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Crucible of Gold


Page 7


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But Hammond was an uncritical guest, and did not notice if Demane ate through four removes in a row in perfect silence or had to be nudged to make a toast; and his own conversation was more than adequate to fill anything lacking among the rest of the company. Four years as the chief British representative at the Chinese court had brought him some two stone in weight and settled his former driven confidence into assurance, but he was as pell-mell and passionate as ever when enlarging upon a subject close to his heart.
"By report, they have shipped two transports already, which remain in the harbor at present," he said, laying down biscuit crumbs to make the outline of Rio, and picking out the weevils. "The Tswana have evidently encamped within the ruins of the city."
"They cannot be much fonder of Bonaparte than of us," Granby said. "He hasn't outlawed slavery, either; are they really his allies?"
"I suppose one cannot call it an alliance, not in the real sense of the word," Hammond said. "You might better say they have given him a truce, in exchange for reparations: but as his reparations involve shipping them across the sea to attack their enemies, which are also his, there is very little to choose between the two. They have not ceased their attacks upon the Spanish coast and the Portuguese, either," he added with a significant look at Laurence: such attacks should certainly pose a danger to any troops which Britain should land, as well.
"I don't suppose we might give them something more to think about at the Cape?" Granby said. "Or closer to their home, anyway; the Med is a long way from the south of Africa, and I don't suppose they can have an easy time of supply."
"The prospects of a new front in wholly unknown territory, for uncertain gain, can have but little appeal," Laurence said. "We knew nothing of the existence of the Tswana and their empire, and the present evils of our situation are in no small order due to that ignorance; how much more cautious ought we to be about venturing yet again past the coast of that continent, when we have already certain proofs of their ability to maintain a significant force over so great a distance."
He spoke absently, listening: above their heads, a change in the rhythm of footsteps and voices on deck had intruded gradually upon his awareness. There was no alarm, no beating to quarters; he had no excuse for leaving the table, and had perforce to restrain his curiosity until the meal had been cleared away, when he could propose coffee on the dragondeck.
Laurence put his head out of the ladderway and saw the sky: curiosity was at once satisfied. Riley had been due to dine with the gunroom that evening; he was already on the quarterdeck, directing the men: no frantic hurry, but a steady progress; the sails were all being reefed. "We are in for a blow, I think; nothing to alarm anyone, of course," he said out loud, cheerfully, before he added to Laurence in an undertone, "The mercury would have run out of the bottom of the glass, if it could; the dragons had better be chained down sooner than late."
Laurence nodded silent acknowledgment and went to tell Temeraire he must endure the storm-chains which he so hated. "There is time for a short flight beforehand, if you should like," he added by way of apology, when Temeraire had flattened down his ruff in protest.
"I do not see why it must always be storming, when we are at sea," Temeraire said disconsolately, when they had gone aloft and seen in the distance the great billowings of red-violet and purple climbing the sky; the ocean had flattened to black.
He landed reluctantly prepared to submit; and then Iskierka said, "Well, I do not mean to be chained at all: whyever should I not just hold on to the ship, or if it is very bad, we may as well stay aloft," and Laurence realized in dismay she had never yet experienced a true three-days' gale, which should outstrip the endurance of any dragon even if the winds alone did not prove fatal.
"I suppose it is likely to blow too long," Granby said, looking inquiry up at Laurence, who slid from Temeraire's back and hastened to assure him of the necessity, as quietly as he could manage. Even so the sailors standing ready with the great tarpaulins and the storm-chains cast reproaching looks at him for inviting ill-fortune, which grew still more mournful as Granby began to argue with Iskierka, at a volume which could not help but carry across the ship.
