Tongues of Serpents Chapter 5

THE SENSATION GREW only gradually: the settled fields yielding to unbroken wilderness, stands of ancient timber, eucalypts with their oddly sharp fragrance rising if they landed, and the last hunting tracks fading away beneath the leaf cover. They crossed the Nepean and followed a small nameless tributary winding slow and westward into the mountains, hoping to find somewhere at its end a pass through: but there was none. Instead they came one day after another to another high, rising cliff wall: ragged sandstone, fresh yellow and old stained grey, climbing in heaps of pebbles and cracked boulders to where at last the face rose away sheer.

There was the quality of a hedge-maze to the gorges. The sun appeared only late and vanished early, hidden behind the rearing walls of rock. At first they had been glad of the deep lingering shadows, the cooler air about the river, but with the passing days Laurence was conscious of a building unease as they retreated once more along their course and tried yet another branching of the stream, with only the same fruitless result. They had not yet made forty miles from Sydney, as the dragon flew, and yet they had traversed ten times that distance, it seemed, going back and forth.

It was not merely the lack of civilization; it was the absence of all human life. The country felt wholly untenanted, not empty but abandoned. They had once at night seen a distant fire; in the morning, they had gone on foot nearer to investigate, hoping to meet some native who might perhaps be solicited as a guide; but in the deep crowding thicket they did not find even enough remains of a camp to be sure of what they had seen, or to learn if there were another living soul anywhere within a day's flight; even Tharkay's skill could uncover no certain sign. Upon the stone, from time to time, they found markings: handprints in white ochre, or in red; but these were old and weatherworn, for years perhaps, and spoke only of some distant occupation.

"Dead, of the plague and of the pox," O'Dea said, when Laurence had observed as much to Tharkay, wondering why the country should have been abandoned: O'Dea was an older convict, and a man grown grizzled and sodden through hard years, though not uneducated. "It came upon them hard, the early years after we came, and we saw them die in Sydney town: their bodies came floating into the harbor, spotted sepulchrous white, and their fires burned low and went out; now they are gone, and only their curses linger."

He was an Irishman and a former lawyer, taken up in the troubles in 'ninety-eight, and under life-sentence; this expedition had offered his first and perhaps his only chance of liberty since he had been fetched to the colony fifteen years before, and while he had solaced himself liberally with rum in the intervening span, he had not wholly lost either his spirit, or a gift for inconvenient poetry.

With too much matter here for it to work upon: Laurence did not doubt his explanation, though it might be exaggerated; he had glimpsed in Sydney some of the natives, walking through the town or plying their canoes in the harbor, seeming unconcerned with the colony's life rather than either party or inimical to it. But few in number, and here stood the markings for evidence that this country had once been peopled, enough to bring men to this isolate place - not only once but often, for the most recent marks were layered upon older - and now was deserted. There was something bleak and lonely in the fading handprints upon the walls, which vanished into the twilight as they retreated away down the gorge: a claim and a memorial all at once, which seemed a symbol of the land itself denying them passage.

From there on, the disquiet grew among them; the stillness itself made a mute reproach. Temeraire was not immune, either. "I do not understand why we have not yet found a way," he said. "Whenever we have flown up over the mountaintops, it looks as though this gorge and that one should meet, beneath the trees, and then we come down again and suddenly we have gone the wrong way, or else the gorges do not meet at all, and there is a great heap of rock waiting; and everything looks the same. I do not like it in the least, and it seems to me quite uncanny we should mistake our way so often."

Large game was not plentiful, and what they found the dragons had to eat; Caesar complained of his much-reduced menu, incessantly, until the general oppression began to make itself felt to him as well, and then he wished only to be gone. "There is nothing good in this place, and I am sure no cows would like to come here, either," he said. "We had much better get a grant of land nearer the city, where it was so sunny and pleasant; not here where one cannot even see past the trees."

They were obliged to spend some time each day finding water, although from their lack of success in finding a route, they were often able to fall back to their former camp by the river. The fifth day of their surveying attempt, however, ended in more confusion. From the air, they thought two valleys had conjoined, if only by a narrow passage, which could barely have admitted men on foot to pass, single-file. "I will settle for that, gladly," Granby said. "It can be widened, and perhaps once we have found one route, we can find another, if we look in the other direction."

"And more to the point, while we look, we can in the meantime put the men to work, which should hardly be delayed another hour," Rankin said, with a cold look over his shoulder at the string of convicts who had not yet roused themselves from around their rough and makeshift camp, though the morning was well advanced. "So far they have nothing to occupy them but idleness and rum, and I am sure we may expect trouble from leaving such men prey to restlessness and wild fancies."

