Black Powder War

Chapter 2

  THEY WENT QUICKLY, very quickly; Temeraire delighting in the chance to stretch his wings for once with no slower companions to hold him back. Though Laurence was at first a little cautious, Temeraire showed no sign of over-exertion, no heat in the muscles of his shoulders, and after the first few days Laurence let him choose the pace as he wished. Baffled and curious officials came hurrying out to meet them whenever they came down for some food near a town of sufficient size, and Laurence was forced on more than one occasion to put on the heavy golden dragon-robes, the Emperor's gift, to make their questions and demands for paperwork subside into a great deal of formal bowing and scraping: though at least he did not need to feel improperly dressed, as in his makeshift green coat. Where possible they began to avoid settlements, instead buying Temeraire's meals directly from the herdsmen out in the fields, and sleeping nightly in isolated temples, wayside pavilions, and once an abandoned military outpost with the roof long fallen in but the walls still half-standing: they stretched a canopy made of their lashed-together tents over the remnants, and built their fire with the old shattered beams for tinder.

  "North, along the Wudang range, to Luoyang," Tharkay said. He had proven a quiet and uncommunicative companion, directing their course most often with a silent pointing finger, tapping on the compass mounted upon Temeraire's harness, and leaving it to Laurence to pass the directions on to Temeraire. But that night he sketched at Laurence's request a path in the dirt as they sat outside by the fire, while Temeraire peered down interestedly. "And then we turn west, towards the old capital, towards Xian. " The foreign names meant nothing to Laurence, every city spelled seven different ways on his seven different maps, which Tharkay had eyed sidelong and disdained to consult. But Laurence could follow their progress by the sun and the stars, rising daily in their changed places as Temeraire's flight ate up the miles.

  Towns and villages one after another, the children running along the ground underneath Temeraire's racing shadow, waving and calling in high indistinct voices until they fell behind; rivers snaking below them and the old sullen mountains rising on their left, stained green with moss and girt with reluctant clouds unable to break free from the peaks. Dragons passing by avoided them, respectfully descending to lower ranks of the air to give way to Temeraire, except once one of the greyhound-sleek Jade Dragons, the imperial couriers who flew at heights too cold and thin for other breeds, dived down with a cheerful greeting, flitting around Temeraire's head like a hummingbird, and as quickly darted up and away again.

  As they continued north, the nights ceased to be so stiflingly hot and became instead pleasantly warm and domestic; hunting plentiful and easy even when they did not come across one of the vast nomadic herds, and good forage for the rest of them. With less than a day's flight left to Xian, they broke their traveling early and encamped by a small lake: three handsome deer were set to roasting for their dinner and Temeraire's, the men meanwhile nibbling on biscuit and some fresh fruit brought them by a local farmer. Granby sat Roland and Dyer down to practice their penmanship by the firelight while Laurence attempted to make out their attempts at trigonometry. These, having been carried out mid-air and with the slates subject to all the force of the wind, posed quite a serious challenge, but he was glad to see at least their calculations no longer produced hypotenuses shorter than the other sides of their triangles.

  Temeraire, relieved of his harness, plunged at once into the lake: mountain streams rolled down to feed it from all sides, and its floor was lined with smooth tumbled stones; it was a little shallow now on the cusp of August, but he managed to throw water over his back, and he frolicked and squirmed over the pebbles with great enthusiasm. "That is very refreshing; but surely it must be time to eat now?" he said as he climbed out, and looked meaningfully at the roasting deer; but the cooks waved their enormous spit-hooks at him threateningly, not yet satisfied with their work.

  He sighed a little and shook out his wings, spattering them all with a brief shower that made the fire hiss, and settled himself down upon the shore next to Laurence. "I am very glad we did not wait and go by sea; how lovely it is to fly straight, as quickly as one likes, for miles and miles," he said, yawning.

  Laurence looked down; certainly there was no such flying in England: a week such as the last would have seen them from one end of the isles to the other and back. "Did you have a pleasant bathe?" he asked, changing the subject.

  "Oh, yes; those rocks were very nice," Temeraire said, wistfully, "although it was not quite as agreeable as being with Mei. "

  Lung Qin Mei, a charming Imperial dragon, had been Temeraire's intimate companion in Peking; Laurence had feared since their departure that Temeraire might privately be pining for her. But this sudden mention seemed a non sequitur; nor did Temeraire seem very love-lorn in his tone. Then Granby said, "Oh, dear," and stood up to call across the camp, "Mr. Ferris! Mr. Ferris, tell those boys to pour out that water, and go and fetch some from the stream instead, if you please. "

  "Temeraire!" Laurence said, scarlet with comprehension.

