Crucible of Gold by Naomi Novik
ARTHUR HAMMOND PRIDED HIMSELF on a certain degree of insensibility in the cause of duty—an indifference to physical discomfort and even to social awkwardness—a squelching of the natural repugnances, when these should interfere with the progress of a diplomatic mission. Other men, blessed with a greater share of the graces, could afford delicacy; he acknowledged himself a blunter instrument, and if he must be so, he must be the ideal blunt instrument—must be seen to be as heedless of himself as of others, the only possible justification—to be thought of, if grudgingly, “Oh, Hammond—intolerable, but he will see the job through. ”
So he had cultivated where native tendency led, and seized without compunction or politesse whatever opportunity offered itself, with the consequence that he could while not yet thirty years of age call himself ambassador plenipotentiary to China: a post which he himself had contrived to establish.
And which in turn had led him to his present miserable state, which put to bitter test his determined self-neglect: frost grimed over the surface of the woolen blankets which he had wrapped even over his head, and the hideous swoop-and-lift of the great pale blue wings as the dragon dived to eat, at intervals too far apart to grow used to and yet too near to recover fully from one to the other. Hunger warred with nausea at every moment; there was meat and rice in his satchel, but he scarcely managed to worm his hand out of the coverings to feed himself once a day, and half his provisions were taken off by the wind in any case. He subsisted mostly on the strong rice wine in his flask, in rationed swallows, and passed from one day to another in a daze of blurred vision—his glasses were carefully tucked inside his coat—and illness.
His figurative insensibility had become, by the end of three weeks, nearly a literal one: he did not notice for a long time when the descent at last began, and when the courier folded her wings and put her head around and said, “We have had a very pleasant flight,” Hammond was unable to remove himself from the harness for half-an-hour together, hands shaking and clumsy.
Shen Li politely did not remark on his difficulties, but bent her head to the water-hole and drank very deeply for a long stretch; then she raised her head and shook off the water from her muzzle. “I do not see the most honorable Lung Tien Xiang,” she observed, while Hammond continued to struggle with the clasps, “but you see the pavilion which he has commanded to be built, there on the mountain—”
Hammond did not see, until he had managed to wrest out his glasses and wipe the lenses, and peering saw the pavilion standing on a cliffside at the far end of the valley where Shen Li had landed. It was an ambitious edifice: something neighbor to the Parthenon in size by the columns of yellow stone which paced out its perimeter, as yet without a roof and circled round by makeshift huts.
“Yes, I do; but are we not very far away?” Hammond said—or meant to say; a dry croak was all that emerged, and he gave up the attempt to converse, in favor of getting off the harness. At the moment he felt he would gladly have walked all the remaining distance in bare feet, over thorns, before going aloft again.
He let himself down from Shen Li’s back in the indecorously slow manner used in China only by small children and the infirm, moving one hand or foot at a time. When he had reached the ground he sank down upon a broad smooth stone near the waterside.
“Perhaps I will go and hunt before we continue to the pavilion, if you would care to compose yourself a little,” Shen Li said, a hint he could not manage to be ashamed to require. She shook out the immense wings and went aloft in a scattering of leaves and pebbles. Left behind, Hammond sat and gazed at the surface, churned-dark, and imagined drinking: the reality should have to wait another half-an-hour, he thought, before he might dare trust his legs to carry him across the two yards separating him from the water.
He gradually became aware, as the sun penetrated the intense chill which had settled into him, that the day was immensely hot. In Peking it was presently winter: as though he had been aloft for months instead of three weeks, or transported by some fairy-tale mechanism into another season. He began weakly to disentangle himself from one blanket and then another, more urgently as sweat gathered and rolled down his back, until at last he gave up all dignity and put his head and arms down and wriggled out of the rest. Abandoning his cocoon and dignity both, he simply crawled over the rock to the water and put his face into its cool relief.
He lifted it out dripping and rolled over onto his back, gasping, for once wholly aware of his body and grateful beyond measure for warmth and sated thirst, and then a pair of clawed, scaled limbs lunged flashing out from the bushes, seized upon the pile of bundling, and dragged it out of sight: he had only a glimpse of a saw-toothed maw and glittering black eyes, and then all vanished.