Those wild fancies were rampant not only amongst the convicts, by now. "I hope, sir," Fellowes, his staid and hard-headed ground-crew master, and ordinarily a sensible fellow, said to Laurence under his breath, "I hope you will have a care, walking that pass; I am sure we have not had so much bad luck for no reason."

"I do not like it, either," Temeraire said. "Perhaps I might try and break it open wider, myself, before you should go; I have found the divine wind answers quite well for breaking rock."

"And for bringing half the cliff wall down upon our heads, certainly," Rankin interjected.

"It may come down upon your head, and no-one mind in the least," Temeraire flared, but this criticism was unfortunately sound, and barred the experiment: the soft sandstone walls would crumble a little even from a leather-gloved hand rubbed vigorously across their face, and everywhere the rock rose above the tree-line stood the scars of small landslides and collapses.

The ground of the pass was uneven and shifted easily beneath their feet, gravel and rock slipping where new grass and undergrowth had yet to take secure hold, though there was also enough greenery risen calf-high to hide the canyon floor and make their passage more difficult. They could only go single-file, and the rock thrust up on either side crowding near, so that looking up, squinting, one saw only a narrow strip of sky stark against the dark walls; Laurence had the sensation that the cliffs leaned in towards them.

The wind also was crammed in narrowly, and whistled a little where it passed over sharp edges or crevasses in the rock; a loose slope challenged them awhile in climbing, and Laurence slipped badly on the other side, sliding with a tumble of loose pebbles, sand creeping into all his clothing; falling backwards he caught himself awkwardly on his hands, which sank wrist-deep into the gravel as he slid a little further.

He managed to halt his skidding progress, and lying a little dazed in the spill of stones around him saw directly in front of him another overhang in the cliff, the height of several men from the ground, marked with the ochre signs: handprints and a faded painting. A very narrow and steep ledge protruded from the cliff face which might have served as a track to reach it, for an exceptionally skilled climber.

Laurence struggled up to his feet, and only then saw there was no way forward: they had yet again come to the end of a gorge, without breaking through. There was only a small grassy clearing within almost curved walls of rock, spiky-leaved plants like ivy and a few sapling trees protruding almost horizontal from cracks, and the overhang standing above with the quality of an empty sentinel post.

Granby came in a more controlled slide down the gravel slope beside him, saw at once the dead end, and did not say anything. A few pebbles rolled a little further along from his feet, rattling, and then stopped. There was a palpable silence, all sound muffled and deadened by the encircling rock and the high slope of loose stones.

"Another false start, then?" Rankin said irritably, from the summit of the slope, breaking the silence and yet not the queer power of the place, cathedral in quality. Even he was not insensible to it: his words fell into the space and died without echoing, and he did not speak again.

It was not so easy to get out of the clearing as to get in; Granby managed it, at the price of scraped palms, but Rankin had in the end to brace against the wall and reach down a hand for Laurence to scramble up the slope and out again. Rankin himself balanced easily despite the unsteady ground: he was, Laurence could not deny, an aviator born to the life; his training had started nearer to the cradle than even the age of seven, when most boys were taken into the service.

They returned somberly along the narrow passage, quiet with failure and discomfort; it was a longer and hotter walk retracing their steps, the sun having climbed overhead, and Laurence was weary and damp with sweat before they had returned to the waiting dragons. "No," Laurence said briefly, to Temeraire's raised head, "there is no passage. We must return to the river."

"It's cursed country," Jack Telly announced loud and sourly, over the disheartened groans and objections of the other convicts as Lieutenant Blincoln made a desultory effort to marshal them for loading, "and I don't see why there is any call for a road into it; if we ain't all to be found like dried-up husks ten years hence we had better be going back to town. And I ha'nt a drink all morning."

"That is quite enough, Mr. Telly; you will have one when we have made camp by the river, if you are not having strokes for malingering," Forthing said, and with a clout of a stick roused Maynard and Hob Wessex, who had not even taken their hats off their faces.

He went to prod Jonas Green also, lying curled in the shade of a tree, but Green, who had so far been the most reliable of the men, did not stir but only moaned; and after prodding again, Forthing turned to Laurence and said, low, "Sir, if you would - "

Across the clearing, Rankin looked away from Caesar's side, where he had been adjusting a strap, and said frowning, "What are you about, there? Get that man up."

Forthing hesitated, and by then the men were looking over; Green yet had not moved. "He's not drunk, sir," he said.

Laurence stepped over and looked down: Green was curled around himself with sweat sprung out all over his body, soaked through his shirt in great dark stains; when they turned him over, his hand was swollen large and reddened around two small black punctures.