Apart from a general deprecation of superstition, Laurence could not think that the storm building ahead of them required any additional invitation to be as thoroughly bad as could be imagined. Certainly the worse consequence would come from leaving Iskierka unconvinced and unprepared to endure the length of the confinement which the weather bode fair to demand. She argued the matter with Granby for the better part of an hour, while the shadow crept steadily nearer and Riley began to look anxious for the men being kept idle, and the dragons still unsecured. At last in desperation Granby said, "Dear one, we must have done: I will wear the coat if only you will do this for me; pray lie down and let them secure you."
This coat was a monstrosity of cloth-of-gold crusted with gemstone beads which would not have looked out of place in the last century at Versailles; Iskierka had managed to arrange for its commission in India through Mr. Richers, Granby's new first lieutenant-subsequently much chastened by his captain-and Granby's flat refusal to be displayed in so much magnificence had since been a source of great and running dissatisfaction to her.
She pounced at once on the offer. "Whenever I wish it?" she demanded.
"So long as it isn't all wrong for the occasion," Granby said, hurriedly qualifying.
"Only if I may decide whether it is wrong or not," Iskierka said, and Granby submitted to his doom with resignation if not precisely with grace; in turn at last she yielded and stretched herself upon the deck, and allowed them to drag the netting over the massive red-and-black coils of her body, with the chains laced atop it.
Granby avoided Laurence's eye and went to stand in the bow while the process went forward. Laurence knew it ashamed him deeply to be forced to resort to bribery and stratagem to subdue Iskierka's temper to the needs of the service, and he could not have been comforted when Kulingile, who was of a very different and amiable temperament, said, "Oh, if you like, but how am I to go hunting?" when Demane asked him to lie down under the tarpaulins also, and required only the assurance that he would be fed if he grew hungry to reconcile him to the experience.
"It will not be at all comfortable," Temeraire said unhappily as he stretched himself out also, with more accuracy than pessimism: he and Kulingile would spend the storm lying to either side of Iskierka, whose inconvenient spikes made her more difficult to secure, as additional anchors for her bulk: subject as a result not only to the worse brunt of the storm but also to the perpetual emissions of steam from her body.
"We had better feed them up now," Granby said, returning, while the chains were made fast to the deck, and ropes thrown after them for reinforcement . The debate had consumed nearly all the time which remained to them of the unearthly calm, and now the swell began to slap rhythmic warning against the ship's sides. Even the hands who normally shied from any contact with the dragons were clambering urgently over the talons and scales to draw the bonds tight: the weight of the beasts could easily overset the ship, if they were not well-secured. "It can only help if they sleep away the first day or so, and there may be difficulties getting the cattle up on deck later on."
Temeraire was determined not to be difficult; he had seen Granby's crimson cheek, and Laurence should certainly have no such cause to blush for him, even if Temeraire disliked the chains extremely, more than Iskierka did, and therefore had far better right to ask some return.
"But I am not going to kick up a fuss, and make difficulties for everyone and the poor sailors, who will be working all the storm," Temeraire said, although he was sorry a moment later to have silenced himself a little too early: he would very much have preferred to have a proper meal, cooked through, but instead he could see a cow being hoisted out from the fore hatch, and the ordinary slaughtering-tubs were out on deck, even as the first spatters of rain came down and rattled in them tinnily.
"And for that matter," he added sulkily, as the meat was served out, "Laurence has more right than Granby to wear finery; after all he is a prince and a captain, both, and Granby even has less seniority. So if Laurence does not choose to always be going about in his best robes," which Temeraire could understand: one did not wish to risk damage to anything so handsome unnecessarily, "I do not see that Granby is at all right to do otherwise."
Kulingile raised his head and put in, "Demane is a prince also," which Temeraire did not think was quite true, although he did recall Admiral Roland saying something of the sort to some fellow from the Admiralty who had objected to Demane and Sipho being his runners; but certainly it was not as true as for Laurence, who had been adopted with a great deal of formal ceremony. "And he does not wear anything particularly fine."
Iskierka bristled and hissed steam from her spikes. "Granby has more seniority, if one counts years as an aviator, and I am sure I cannot see any reason he should not be a prince, too, someday very soon." With this feeble rejoinder she put her head beneath her wing.
