Crucible of Gold


Page 12


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"Well, there isn't a cow for you to have," Temeraire said, "and I must call it the worst sort of manners to complain when we are guests."
"Seaweed?" Laurence said, puzzled.
"Ardenteuse has the net, you can see her there aloft," Temeraire said, pointing with his snout at the Chanson-de-Guerre flying alongside the vessel with a long rope dangling: shortly she pulled up a fishing net of fine line, full of dark green seaweed and wriggling silver bodies.
"They might pick the fish out for us, at least," Iskierka said, grumbling, "instead of giving it to us all mashed together. Besides, we are not guests; we are prisoners, since we have surrendered"-very sullenly-"so I will complain as much as I like."
"And it is not at all unpleasant to keep aloft for half the day," Temeraire went on, lordly ignoring her, "so long as one may come down and sleep later."
He made light of the difficulties, but there was an undertone of weariness in his voice which all the effort at cheer did not mask, and he put his head down and fell back to sleep even before Laurence had been gently ushered from the deck at the conclusion of his brief airing.
"It's not that they can't fly half the day," Granby said at dinner, having returned from his own outing equally anxious for Iskierka, "but not when they are to be half-fed, day-in and day-out; and this cold weather don't make it easier on them, either. I suppose it is still a long way to landfall?"
"Four weeks perhaps, if they are aiming for Matarani," Laurence said, an educated guess only: he barely knew anything of the Inca ports. They were notoriously unfriendly to sailors putting in at their ports in anything larger than a ship's launch, so any merchantman determined to trade was forced to anchor miles off the coast out of sight and ferry goods in by boat; and these on return often reported half their crews missing, lost to a fate whose horrors were only magnified for being unknown. Those boats nearly as often carried back chests loaded with gold and silver, in exchange for their goods, which caused the adventurers to persevere; but the Inca were not to be considered hospitable.
In any case, even if Laurence had known the coast as well as that of England, the French had not shown him their charts, and looking out the porthole at what stars he could see did not tell him precisely where they were. "We are out of the forties, at least I can say for certain, so will make worse time the rest of the way."
"Would you know when we are in range of land, Captain?" Hammond asked, dropping his voice confidentially, in a way Laurence could not like. "In flying range, I mean-and if we should be straining the ship's capacity-"
"We would nevertheless be bound by our parole to remain, unless the French should give us leave to go," Laurence said with enough finality, he hoped, to forestall any untenable suggestion: Hammond was a remarkable man in many respects, and Laurence had cause to be grateful for his gifts, but on occasion one might not be sure of him.
"Yes, of course," Hammond said, and sank back into his chair with a face like a sail with the wind spilling out of it, all gloom; in a moment he burst out, "They must have sent spies through Brazil-it is the only explanation; but how they should have persuaded the Inca-" and subsided; a moment later he was repeating, "I cannot conceive how they should have persuaded the Inca to open relations-"
De Guignes certainly did not mean to volunteer any information; however smiling his courtesies, it was plain he disliked extremely having encountered them, and meant so far as he could to isolate them from the life of the ship and in particular from his Inca passengers, if there were any: Laurence had so far seen none, saving the feathered dragon upon the deck. Captain Thibaux was more really welcoming, but as he could count on the captain's share of the head-price for three heavy-weight dragons and their officers, as well as for nearly three hundred sailors, he had greater compensation for his pain.
"No, Mr. Hammond, I have met none of the Inca aboard," Mrs. Pemberton said, when she was permitted to visit them, "although I have been made very welcome: Mme. Récamier has kindly lent me this dress, as I came away without baggage."
"Récamier?" Hammond said, puzzled. "Not of the salon, in Paris?"
"I believe she lives in Paris," Mrs. Pemberton said, confirming, "and several of her companions also."
"But," Hammond said, and fell into muttering confusion; Laurence could not deny he was as perplexed to find De Guignes carrying along half-a-dozen Frenchwomen of noble birth on a mission to a dangerous and isolate nation.