* * *

Dorset made an inspection - though a dragon-surgeon, he was the nearest thing to a physician among them; he shook his head. "A snake perhaps, or a spider: it is quite impossible to tell."

"What ought be done?" Laurence asked.

"I will take most detailed notes on the progression," Dorset said. "I understand there are several highly venomous species recognized already in this part of the world; it will be of great interest to the Royal Society."

"Yes, but what are we to do for the poor blighter in the meantime?" Granby exclaimed.

"Oh; I can bind up the arm, but I imagine the venom has already spread," Dorset said absently, his fingers on the man's pulse. "He may not die; it is entirely dependent upon the degree of venom, and his natural resistance."

"Water, I imagine," Tharkay said, a more practical compassion; but Green moaned wordless and incoherently when touched, and vomited up all he was given before they had managed to lift him into the belly-rigging. His condition silenced the noisiest complaints, from respect, but a low muttering grew as they went back aboard: it seemed fresh proof of the hostility of the country which surrounded them.

Perhaps through this distraction, or only from fatigue, they turned at some point wrongly; or so Laurence supposed, when after an hour they had not yet found again their former camp or the river. The sound of running water could be heard, but the canyons brought distant echoes near, now and again, and even from high aloft they could only see impenetrable green, and the alternating pattern of flat clifftops rising and the tree-choked valleys between.

It was very hot. Abruptly and without warning, Caesar set down, tiring all at once. He fit himself into a little shade at the edge of a clearing and curled small, for once without any noise or complaint; he only shut his eyes and lay breathing heavily. Rankin dismounted and stood by his head frowning while Dorset, the surgeon, climbed down from Temeraire's back to make his inspections. Dorset looked into Caesar's mouth and nostrils, then pushed his spectacles up into place again as he rose. "There is as yet no serious condition, in my judgment, but he is overheated; and has not had enough water: at this stage of his growth he does not yet possess those reserves which should make him able to bear more privation."

"Well, we haven't any water here, so there is no use his lying down now," Iskierka said, callously, nudging at Caesar's flank with her nose; he did not stir, except to flick the long narrow end of his tail. "I am thirsty, too; and not getting less so while we sit here."

Rankin snapped, "Captain Granby, you will restrain your beast, if you please. I will not take Caesar flying about wildly in this heat again; we will have to wait until after dark."

"Except my beast, if you like, has it aright: we haven't water here, and we aren't going to find some more easily in the dark," Granby said. "Precious soon he will need that more than rest. Could we get him up on Temeraire's back?"

Temeraire put back his ruff, but reluctantly said to Laurence, "Oh; I suppose I can carry him, if I must; but I think we had much better let everyone down, and go and find water first. Once we know where it is, we may come back and fetch them all, when it is cooler and not so unpleasant to be loaded down."

Laurence shook his head. "I had rather not part company," he said, "when we have already seen we can so easily mistake our way; we have grown too complacent, in thinking that we need only go aloft to find our path again. I feel as though we have turned around three times in the last quarter-of-an-hour, for all the sun has not shifted."

"It seems to me," Iskierka said, "that the trouble is all these trees, everywhere; I might burn off some of them, and then we could see where the river is, perhaps."

"After four days of a firestorm, we would not very much care, however," Rankin said cuttingly.

The trees were not of a sort which would be easily amenable to burning, either, nor to being knocked down: these were not small scrubby creatures, despite their queerly peeling trunks, but old giants, prime timber; Laurence had seen half-a-dozen which could have made the Allegiance a new mainmast. Even Temeraire's strength could not have quickly uprooted one, and a single tree falling would scarcely have made any notable diminishment in the cover.

They determined at last to wait a little while: the sun was climbing to its zenith, white-hot and hammering directly down upon them. The day grew yet more still; the faint breath of wind brought no relief, only a dry, papery feeling to one's skin, lips cracking and white.

They unloaded the dragons and Rankin, turning to the convicts, ordered them to break off young tree-branches, and rip up some of the undergrowth, to lay over Caesar's hide to deepen the shade and give a little vegetal coolness from what water remained within the limbs. The men only resentfully obliged him, then with more attention treated Jonas Green in the same manner: he had been lowered to lie in the darkest shade, and Dorset was dosing him with a small cup of water.

The rest of the convicts returned to their own torpor beneath the trees. Rankin paced for a short time, as if considering whether to try and stir them back to work; but the heat presently defeated him, and he went to sit against one of the tall eucalypts, across from his dragon, his eyes closed. Green moaned occasionally, and stirred; he was yet sweating copiously, and when he roused he could not speak, but only mumbled a few words thickly and crumpled back to sleep.

