Tongues of Serpents by Naomi Novik
THERE WERE FEW STREETS in the main port of Sydney which deserved the name, besides the one main thoroughfare, and even that bare packed dirt, lined only with a handful of small and wretched buildings that formed all the permanence of the colony. Tharkay turned off from this and led the way down a cramped, irregularly arranged alley-way between two wooden-slat buildings to a courtyard full of men drinking, in surly attitudes, under no roof but a tarpaulin.
Along one side of the courtyard, the further from the kitchens, the convicts sat in their drab and faded duck trousers, dusty from the fields and quarries and weighted down with fatigue; along the other, small parties of men from the New South Wales Corps watched with candidly unfriendly faces as Laurence and his companions seated themselves at a small table near the edge of the establishment.
Besides their being strangers, Granby's coat drew the eye: bottle-green was not in the common way, and though he had put off the worst excesses of gold braid and buttons with which Iskierka insisted upon adorning him, the embroidery at cuffs and collar could not be so easily detached. Laurence wore plain brown, himself: to make a pretense of standing in the Aerial Corps now was wholly out of the question, of course, and if his dress raised questions concerning his situation, that was certainly no less than honest, as neither he nor anyone else had yet managed to work out what that ought in any practical sense to be.
"I suppose this fellow will be here soon enough," Granby said, unhappily; he had insisted on coming, but not from any approval of the scheme.
"I fixed the hour at six," Tharkay answered, and then turned his head: one of the younger officers had risen from the tables and was coming towards them.
Eight months aboard ship with no duties of his own and shipmates nearly united in their determination to show disdain had prepared Laurence for the scene which, with almost tiresome similarity, unfolded yet again. The insult itself was irritating for demanding some answer, more than anything else; it had not the power to wound in the mouth of a coarse young boor, stinking of rum and visibly unworthy to stand among even the shabby ranks of a military force alternately called the Rum Corps. Laurence regarded Lieutenant Agreuth only with distaste, and said briefly, "Sir, you are drunk; go back to your table, and leave us at ours. "
There the similarity ended, however: "I don't see why I," Agreuth said, his tongue tangling awkwardly, so he had to stop and repeat himself, speaking with excessive care, "why I should listen to anything out of a piss-pot whoreson traitor's fucking mouth - "
Laurence stared, and heard the tirade with mounting incredulity; he would have expected the gutter language out of a dockyard pickpocket in a temper, and hardly knew how to hear it from an officer. Granby had evidently less difficulty, and sprang to his feet saying, "By God, you will apologize, or for halfpence I will have you flogged through the streets. "
"I would like to see you try it," Agreuth said, and leaning over spat into Granby's glass; Laurence stood too late to catch Granby's arm from throwing it into Agreuth's face.
That was of course an end to even the barest hope or pretense of civility; Laurence instead pulled Granby back by his arm, out of the way of Agreuth's wildly swinging fist, and letting go struck back with the same hand, clenched, as it came again at his face.
He did not hold back; if brawling was outrageous, it looked inevitable, and he would as soon have it over with quickly. So the blow was armed with all the strength built up from childhood on rope-lines and harness, and Laurence knocked Agreuth directly upon the jaw: the lieutenant lifted half-an-inch from the ground, his head tipping back and leading the rest of his frame. Stumbling a few steps as he came down, he pitched face-front onto the floor straight through the neighboring table, to the accompaniment of several shattering glasses and the stink of cheap rum.
That might have been enough, but Agreuth's companions, though officers and some of them older and more sober than he, showed no reluctance in flinging themselves at once into the fray thus begun. The men at the overturned table, sailors on an East India merchantman, were as quick to take offense at the disruption of their drinking; and a mingled crowd of sailors and laborers and soldiers, all better than three-quarters of the way drunk, and a great scarcity of women, as compared to what would have been found in nearly every other dockyard house of the world which Laurence knew, was a powder-keg ready for the slow-match in any case. The rum had not finished sinking between the paving-stones before men were rising from their chairs all around them.
Another officer of the New South Wales Corps threw himself on Laurence: a bigger man than Agreuth, sodden and heavy with liquor. Laurence twisted himself loose and heaved him down onto the floor, shoving him as well as could be managed under the table. Tharkay was already with a practical air seizing the bottle of rum by the neck, and when another man lunged - this one wholly unconnected with Agreuth, and by all appearances simply pleased to fight anyone at all - Tharkay clubbed him upon the temple swiftly.