"I don't see why he must be so unfriendly," Kulingile said, meaning Piccolo, who was presently taking his turn to sleep, with his head buried beneath his wing so he would not see Kulingile flying overhead. It had proven necessary to the maintenance of harmony to have only one of the two of them on the deck at any time, once Piccolo had determined that Kulingile was indeed the larger. "It is not as though I were doing it on purpose."
"That scarcely makes a difference; it is not as though you would choose to be smaller if you could," Temeraire said. In all honesty he did not himself see why Kulingile needed to be quite so large, and still growing, when he had started out so small and from a stunted egg; it was a little difficult to adjust one's thinking.
But to be fair, Kulingile was not at all inclined to make a fuss: even though there was not enough to eat, he did not try to demand more than a proportional share, or filch some of the catch for himself the way Piccolo would if one did not make sure he was watched.
"I am not a prisoner of war," Piccolo had said over-loudly, when Iskierka had caught him at it the other day. "My captain did not surrender himself; this is our ship."
"It is all very well to make remarks of that sort," Temeraire had said coldly, "if you were prepared to defend them, but you know very well we cannot be having it out in the middle of the ocean. You may be sure there is not another transport about if we should lose this one, and if there were, there would be even less food to go around."
Temeraire did not like to remember those last desperate hours of the flight, drawing in a mist of salt with every too-short breath, his whole body growing steadily more heavy around him; it felt too like defeat. But there was no denying that he could not have flown much farther, with all the will in the world to do so. Nor could have Iskierka and Kulingile, of course; so it was not at all a weakness of his own, but nevertheless he had been forced to acknowledge what must indeed be a practical limitation upon almost any dragon.
He would have liked to question Lung Shen Li about her technique-perhaps there was some trick to a long flight-but after all, she did not have the divine wind, so he could not begrudge her a particular gift all her own. In any case, he now properly appreciated the absolute necessity of the ship to all of them, and so they must not quarrel; however much one would have liked to push Maila's nose in for him, with his constant airs and the shameless way he made up to Iskierka .
"Perhaps when we have made land?" he said to Laurence wistfully. "Not, of course, to violate parole," Temeraire added hurriedly, seeing Laurence's expression, "we would not really take the ship away; but only to make quite clear that if they hadn't our parole-"
But evidently this was not acceptable, either; although Iskierka snorted her opinion of that. "It is all stuff," she said. "Do you know that they mean to send us back to some breeding grounds in France, and put Granby and Laurence and Demane in prison, for all the war? We should not have any battles, or prizes, ever again; it is perfectly ridiculous to expect us to go along with it when we can roust them in ten minutes."
Temeraire could not disagree. He had already had more than enough of breeding grounds to satisfy him.
"And they know it, too," Iskierka added: which was perfectly true. Temeraire had made a point the other morning of exercising the divine wind against the ocean, to raise up a great wave. Of course he had raised it behind the ship and going away, but the bulk of it had been perfectly visible even from the dragondeck, Kulingile had assured him, and the roaring audible. Temeraire did not feel that had been excessive: he had not done it to show away, only to make clear how matters stood; and he had only made the effort once, while Iskierka shot off flames three times a day for no reason at all.
So he did think the French dragons could hardly help but see they were overmatched all around. "I suppose that is why," Temeraire said to Kulingile, referring to Piccolo's rudeness. "It cannot be a comfortable situation for them."
Ardenteuse and Genevieve had both been entirely respectful towards himself from almost the beginning, although Temeraire was a little displeased that they had assumed that attitude only when they had learned he was a Celestial. "Oh! Like Mme. Lien," Ardenteuse had said eagerly. "Only she is all white, like snow, and has the most splendid jewels, different ones for every day of the week-"
So it could not be called a satisfying state of affairs, in total; not by any means. "If only we had come across them sailing, when we had the Allegiance ourselves," Temeraire said.
"And we would still have had all the cattle," Kulingile agreed regretfully.