The rain had begun falling in earnest, an hour later; Iskierka, sheltered from the wind between them, was securely asleep and jetting out small puffs of steam regularly so that the drops collected upon the tarpaulin and set it sticking clammily to Temeraire's back. The raw cow sat unpleasantly in his stomach, and he was just contemplating whether it was worth sending Gerry for Gong Su, to perhaps brew him a bowl of tea, when Kulingile put his head over Iskierka's back and whispered, "Temeraire?"
"Yes?" Temeraire said, rather unhappily concluding that the wind and rain would spoil the tea before he could enjoy it, and then he should have wasted a bowl of their small supply: it was too dear for Laurence to buy in the quantities which Temeraire would have liked to drink.
"Ought Demane wear something more fine?" Kulingile asked, with an anxious note.
"Oh-" Temeraire said, and struggled with warring impulses, but justice decided him: he could not be reconciled to losing Demane and would have been very glad to have him back, but it would have been the meanest sort of trick to mislead Kulingile if he intended to look after Demane properly.
"Certainly one might expect the captain of a dragon of note to present a particularly handsome appearance, when the occasion demands," Temeraire said, therefore. "I will venture to say, he would do well with a better coat, at least, and he ought to have gold bars as Laurence and Granby do; you see that no-one thinks him a proper captain, without them."
"But where am I to get such things?" Kulingile said, and with a great rush of generosity Temeraire said, "Well, I will ask Laurence for you, as I am not quite certain; but if we were to take a prize," he could not help a wistful note in his voice, "and had shares, you would be in funds and could purchase anything you liked with them."
"Iskierka has many prizes, but we haven't?" Kulingile said, interrogatively.
"That," Temeraire said, "is only because she has been put in the way of them, by luck; you may be sure if ever a prize offered, I should certainly be equal to taking it, and I dare say," he added in fairness, "when you have been in a few actions, you should be sure of doing so as well; as long as you do not let yourself be shot."
"I don't think I should care for being shot," Kulingile said, and shook his head as a wave came rousing over the bow and went sheeting over them, cold straight through. "I don't care for this, either," he added.
"No," Temeraire agreed, hunching water off his shoulders, and huddled back down as the ship went bounding into a trench, a glassy wall of ocean rising sharply ahead.
The Allegiance was by no means the vessel one would choose for riding out a typhoon. "A wallowing bow-heavy tub with more sail than sea-sense; I would as soon cut my throat as try and make her mind," Laurence remembered hearing Riley himself say of her several years before, when the two of them had watched from the rail of the dear old Reliant as the transport attempted awkwardly to maneuver her way into Portsmouth: neither of them dreaming, at the time, they should ever be upon her in their present circumstances. Laurence had then six years of seniority on the post-list,and with an influential and political family and a record of distinction was marching steadily towards his admiral's flag, destined only for the most plum assignments; Riley his protégé and second lieutenant, with reason to hope for his own ship in the course of another five years with Laurence's own influence behind him.
That influence eradicated, Riley had been glad enough to take the Allegiance when she had been offered him. Now, of course, no more such criticism was to be heard from him or even tolerated in his presence, but it was not to be denied that her only virtue was in being almost too large to sink, which in the present circumstances felt more a gauntlet thrown to the elements, a challenge they looked all too determined to meet. Laurence recalled with no fondness their last experience of a serious blow: three days endlessly laboring their way up the crowded swells, doubting every moment whether the ship should reach the crest in time.
And though Riley had knocked some seamanship into all but the worst of the landsmen and gaol-birds, during the passage to New South Wales, there were a great many of the worst: dragon transports were not prized assignments, and Riley had not sufficient influence to preserve his best men from being pillaged away by senior captains. Laurence could not observe the workings of the resultant crew with anything like satisfaction; and yet he could do nothing to amend it but keep himself to the dragondeck or his cabin, containing any impulse to interfere.

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