Granby had been seized upon by three men at once: two of them, Agreuth's fellows, for spite, and one who was trying his best only to get at the jeweled sword and belt around Granby's waist. Laurence struck the pickpocket on the wrist, and seizing him by the scruff of the collar flung him stumbling across the courtyard; Granby exclaimed, then, and turning back Laurence found him ducking from a knife, dirty and rust-speckled, being stabbed at his eyes.
"By God, have you taken all leave of your senses?" Laurence said, and seized upon the knife-wielder's hand with both his own, twisting the blade away, while Granby efficiently knocked down the third man and turned back to help him. The melee was spreading rapidly now, helped along by Tharkay, who was coolly throwing the toppled chairs across the room, knocking over still more of the tables, and flinging glasses of rum into the faces of the custom as they rose indignantly.
Laurence and Granby and Tharkay were only three together, and thanks to the advance of the New South Wales officers well-surrounded, leaving the irritated men no other target but those same officers; a target on which the convicts in particular seemed not loath to vent their spleen. This was not a very coherently directed fury, however, and when the officer before Laurence had been clubbed down with a heavy stool, the choleric assailant behind him swung it with equal fervor at Laurence himself.
Laurence slipped upon the wet floorboards, catching the stool away from his face, and went to one knee in a puddle. He shoved the man's leg out from under him, and was rewarded with the full weight of man and stool landing upon his shoulder, so they went sprawling together upon the floor.
Splinters drove into Laurence's side, where his shirt had ridden up from his breeches and come wholly loose, and the big convict, swearing at him, struck him on the side of his face with a clenched fist. Laurence tasted blood as his lip tore upon his tooth, a dizzying haze over his sight. They were rolling across the floor, and Laurence had no very clear recollection of the next few moments; he was pounding at the other man savagely, a blow with every turn, knocking his head against the boards over and over. It was a vicious, animal struggle, insensible of both feeling and thought; he knew only distantly as he was kicked, by accident, or struck against the wall or some overturned piece of furniture.
The limp unconsciousness of his opponent freed him at last from the frenzy, and Laurence with an effort opened his clenched hand and let go the man's hair, and pushed himself up from the floor, staggering. They had fetched up against the wooden counter before the kitchen. Laurence reaching up clutched at the edge and pulled himself to his feet, aware more than he wished to be, all at once, of a deep stabbing pain in his side, and stinging cuts in his cheek and his hands. He fumbled at his face and pulled free a long
The fighting had begun already to die down, oddly quick to Laurence's instinctive sense of an action; the participants lacked the appetite of a real engagement, where there was anything of worth to be gained. Laurence limping across the room made it to Granby's side: Agreuth and one of his fellow officers had clawed their way back up onto their feet and were yet grappling weakly with him in a corner, vicious but half-exhausted, so they were swaying back and forth more than wrestling.
Coming in, Laurence heaved Granby free, and leaning on each other they stumbled out of the courtyard and into the narrow, stinking alley-way outside, which yet seemed fresh out from under the makeshift tarpaulin; a fine misting rain was falling. Laurence leaned gratefully against the far wall made cool and light by the coating of dew, ignoring with a practiced stomach the man a few steps away who was heaving the contents of his belly into the gutters. A couple of women coming down the alley-way lifted their skirts over the trickle of muck and continued past them all without hesitation, not even looking in at the disturbance of the tavern courtyard.
"My God, you look a fright," Granby said, dismally.
"I have no doubt," Laurence said, gingerly touching at his face. "And I have two ribs cracked, I dare say. I am sorry to say, John, you are not in much better case. "
"No, I am sure not," Granby said. "We will have to take a room somewhere, if anyplace will let us through the door, to wash up; what Iskierka would do seeing me in such a state, I have no notion. "
Laurence had a very good notion what Iskierka would do, and also Temeraire, and between them there would not be much left of the colony to speak of afterwards.