  "Yes?" Temeraire looked at him, puzzled. "Well, do you not find it more pleasant to be with Jane, than to - "

  Laurence stood up hastily, saying, "Mr. Granby, pray call the men to dinner now," and pretended not to hear the unsteady stifled mirth in Granby's voice as he said, "Yes, sir," and dashed away.

  Xian was an ancient city, the former capital of the nation and full of the memory of glory, the thin scattering of carts and travelers lonely on the wide and weed-choked roads leading in to the city; they flew over high moated walls of grey brick, pagoda towers standing dark and empty, only a few guards in their uniforms and a couple of lazy scarlet dragons yawning. From above, the streets quartered the city into chessboard squares, marked with temples of a dozen descriptions, incongruous minarets cheek by jowl with the sharp-pointed pagoda roofs. Narrow poplars and old, old pines with fragile wisps of green needles lined the avenues, and they were received in a marble square before the main pagoda by the magistrate of the city, officials assembled and bowing in their robes: news of their approach was outrunning them, likely on the wings of the Jade Dragon courier. They were feasted on the banks of the Wei River in an old pavilion overlooking rustling wheat fields, on hot milky soup and skewers of mutton, three sheep roasted together on a spit for Temeraire, and the magistrate ceremonially broke sprigs of willow in farewell as they left: wishes for a safe return.

  Two days later they slept near Tianshui in caves hollowed from red rock, full of silent unsmiling Buddhas, hands and faces reaching out from the walls, garments draped in eternal folds of stone, and rain falling outside beyond the grotto openings. Monumental figures peered after them through the continuing mist as they flew onward, tracking the river or its tributaries now into the heart of the mountain range, narrow winding passes not much wider than Temeraire's wingspan. He delighted in flying through these at great speed, stretching himself to the limit, his wing-tips nearly brushing at the awkward saplings that jutted out sideways from the slopes, until one morning a freakish start of wind came suddenly whistling through the narrow pass, catching Temeraire's wings on the upswing, and nearly flung him against the rock face.

  He squawked ungracefully, and managed with a desperate snaking twist to turn round in mid-air and catch himself on his legs against the nearly vertical slope. The loose shale and rock at once gave way, the little scrubby growth of green saplings and grass inadequate to stabilize the ground beneath his weight; "Get your wings in!" Granby yelled, through his speaking-trumpet: Temeraire by instinct was trying to beat away into the air again, and only hastening the collapse. Pulling his wings tight, he managed a clawing and flailing scramble down the loose slope, and landed awkwardly athwart the stream bed, his sides heaving.

  "Order the men to make camp," Laurence said quickly to Granby, unhooking his carabiner rings, and scrambled down in a series of half-controlled drops, barely grasping the harness with his fingers before letting hims
elf down another twenty feet, hurrying to Temeraire's head. He was drooping, the tendrils and ruff all quivering with his too-quick panting, and his legs were trembling, but he held himself up while the poor bellmen and the ground crew let themselves off staggering, all of them half-choking and caked with the grey dirt thrown up in the frantic descent.

  Though they had scarcely gone an hour, everyone was glad to stop and rest, the men throwing themselves down upon the dusty yellow grass-banks even as Temeraire himself did. "You are sure it does not pain you anywhere?" Laurence asked anxiously while Keynes clambered muttering over Temeraire's shoulders, inspecting the wing-joints.

  "No, I am well," Temeraire said, looking more embarrassed than injured, though he was glad to bathe his feet in the stream, and hold them out to be scrubbed clean, some of the dirt and pebbles having crept under the hard ridge of skin around the talons. Afterwards he closed his eyes and put his head down for a nap, and showed no inclination to go anywhere at all; "I ate well yesterday; I am not very hungry," he answered when Laurence suggested they might go hunting, saying he preferred to sleep. But a few hours later Tharkay reappeared - if it could be called reappearing, when his initial absence had gone quite unnoticed - and offered him a dozen fat rabbits which he had taken with the eagle. Ordinarily they would hardly have made a few bites for him, but the Chinese cooks stretched them out by stewing them with salt pork fat, turnips, and some fresh greens, and Temeraire made a sufficiently enthusiastic meal out of them, bones and all, to give the lie to his supposed lack of hunger.

  He was a little shy even the next morning, rearing up on his haunches and tasting the air with his tongue as high up as he could stretch his head, trying to get a sense of the wind. Then there was a little something wrong with the harness, somehow not easy for him to describe, which required several lengthy adjustments; then he was thirsty, and the water had become overnight too muddy to drink, so they had to pile up stones for a makeshift dam to form a deeper pool. Laurence began to wonder if perhaps he had done badly not to insist they go aloft again directly after the accident; but abruptly Temeraire said, "Very well, let us go," and launched himself the moment everyone was aboard.