"But we are not at all planning anything," Temeraire protested, a few days later, when Laurence reproached him. "Indeed, Laurence, I would not do anything to dishonor you, I promise," except of course to preserve Laurence's safety, Temeraire privately amended.
He had learned his lesson in that regard when Laurence had been imprisoned for treason: the British had put Laurence into prison on the Goliath, supposedly safe; Temeraire had gone into the breeding grounds believing it; and then Napoleon had invaded and the ship had been sunk. And Temeraire could not find that anyone had given a single thought to Laurence's safety at the time-he had only escaped on the ship's boats because he had been helping them fight.
So Temeraire did not mean to trust any future promises of that sort from anyone; if the French should try and take Laurence away from him, he had already privately conceived of several stratagems which he might use to extract Laurence from their grasp. But there was no need to go into all of that, Temeraire felt, so long as the French did not do anything unreasonable.
"No," Laurence said. "No, you cannot be accused of anything like planning; there is nothing secretive or conniving in Iskierka's announcing daily in full voice that she does not mean to be immured in a breeding ground, or in your roaring up waves for your own entertainment fit to sink the ship-" The wave had not been nearly so large as all that, Temeraire wanted to argue, but it did not seem the appropriate moment. "But neither are these gestures calculated to leave our hosts with any confidence in our respect for the rules of civilized warfare, the which they have themselves so generously embraced in offering us harbor from a disaster of our own making."
Temeraire did not think it was fair to call it their own making: it was not his fault, or Laurence's, that the Allegiance had sunk. But he did not argue: Laurence spoke too bleakly of the loss, and Temeraire knew it had wounded him very deeply. Indeed he felt it himself-it did not seem right that the Allegiance should be gone forever, and Riley with her. The haze of the long, desperate flight had left the sinking strangely uncertain in Temeraire's memory-surely they would one day look out from a port, and see her coming in again.
"Of course no-one would ever dream of asking Captain Laurence to violate his parole," Mr. Hammond said, after Laurence had been taken below again. "But as I think of it, there is no reason you might not speak with the Incan beast-I cannot call myself a proper scholar in the tongue, but I have made some little study of Quechua-I should be happy to instruct you in what little I know-"
"I see no reason why anyone would like to speak with Maila in the least," Temeraire said, flattening his ruff as he looked up to see the Incan dragon flying alongside Iskierka: the very stupid feathery scales spread out wide when he flew, and shone gaudily iridescent in the sun.
"If we could only form a notion of where their negotiations stand," Hammond said, in a low voice, "it would be of the greatest use-"
"What use will it be if we are only to be taken to prison?" Temeraire said.
"But by necessity we are first being taken to the Inca," Hammond said, even more quietly, "who might care to speak with us before they make any decision, so long as they know we are close at hand and empowered to make them offers."
That was a heartening thought: not all the Inca could be as rude as Maila, Temeraire supposed. "I suppose you may as well teach me the language," he said. "You can come up along with me when it is my turn to go flying next, and begin."
"Oh," Hammond said, and swallowed.
Quechua was not a very difficult language-very nicely regular, Temeraire noted with approval, so that once one had learned the rules, one could make further progress at a steady pace. "There are records of a great many more dialects, from the earlier colonial days," Hammond shouted through the speaking-trumpet-it was not really necessary to speak so loudly aloft, Temeraire could hear him quite clearly even if he did not yell, but Hammond could not be convinced of that-"but the Inca have imposed their own preferred dialect as a kind of lingua franca."
As for pronunciation, that was rather more difficult; Temeraire could not always be listening in on Maila's conversations with Genevieve, but he heard enough to know Hammond's left something to be desired. "You might bespeak him now," Hammond suggested, looking over at Maila, who was making a habit lately of flying close by whenever Temeraire went aloft-likely trying to show away, Temeraire thought. Not that Maila looked to advantage beside him, unless one was more fond of a flashy and vulgar coloration, ostentatious purples and greens rather than sleek and elegant black.

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