"Well," Tharkay said, joining them as he wrapped his neckcloth around his own bloodied hand, "I believe I saw our man look into the establishment, a little while ago, but I am afraid he thought better of coming in under the circumstances. I will have to inquire after him to arrange another meeting. "
"No," Laurence said, blotting his lip and cheek with his handkerchief. "No, I thank you; I think we can dispense with his information. I have seen all I need to, in order to form an opinion of the discipline of the colony, and its military force. "
Temeraire sighed and toyed with the last bites of kangaroo stew - the meat had a pleasantly gamy sort of flavor, not unlike deer, and he had found it at first a very satisfying change from fish, after the long sea-voyage. But he could only really call it palatable when cooked rare, which did not offer much variety; in stew it became quite stringy and tiresome, especially as the supply of spice left even more to be desired.
There were some very nice cattle in a pen which he could see, from his vantage upon the harbor promontory, but evidently they were much too dear here for the Corps to provide. And Temeraire of course could not propose such an expense to Laurence, not when he had been responsible for the loss of Laurence's fortune; instead Temeraire had silenced all his mild complaints about the lack of variety: but sadly Gong Su had taken this as encouragement, and it had been nothing but kangaroo morning and night, four days running - not even a bit of tunny.
"I do not see why we mayn't at least go hunting further along," Iskierka said, even while licking out her own bowl indecorously - she quite refused to learn anything resembling polite manners. "This is a large country, and it stands to reason there ought to be something more worth eating if we looked. Perhaps there are some of those elephants which you have been on and on about; I should like to try one of those. "
Temeraire would have given a great deal for a delicious elephant, seasoned with a generous amount of pepper and perhaps some sage, but Iskierka was never to be encouraged in anything whatsoever. "You are very welcome to go flying away anywhere you like," he said, "and to surely get quite lost. No one has any notion of what this countryside is like, past the mountains, and there is no one in it, either, to ask for directions: not people or dragons. "
"That is very silly," Iskierka said. "I do not say these kangaroos are very good eating, because they are not, and there are not enough of them, either; but they are certainly no worse than what we had in Scotland during the last campaign, so it is stuff to say there is no one living here; why wouldn't there be? I dare say there are plenty of dragons here, only they are somewhere else, eating much better than we are. "
This struck Temeraire as not an unlikely possibility, and he made a note to discuss it privately with Laurence, later; which recalled him to Laurence's absence, and thence to the advancing hour. "Roland," he called, with a little anxiety - of course Laurence did not need nurse-maiding, but he had promised to return before the supper hour, and read a little more of the novel which he had acquired in town the day before - "Roland, is it not past five?"
"Lord, yes, it must be almost six," Emily Roland answered, putting down her sword; she and Demane were fencing a little, in the yard. She patted her face down with a tugged-free tail of her shirt, and ran to the promontory edge to call down to the sailors below, and came back to say, "No, I am wrong: it is a quarter past seven: how strange the day is so long, when it is almost Christmas!"
"It is not strange at all," Demane said. "It is only strange that you keep insisting it must be winter here only because it is in England. "
"But where is Granby, if it is so late?" Iskierka said, prickling up at once, overhearing. "He did not mean to go anywhere particularly nice, he assured me, or I should never have let him go looking so shabby. "
Temeraire flared his ruff a little, taking this to heart; he felt it keenly that Laurence should go about in nothing but a plain gentleman's coat, without even a little bit of braid or golden buttons. He would gladly have improved Laurence's appearance if he had any chance of doing so; but Laurence still had refused to sell Temeraire's talon-sheaths for him, and even if he had, Temeraire had not yet seen anything in this part of the world which would have suited him as appropriate.
"Perhaps I had better go and look for Laurence," Temeraire said. "I am sure he cannot have meant to stay away so long. "
"I am going to go and look for Granby, too," Iskierka announced.
"Well, we cannot both go," Temeraire said irritably. "Someone must stay with the eggs. " He cast a quick, judgmental eye over the three eggs in their protective nests of swaddling blankets, and the small canopy set over them, made of sailcloth. He was a little dissatisfied by their situation: a nice coal brazier, he thought, would not have gone amiss even in this warm weather, and perhaps some softer cloth to go directly against the shell; and it did not suit him that the canopy was so low he could not put his head underneath it, to sniff at the eggs and see how hard their shells had become.
There had been a little difficulty over them, after disembarking: some of the officers of the Corps who had been sent along had tried to object to Temeraire's keeping the eggs by him, as though they would be better able to protect them, which was stuff; and they had made some sort of noise about Laurence trying to kidnap the eggs, which Temeraire had snorted off.
