plague. But it seemed Iskierka had already taken her pick of the available men for her own crew. Temeraire and Laurence were only to have the leavings, even though, Temeraire thought, they had the greater seniority and also the greater need, as one could not conveniently get very many men on Iskierka's back to begin with thanks to her endlessly steaming spikes.
Temeraire could only console himself that at least he now had Fellowes back as his very own ground-crew master, and Emily Roland was once more officially Laurence's ensign; but apart from this he had been stripped almost entirely. At least Gong Su had remained with them all along, so Temeraire had one properly loyal crew member-but Dorset for no very good reason had decided not to rejoin them. There had been some suggestion that it was his duty to stay with the covert, which had no other surgeon; but why Dorset might not come along, and Iskierka's new surgeon remain behind instead, Temeraire did not understand at all.
"Sir," Lieutenant Blincoln said, standing rather awkwardly outside the clearing where Laurence was sitting with his writing-table, "sir, I hoped I might have a word."
Laurence looked up from his notes, and Blincoln began to stumble over an apology-very sorry if he should ever have failed in proper respect; hoped he had done his duty as best he could, always; begged leave to recommend himself to Captain Laurence's attention-
"Mr. Blincoln," Laurence said, interrupting him, "I have no complaint to make of your manner towards me under the previous circumstances; if any apology on that score is merited, you may consider it accepted if you wish. I should by far be more inclined to hire a man who had abused me to my face, for a just conviction, than one who has to my own certain knowledge and further credible report behaved in an outrageous and underhanded fashion towards a young officer, friendless and without that defense which he ought have had from your superiors, and knowingly and with selfish intent interfered with the rearing of a beast not his own."
Laurence meant Demane: evidently the aviators in Sydney had continued their attempts to sway Kulingile away from him, and it was no surprise to Temeraire that Rankin should have done nothing to prevent it. Although, Temeraire did not think it should have been anything so very dreadful if one of the other aviators had succeeded. After all, Demane should have been very welcome back in his own crew, and been much better off, if his dragon had proven so very faithless. Not, of course, that Temeraire wished for any such thing to happen; only, if it had-well, it had not; he sighed, peering over at the sadly abbreviated list of officers that Laurence had jotted down.
Blincoln meanwhile would have protested, but Laurence cut him short. "No," he said, "I have no interest in hearing whatever explanations you can dredge up, and that your casting of lures was condoned by your senior officer and imitated by many of your fellows as little excuses you as it does credit to any of them. It was wrong in you, and you knew it so; I must ask you and any other man who has acted in similar fashion to expect nothing from me but the strongest possible censure."
Blincoln hastily retreated; and Laurence put down his pen. "I find I am more given to haste, these days; I have grown too used to a more select company," he said to Temeraire ruefully.
"It was certainly no more than he deserved," Temeraire said, "for imagining we should take him for my crew; I certainly have not forgotten how rude he was to you."
"I can make allowances for any man who might object to treason," Laurence said, with far more tolerance than Temeraire thought merited, since they had not properly been traitors after all, and now even the Government had admitted it. "But not of this selfish and underhanded leech-work; and now I think on it, we cannot leave Kulingile and Demane here under Rankin's command. I must speak with Hammond: between us and Granby, I think we have enough authority to make off with a heavyweight, particularly as he has never been formally issued orders since the hatching. Otherwise those men will never let them alone; and if they should think my reinstatement means my ill-report of them will have more credence, they will only grow all the more vicious, for having less to lose by it."
"Of course Demane should come with us," Temeraire said, brightening, "and if Kulingile chooses, I do not see any objection. He might come instead of Iskierka?" he suggested hopefully. Unfortunately, it seemed that Hammond quite insisted on her accompanying them: more of this unreasonable favoritism towards fire-breathers.
But at least Kulingile's coming meant that Temeraire should not be parted from Demane and from Sipho-whom Temeraire was also not prepared to cede from his own crew, even though as Demane's brother his proper posting might be contested. "But I have an egg-mate back in China, and it is not as though we are always together; so it does not necessarily follow," Temeraire said to himself, arguing it out.
"Mr. O'Dea will come with us, also, I think," Laurence said. "He has grown steady, these last few months; and at least that will mean one decent hand in the log-book; and Mr. Shipley. Yes, Roland?"
Emily Roland had come into the clearing, and said in a low tone, "Sir, I beg your pardon; they won't let him come up, but I thought-I was sure you would wish-"
Temeraire looked down the hill, where the all but unnecessary gate to the covert was manned rather to occupy the aviators than to prevent any incursions from the town: a man in ordinary clothing was being barred. "Why," Temeraire said with pleasure, after squinting to be sure, although the shock of reddish brown hair was immediately familiar, "I think that is Lieutenant Ferris; whyever should they not let him come up?"
Laurence looked very pale, and said quietly, "Roland, if you please, run and tell those men to stand aside, and that Mr. Ferris is my guest."

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