Temeraire sighed a little, without much noise: he and Iskierka were awkwardly situated in the smallish clearing, having wound themselves into place among the towering spires of the oldest trees, and he could not be wholly shaded from the intensity of the sun; nor could he spread out his wings as he was often wont to do when excessively hot. He did what he could to shade his head, his neck nearly doubled back upon itself, curling partly around a tree, and then he, too, closed his eyes. Sitting not against him but near-by, Laurence also slept; or something like sleep, not half so restful: a sensation not of peace but of drifting, unmoored, the world turning away from beneath them and the sun piercing the leaf cover now and again to stab.

At length it fell beyond the other rim of the gorge, and they had a little more shade: but the lassitude was not easily shaken off, and instead deepened for a little while, so when Laurence had at last roused himself, with an effort, the day was wearing away and late: it was past six, he thought, at the very least, and perhaps later. There was a smell of roasting meat, which had brought him out of that well of uneasy sleep: Demane had half-a-dozen wombats on skewers, over a small, neat fire, and had already given a small cup of the blood to his brother to drink.

"I am not hungry," Temeraire said, opening his eyes, "but I would not in the least mind a drink of water: pray let us go find the river now; and then I do not suppose I would mind a bite of wombat, even though they are not really worth eating."

"Then get your own," Demane said, rather indignantly. "They are very worth eating, to me. Finish that," he added, to Sipho, who was showing no marked enthusiasm for his treat.

"It is hot, and it tastes very ill," Sipho said, but quelled by a look accepted his unhappy fate and tipped back the rest of the cup; several of the convicts, also woken by the smell of the cooking meat, watched with more envy than sympathy; every man's mouth was dry as sand.

"Might send the boy to fetch some more," Telly said, eyeing Demane, who glared in offense and turned his back.

"We had better make a go of finding the stream again, I suppose," Granby said, " - we won't have more light than we do now."

They already had little, and that quickly diminishing. Though fortunately they had not unloaded wholly, but only shifted the baggage so Temeraire might lie down, it must all be resecured, particularly the eggs; and then Caesar had to be persuaded to climb up onto Temeraire's back.

"I do not see why I must ride on him; it is very hot and unpleasant," Caesar grumbled; he had roused enough with the coolness to be difficult. "I think I had much better stay here, and you may go and fetch some water and bring it back; and then I will feel like flying again."

"It will be a good deal more hot and unpleasant for me," Temeraire said, "so you may cease caterwauling: it will be no treat to carry you, and I think it is a great pity you should have been allowed to be such a glutton that you are grown fat with no good purpose; I am sure that is why you have tired so quickly."

This was unjust, coming from a beast who himself had grown to perhaps five times his hatching weight in the space of a week, and Caesar was inclined to resent it; but Iskierka's temper was at once shorter and more violent. Having reached its ends, she did not bother with recrimination, and only jetted a thin stream of flame directly at Caesar's hindquarters; which as a form of persuasion worked to admirable effect, as he scrambled forward promptly.

"Ow!" Temeraire said, jerking his own singed tail away, and hunching his wings away from Caesar's claws. "That is not at all helpful, in the least; and will you stop catching at me? I am not to be climbed like a hill."

Their departure so delayed, the light was very nearly gone before they were aloft again: only the gorge walls holding a little reflected brightness, the trees a solid dark mass beneath, blanketing the ground. Lacking any certainty of their way, they continued along the line of the gorge, eastward away from the vanishing sun, hoping in such a way to retrace part of their course; the sound of water tormented them, once in a while, coming so clear that Temeraire would raise his head and prick forward his ruff.

From time to time, Iskierka would set down, where there was a little opening, and thrust her head beneath the cover: but there was no sign of water. The stars had slowly begun to come out, and Laurence looking up realized in dismay from the Southern Cross that they had somehow turned again: they were traveling north-west, instead. "Temeraire," he said, "set down: there, in the space at the base of that cliff."

"What the devil are you doing?" Rankin demanded; sharp with anxiety.

"We have lost our way, again," Laurence said. "We cannot keep flying in circles and exhaust them: better we should rest until the stars come more clear."

Temeraire was indeed very hot and fatigued; where Laurence touched the hide with his bare hand, after they had landed, it felt nearly feverish: blood pumped vigorously along the great swollen vein curving down from the wing-joint. "I do not feel ill; only so thirsty," Temeraire said.

Caesar was also worse: somnolent again and still, barely twitching when Rankin touched his head. They had only a few cans of water left among them; Temeraire held up the dragonet's head carefully with a talon, and they tipped what little they had inside. They could not do more than moisten his tongue and mouth, but it at least perhaps gave a sensation of relief; he seemed to lie easier, afterwards.