"Laurence does not want any other dragon, as he has me," Temeraire had said, "and as for kidnapping, I would like to know whose notion it was to take the eggs halfway across the world on the ocean, with storms and sea-serpents everywhere, and to this odd place that is not even a proper country, with no dragons; it was certainly not mine. "
"Mr. Laurence is going directly to hard labor, like all the rest of the prisoners," Lieutenant Forthing had said, quite stupidly, as though Temeraire were allowing any such thing to happen.
"That is quite enough, Mr. Forthing," Granby had said, overhearing, and coming upon them. "I wonder that you would make any such ill-advised remark; I pray you take no notice of it at all, Temeraire, none at all. "
"Oh! I do not in the least," Temeraire answered, "or any of these other complaints; it is all nonsense, when what you mean is," he added to Forthing and his associates, "you would like to keep the eggs by you, so that they should not know any better when they hatch, but think they m
He had of course carried his point, and the eggs, away to their present relative safety and comfort, but Temeraire had no illusions as to the trustworthiness of people who could make such spitefully false remarks; he did not doubt that they would creep up and snatch the eggs away if he gave them even the least chance. He slept curled about the tent, therefore, and Laurence had put Roland and Demane and Sipho on watch, also.
The responsibility was proving sadly confining, however, particularly as Iskierka was not to be trusted with the eggs for any length of time. Fortunately the town was very small, and the promontory visible from nearly any point within it if one only stretched out one's neck to look, so Temeraire felt he might risk it, only long enough to find Laurence and bring him back. Of course Temeraire was sure no one would be absurd enough to try and treat Laurence with any disrespect, but it could not be denied that men were inclined to do unaccountable things from time to time, and Forthing's remark stirred uneasily in the back of his head.
It was true, if one wished to be very particular about such things, that Laurence was a convicted felon: convicted of treason, and his sentence commuted to transportation only at the behest of Lord Wellington, after the last campaign in England. But that sentence had been fulfilled, in Temeraire's opinion: no-one could deny that Laurence had now been transported, and the experience had been quite as much punishment as anyone could have wished.
The unhappy Allegiance had been packed to the portholes with still-more-unhappy convicts, who had been kept chained wrist-and-ankle all the day, and stank quite dreadfully whenever they were brought out for exercise in their clanking lines, some of them hanging limp in the restraints. It seemed quite like slavery, to Temeraire; he did not see why it should make so vast a difference as Laurence said, only because a law-court had said the poor convicts had stolen something: after all, anyone might take a sheep or a cow, if it were neglected by its owner and not kept under watch.
Certainly it made the ship as bad as any slaving vessel: the smell rose up through the planking of the deck, and the wind brought it forward to the dragondeck almost without surcease; even the aroma of boiling salt pork, from the galley below, could not erase it. And Temeraire had learned by accident, perhaps a month out on their journey, that Laurence was quartered directly by the gaol, where it must have been far worse.
Laurence had dismissed the notion of making any complaint, however. "I do very well, my dear," he had said, "as I have the whole liberty of the dragondeck for my days and the pleasanter nights, which not even the ship's officers have. It would be unfair in the extreme, when I have not their labor, for me to be demanding some better situation: someone else would have to shift places to give me another. "
So it had been a very unpleasant transportation indeed, and now they were here, which no-one could enjoy, either. Aside from the question of kangaroos, there were not very many people at all, and nothing like a proper town. Temeraire was used to seeing wretched quarters for dragons, in England, but here people did not sleep much better than the clearings in any covert, many of them in tents or makeshift little buildings which did not stay up when one flew over them, not even very low, and instead toppled over and spilled out the squalling inhabitants to make a great fuss.
And there was no fighting to be had at all, either. Several letters and newspapers had reached them along the way, when quicker frigates passed the laboring bulk of the Allegiance. It was very disheartening to Temeraire to have Laurence read to him how Napoleon was reported to be fighting again, in Spain this time, and sacking cities all along the coast, and Lien surely with him: and meanwhile here they were on the other side of the world, uselessly. It was not in the least fair, Temeraire thought disgruntledly, that Lien, who did not think Celestials ought to fight ever, should have all the war to herself while he sat here nursing eggs.