  The tension across his shoulders, quite palpable from where Laurence sat, faded after a little while in the air, but still Temeraire went with more caution now, flying slowly while they remained in the mountains. Three days passed before they met and crossed over the Yellow River, so choked with silt it seemed less a waterway than a channel of moving earth, ochre and brown, with thick clods of grass growing out onto the surface of the water from the verdant banks. They had to purchase a bundle of raw silk from a passing river barge to strain the water through before it could be drunk, and their tea had a harsh and clayey taste even so.

  "I never thought I would be so glad to see a desert, but I could kiss the sand," Granby said, a few days later: the river was long behind them and the mountains had abruptly yielded that afternoon to foothills and scrubby plateau. The brown desert was visible from their camp on the outskirts of Wuwei. "I suppose you could drop all of Europe into this country and never find it again. "

  "These maps are thoroughly wrong," Laurence agreed, as he noted down in his log once more the date, and his guess as to miles traversed, which according to the charts would have put them nearly in Moscow. "Mr. Tharkay," he said, as the guide joined them at the fire, "I hope you will accompany me tomorrow to buy the camels?"

  "We are not yet at the Taklamakan," Tharkay said. "This is the Gobi; we do not need the camels yet. We will only be skirting its edges; there will be water enough. I suppose it would be as well to buy some meat for the next few days, however," he added, unconscious of the dismay he was giving them.

  "One desert ought to be enough for any journey," Granby said. "At this rate we will be in Istanbul for Christmas; if then. "

  Tharkay raised an eyebrow. "We have covered better than a thousand miles in two weeks of traveling; surely you cannot be dissatisfied with the pace. " He ducked into the supply-tent, to look over their stores.

  "Fast enough, to be sure, but little good that does everyone waiting for us at home," Granby said, bitterly; he flushed a little at Laurence's surprised look and said, "I am sorry to be such a bear; it is only, my mother lives in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and my brothers. "

  The town was nearly midway between the covert at Edinburgh and the smaller at Middlesbrough, and provided the best part of Britain's supply of coal: a natural target, if Bonaparte had chosen to set up a bombardment of the coast, and one which would be difficult to defend with the Aerial Corps spread thin. Laurence nodded silently.

  "Do you have many brothers?" Temeraire inquired, unrestrained by the etiquette which had kept Laurence from similarly indulging his own curiosity: Granby had never spoken of his family before. "What dragons do they serve with?"

  "They are not aviators," Granby said, adding a little defiantly, "My father was a coal-merchant; my two older brothers now are in my uncle's business. "

  "Well, I am sure that is interesting work too," Temeraire said with earnest sympathy, not understanding, as Laurence at once had: with a widowed mother, and an uncle who surely had sons of his own to provide for, Granby had likely been sent to the Corps because his family could not afford to keep him. A boy of seven years might be sponsored for a small sum and thus assured of a profession, if not a wholly respectable one, while his family saved his room and board. Unlike the Navy, no influence or family connections would be required to get him such a berth: the Corps was more likely to be short of applicants.

  "I am sure they will have gun-boats stationed there," Laurence said, tactfully changing the subject. "And there has been some talk of trying Congreve's rockets for defense against aerial bombardment. "

  "I suppose that might do to chase off the French: if we set the city on fire ourselves, no reason they would go to the trouble of attacking," Granby said, with an attempt at his usual good humor; but soon he excused himself, and took his small bedroll into a corner of their pavilion to sleep.

  Another five days of flying saw them to the Jiayu Gate, a desolate fortress in a desolate land, built of hard yellow brick that might have been fired from the very sands that surrounded it, outer walls thrice Temeraire's height and nearly two foot thick: the last outpost standing between the heart of China and the western regions, her more recent conquests. The guards were sullen and resentful at their posts, but even so more like real soldiers to Laurence's eye than the happier conscripts he had seen idling through most of the outposts in the rest of the country; though they had but a scattering of badly neglected muskets, their leather-wrapped sword hilts had the hard shine of long use. They eyed Temeraire's ruff very closely as if suspecting him of an imposture, until he put it up and snorted at one of them for going so far as to tug on the spines; then they grew a little more circumspect but still insisted on searching all the party's packs, and they made something of a fuss over the one piece Laurence had decided to bring along instead of leaving on board the Allegiance: a red porcelain vase of extraordinary beauty which he had acquired in Peking.