Hammond stared, and then leapt to his feet: his legs wavered and shook, and he fled in a shambling stumbling run, shuddering away from every branch and leaf which trembled in the wind. Horror gave him strength, and the hissed disappointment behind him: the mistake had been discovered. But he was unequal to the task; he felt a peculiar stirring beneath his feet, and he halted: a head was peering out from the bushes ahead, hungry and malicious, and there was no shelter anywhere to be seen; he was alone.
Evidently though it preferred to hunt from ambush, the creature was not unwilling to confront solitary prey; it crept one leg and then another out of the shrub-growth and came towards him at a slow deliberate pace: forelegs with long, many-jointed talons, scaled in dark shades of brown and green, with heavy sloping shoulders. Hammond turned to flee and halted: there was another half-emerged from a hole up the slope a little way, watching, jaw hung open in a gruesomely eager smile, and another two heads just peering out.
His breath was loud in his ears, labored, even while terror held him for a moment immobile; then he was running, hopelessly, and crying out, “Shen Li! Shen Li!” in hiccoughed bursts as he scrambled up the one narrow rocky slope barren of growth, with the sleek bodies flowing almost leisurely in pursuit.
He heard a coughing note which might have been a noise of amusement going around the creatures, behind him, and then he fell over the far side and tumbling came to rest at the feet of another man: a ragged backwoods hunter, bearded and dusty, in loose shirt and trousers and a broad-brimmed hat with, oh the blessings of Heaven, a rifle in his hand—but he was only one man, and already the five scaly heads were looking over the ridge down at the both of them.
The hunter did not pause; he raised the rifle and fired, but over the creatures’ heads, and then lowering the gun said, “That is enough: be off, the lot of you, or we will clear your nest out to the bare rock. ”
The creatures hissed, and then as quickly, they vanished: a terrible immense shadow had fallen over them, the ground trembling. Hammond only just swallowed a shriek of dismay: teeth upon teeth gleaming around an endless red mouth, and an inhuman voice saying, “Oh! We ought to, anyway; how dare the bunyips, when they know very well I will not have them hunting men here. ”
“Temeraire,” said Hammond, gulping, “that is Temeraire; it is all right,” a reassurance to himself which he did not entirely believe; every nerve quivered with desire to flee.
“Hammond?” the huntsman said.
Hammond stared up at him even while taking the hand which had been offered him: a broad and callused grip, and skin tanned dark beneath the shaggy yellow beard; blue eyes; and Hammond said slowly, “Captain Laurence? Is that you?”
“I AM AFRAID HIS ATTENTION is much given to material things,” Shen Li observed in a mild way, while Temeraire strove in the distance lifting up the great carved-out slab of stone which should form the central part of the floor of the pavilion: a cu
“It is of course an admirable work,” she added, “but such attachments inevitably must lead to suffering. ”
Laurence answered her with only a small part of his attention: Temeraire had managed to get the slab aloft, and Laurence now waved the team of men forward to raise the skids which should guide it into its final resting place; but even this immediate work did not hold his thoughts. Those were bent upon the low hut some ten yards distant, under a stand of trees and the coolest place in their ragged encampment, where Hammond lay recovering: and with him all the world, come back to knock at Laurence’s threshold when he had thought it done with.
The slab swayed uncertainly in mid-air, then steadied as it reached the long wooden braces; Temeraire sighed out his breath and lowered slowly away, and the stone scraped bark and shreds of wood down onto the workers as the slab eased gently down and settled in, the men backing away with their staves as it slid.
“Well, and a miracle it is no-one was crushed, or lost a hand,” Mr. O’Dea said with something of an air of disappointment, as he paid off the men with their tots of rum and a few coins of silver; he had made a great many predictions of disaster over Temeraire’s obstinate determination to have the single enormous slab of beautifully marbled stone preserved at the heart of his pavilion.
“It would have been quite criminal to cut it up smaller,” Temeraire said, “and spoil the pattern; not that I do not admire mosaics very much, particularly if they are made of gems, but this is quite out of the common way, even though some might say it is just ordinary rock. ”
He had finished inspecting all the supports, sniffing at the fresh mortar anxiously, and now sank down with some relief beside Laurence and Shen Li for a drink of water from the flowing stream. “Do you not agree?”