There had not even been a small engagement at sea, for consolation: they had once seen a French privateer, off at a distance, but the small vessel had set every scrap of sail and vanished away at a heeling pace. Iskierka had given chase anyway - alone, as Laurence pointed out to Temeraire he could not leave the eggs for such a fruitless adventure - and to Temeraire's satisfaction, after a few hours she had been forced to return empty-handed.
The French would certainly not attack Sydney, either: not when there was nothing to be won but kangaroos and hovels. Temeraire did not see what they were to do here, at all; the eggs were to be seen to their hatching, but that could not be far off, he felt sure, and then there would be nothing to do but sit about and stare out to sea, as far as he could tell.
The people were all either engaged in farming, which was not very interesting, or were convicts, who it seemed to Temeraire marched out for no reason in the morning and then marched back at night. He had flown after a party of them one day, just to see, and they were only going to a quarry to cut out bits of stone, and then bringing the bits of stone back to town in waggon-carts, which seemed quite absurd and inefficient to him: he could have carried five cartloads in a single flight of perhaps ten minutes, but when he had landed to offer his assistance, the convicts had all run away, and the soldiers had come to complain to Laurence stiffly afterwards.
They certainly did not like Laurence; one of them had been very rude, and said, "For fivepence I would have you down at the quarries, too," at which Temeraire put his head down and said, "For twopence I will have you in the ocean; what have you done, I should like to know, when Laurence has won a great many battles with me, and we drove Napoleon off; and you have only been sitting here. You have not even managed to raise a respectable number of cows. "
Temeraire now felt perhaps that jibe had been a little injudicious; or perhaps he ought not have let Laurence go into town, after all, when there were people who wished to put him into quarries. "I will go and look for Laurence and Granby," he said to Iskierka, "and you will stay here: if you go, you will likely set something on fire, anyway. "
"I will not set anything on fire!" Iskierka said. "Unless it needs setting on fire, to get Granby out. "
"That is just what I mean," Temeraire said. "How, pray tell, would setting something on fire do any good at all?"
"If no-one would tell me where he was," Iskierka said, "I am quite sure that if I set something on fire and told them I would set the rest on fire, too, they would come about: so there. "
"Yes," Temeraire said, "and in the meanwhile, very likely he would be in whatever house you had set on fire, and be hurt: and if not, the fire would jump along to the nearby buildings whether you liked it to or not, and he would be in one of those. Whereas I will just take the roof off a building, and then I can look inside and lift them out, if they are in there, and people will tell me anyway. "
"I can take a roof off a building, too!" Iskierka said. "You are only jealous, because someone is more likely to want to take Granby, because he has more gold on him and is much more fine. "
Temeraire swelled with indignation and breath, and would have expelled them both in a rush, but Roland interrupted urgently, saying, "Oh, don't quarrel! Look, here they are all coming back, right as rain: that is them on the road, I am sure. "
Temeraire whipped his head around: three small figures had just emerged from the small cluster of buildings which made the town, and were on the narrow cattle-track which came towards the promontory.
Temeraire's and Iskierka's heads were raised high, looking down towards them; Laurence raised a hand and waved vigorously, despite the twinge in his ribs, which a bath and a little rough bandaging had not gone very far to alleviate; that injury, however, could be concealed. "There; at least we will not have them down here in the streets," Granby said, lowering his own arm, and wincing a little; he probed gingerly at his
It was still a near-run thing when they had got up to the promontory - a slow progress, and Laurence's legs wished to quiver on occasion, before they had reached the top and could sit on the makeshift benches. Temeraire sniffed, and then lowered his head abruptly and said, "You are hurt; you are bleeding," with urgent anxiety.
"It is nothing to concern you; I am afraid we only had a little accident in the town," Laurence said, guiltily preferring a certain degree of deceit to the inevitable complications of Temeraire's indignation.
"So, dearest, you see it is just as well I wore my old coat," Granby said to Iskierka, in a stroke of inspiration, "as it has got dirty and torn, which you would have minded if I had on something nicer. "
Iskierka was thus diverted to a contemplation of his clothing, instead of his bruises, and promptly pronounced it a natural consequence of the surroundings. "If you will go into a low, wretched place like that town, one cannot expect anything better," she said, "and I do not see why we are staying here, at all; I think we had better go straight back to England. "