  They brought out an enormous text, part of the legal code which governed exports from the country, studied articles, argued amongst themselves and with Tharkay, and demanded a bill of sale which Laurence had never obtained in the first place; in annoyance he exclaimed, "For Heaven's sake, it is a gift for my father, not an article of trade," and this being translated seemed at last to mollify them. Laurence narrowly watched them wrap it back up: he did not mean to lose the thing now, after it had come through vandalism and fire and three thousand miles intact; he thought it his best chance for conciliating Lord Allendale, a notable collector, to the adoption, which would certainly inflame a proud temper already none too pleased with Laurence's having become an aviator.

  The inspection dragged on until mid-morning, but they none of them had any desire to remain another night in the unhappy place: once the scene of joyous arrivals, caravans reaching their
safe destination and others setting forth on their return journeys, it was now only the last stopping-place of exiles forced to leave the country; a miasma of bitterness lingered.

  "We can reach Yumen before the worst heat of the day," Tharkay said, and Temeraire drank deeply from the fortress cistern. They left by the only exit, a single enormous tunnel passing from the inner courtyard and through the whole length of the front battlements, dim sputtering lanterns at infrequent intervals flickering over walls almost covered with ink and in places etched by dragon claws, the last sad messages before departure, prayers for mercy and to one day come home again. Not all were old; fresh broad cuts at the tunnel's edge crossed over other, faded letters, and Temeraire stopped and read them quietly to Laurence:

  Ten thousand li between me and your grave,

  Ten thousand li more I have yet to travel.

  I shake out my wings and step into the merciless sun.

  Past the shade of the deep tunnel, the sun was indeed merciless and the ground dry and cracked, drifted over with sand and small pebbles. As they loaded up again outside, the two Chinese cooks, who had grown quiet and unhappy overnight despite not the least signs of homesickness over the whole course of their journey thus far, walked a little way off and each picked up a pebble and flung it at the wall, in what seemed to Laurence an odd hostility: Jing Chao's pebble bounced off, but the other, thrown by Gong Su, skittered and rolled down the sloping wall to the ground. At this he made a short gasp and came at once to Laurence with a torrent of apology, of which even Laurence with his very scant supply of Chinese could make out the meaning: he did not mean to come any farther.

  "He says that the pebble did not come back, and that means he will never return to China," Temeraire translated; meanwhile Jing Chao was already handing up his chest of spices and cooking tools to be bundled in with the rest of the gear, evidently as reassured as Gong Su was distressed.

  "Come now, this is unreasonable superstition," Laurence said to Gong Su. "You assured me particularly you did not mind leaving China; and I have given you six months' wages in advance. You cannot expect me to pay you still more for your journey now, when you have been at work less than a month's time, and are already reneging upon our contract. "

  Gong Su made still further apologies: he had left all the money at home with his mother, whom he made out to be thoroughly destitute and friendless otherwise, though Laurence had met the stout and rather formidable lady in question along with her eleven other sons when they had all come to see Gong Su off from Macao. "Well," Laurence said finally, "I will give you a little more to start you on the way, but still you had much better come with us. It will take you a wretchedly long time to get home going by land, apart from the expense, and I am sure you would soon feel very foolish at having indulged your fancy in such a manner. " Truthfully, of the two Laurence would much rather have spared Jing Chao, who was proving generally quarrelsome and given to berating the ground crew in Chinese if they did not treat his supplies with what he considered appropriate care. Laurence knew some of the men were beginning to inquire quietly of Temeraire about the meaning of some words to understand what was being said to them; Laurence suspected himself that many of Jing Chao's remarks were impolite, and if so the situation would certainly become difficult.

  Gong Su wavered, uncertainly; Laurence added, "Perhaps it only means you will like England so very well you will choose to settle there, but in any case I am sure nothing good can come of taking fright at such an omen, and trying to avoid whatever your fate may be. " This made an impression, and after a little more consideration Gong Su did climb aboard; Laurence shook his head at the silliness of it all, and turned to say to Temeraire, "It is a great deal of nonsense. "

  "Oh; yes," said Temeraire with a guilty start, pretending he had not been eyeing a convenient boulder, roughly half the size of a man, which if flung against the wall would likely have brought the guards boiling out in alarm, convinced they were under bombardment by siege weaponry. "We will come back someday, Laurence, will we not?" he asked, a little wistfully: he was leaving behind not only the handful of other Celestial dragons who were all his kin in the world, and the luxury of the imperial court, but the ordinary and unconscious liberties which the Chinese system showed to all dragons as a matter of course, in treating them very little different from men at all.

  Laurence had no such powerful reasons for wanting to return: to him China had been the scene only of deep anxiety and danger, a morass of foreign politics, and if he were honest even a degree of jealousy; he did not himself feel any desire ever to come back. "When the war is over, whenever you would like," he said quietly, however, and put a hand on Temeraire's leg, comforting, while the crew finished getting him rigged-out for the flight.

 
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