“It is very handsome,” Shen Li said, “although I can see no evil in admiring it in the valley where it was formed. ”
“I do not mean to be rude, Laurence,” Temeraire said quietly aside, when she had turned her attention elsewhere, “but Shen Li can be rather dampening to one’s spirits; although I must be grateful to her for being so obliging as to come and bring us letters and visitors: how kind of Mr. Hammond to travel so long a way to see us. ”
“Yes,” Laurence said soberly, as he undid the wrappings on the mail: a large and heavy scroll wrapped on rollers of jade, for Temeraire from his mother, Qian, which accompanied a book of poetry; and a thick sealed packet which Laurence turned over several times and at last had to remove the outer layer of covering to find it addressed to Gong Su with no more direction than his name.
“Thank you, Captain,” Gong Su said, and taking it went into his own small lean-to; shortly Laurence could see him performing the Chinese ritual of obeisance to it, and supposed it must be a communication from his father.
There was also, more incongruously, a heavily crossed note for a Mr. Richard Shipley: “Can this be for you, Mr. Shipley?” Laurence asked, doubtfully, wondering how a former convict should have come by a correspondent in China.
“Aye, sir,” the young man said, taking it, “my brother’s in the Willow-Tree as runs the Canton route, and much obliged to you. ”
Shen Li had brought also a small mailbag to be passed along to Sydney, but these were all the letters directed to the members of their own small company of laborers. Laurence closed up the bag: O’Dea would take it to Port Jackson tomorrow, and perhaps Hammond would go along with it. His business might well be there, with Captain Rankin, who after all was the senior officer of the Corps in this country.
Laurence could not persuade himself to believe it, however. While the cows roasted on spits, for the dragons’ dinner, he walked out over the newly laid floor of the pavilion to its edge and looked down upon the broad valley, already sprouting with the first seed crops, and the browsing herd of sheep and cattle lowing soft to one another in the late afternoon. The war was only a distant storm passing on the other side of the mountains, a faint, far-away noise; here there was peace, and honest labor, without the clinging stink of murder and treachery which seemed to have by slow octopoid measures attached itself to his life. Laurence had found himself content to forget the world, and to be forgotten by it.
“Thank you, I will,” he heard Hammond saying, and turned: Hammond had at last emerged from the hut and was by the fireside accepting a glass of rum from Mr. O’Dea and sinking into an offered camp-chair. Laurence rubbed a hand over his jaw, over the hard prickle of the beard, grown familiar. No: Hammond had not come from Peking to bring a few letters and some conversation.
“Pray allow me to renew my gratitude,” Hammond said, struggling back to his feet, when Laurence had joined him. “I have slept all the day!—and I am astonished to see you so far advanced. ” He nodded towards the pavilion.
“Yes, indeed,” Temeraire said, swinging his head around at the compliment, “everything is coming along splendidly, and we have thought up several small improvements to the ordinary design. You must walk through it; when you are feeling more the thing, of course: you cannot have had a comfortable journey. ”
“No,” Hammond said, very decidedly, “—but I ought not be complaining; Laurence, will you think of it, three weeks!—this time three Sundays ago I was taking tea in Peking; it is scarcely to be believed. Although I am not certain I have survived the experience; yes, thank you, I will take another. ”
Hammond was not a bulky man, and not given much to drink; three tots of strong unwatered rum worked upon his caution, or perhaps he would not have spoken so readily when Laurence said, “Sir, while your company must always be welcome, I must confess myself at a loss to answer for your presence here; you cannot have made such a journey for some trivial purpose. ”
“Oh!” Hammond said, and looking round in vain for a table at last set down his glass upon the ground, and straightened up beaming, “but I must tell you at once: I am here to restore you to the list, Captain; you are reinstated, and—” Laurence was staring, while Hammond turned to rummaging in the inner pockets of his coat. “I even have them here, with me,” and brought out the two narrow gold bars which marked a captain of the Aerial Corps.