"Let's have a little rum, then," Jack Telly said, whining; and with some reluctance Laurence approved Blincoln's doling it out to the men in small cups: the worst possible medicine for their present condition, considered as a matter of health, and yet as a matter of discipline the most necessary; they were grown restive in direct proportion to the increasing torpor of the dragons, and the folly of discomfort might easily drive them to desertion and flight into the wilds of the forest, however more unlikely they were to find relief or water on their own.

"I suppose we might dig to a little water," Granby said. "We aren't in a desert, at least."

They had the shovels, and Iskierka was persuaded to oblige as well; but the ground was too porous: they managed to sink a hole some ten feet down, and a few inches of water filled in, but it ran quickly away, and the sides collapsed too easily to hold. Every man had a handful of water, soaked up in handkerchiefs and wrung out into the mouth; they soaked a few more again and laid them over poor Jonas Green's face, to give him a little relief; and then they were forced to give it up: they could not even fill a cup or a can.

The sky was yet obscured by clouds, which only infrequently broke long enough to show the stars. "We ought to have listened to Temeraire from the first," Laurence said quietly. "In the morning, I think we must unload him and separate; we cannot hope for more than another day of searching from him or Iskierka, without we find them water."

"And when you have found any water, how do you propose to find your way back?" Rankin said. "If you do, of course; that certainly would simplify the problem."

"Oh, honestly," Granby said, a more measured if less formal response than Laurence would have liked to make, when Temeraire had spent so much of his strength already in carting Caesar about. Rankin compressed his mouth, and did not apologize, but neither did he attempt to continue this line of inquiry; he looked over at Caesar instead, with real anxiety: he could not, Laurence supposed, ever hope to have another beast, if he lost this one as well; and perhaps he had learnt to value the privilege more, after finding himself out of harness.

"In the morning, we'll have Iskierka set a fire going, a little way up the gorge," Granby said. "If we break up one of these old monsters, we can make a bonfire they will see in Sydney, I dare say: then we can find our way back. For my part," he added, "I mean to try crossing some of these ridges, instead of going along the gorges: I don't know if we have gone back anywhere near the way we came, and I think skipping along sideways we are more like to find some kind of water, even if it isn't that same blasted stream."

"I have very little say in the matter, I find," Rankin said, coldly. "I trust the rest of us will not have been murdered by our company before you return; I suppose at least I can let them at the rum, if it comes to that." He rose and went to Caesar's head, and cast himself alongside to sleep.

"I don't like to be coarse," Granby said to Laurence, "but if I did, I would be," a sentiment Laurence shared: he could not help but contemplate with some unhappiness the prospect of long years immured in the colony, with Rankin the senior captain, and with the support of both military rank and family influence, back in England: it could not make for a comfortable or a quiet future.

That, however, whatever vicious phantasies Rankin might entertain, had not the least bearing on their present circumstances. In the morning they must find water, or the dragons would perish: another stretch beneath the sun's height, in heat this implacable, with no relief, would leave them too wrung-out to fly even a little distance. "If we cannot find anything before noon," Laurence said, "we must try and sink a proper well; if we line the sides with tree-bark, perhaps, and widen the whole, enough that we can get inside and dig."

Granby nodded a little; they did not need to speak of the alternative.

They separated, to sleep beside their own dragons; but Laurence found sleep did not come; he was not tired enough, after their long half-involuntary rest during the heat of the day. He sat instead beside Temeraire's jaw, where the heat radiating from his body did not come too strongly; the night air was still close and thick and hot. The moon rose, at length, and shone from behind a thin veil of clouds, haloed brilliantly in shades of pale pearl-grey and white.

It was very queer to be amid this verdant and standing forest, the ground soft and rich beneath their hands, and still so desperately thirsty when plainly there was plentiful water somewhere near; something almost like deliberate torment in it. Laurence did not care for superstition; he did not yield to it now, but he felt it not unreasonable to be conscious of how ill-fitted they were to be in this country, a lack of understanding and of place.

"They say," he heard Jack Telly telling the others, low, "that you can fetch up all the way to China, on the other side of the mountains: and get work on a merchantman, and back to England if you like. I spoke to a fellow got up there and back, a year ago."

"A charming notion, do you not think?" Tharkay said to Laurence; he had come to sit beside him.

"Have you heard it before?" Laurence asked.

Tharkay nodded. "It is rather popular in the port, and made all the more so for these goods coming in; although I think they imagine something more in the line of Xanadu than Canton."

The convicts were taking it in turns to give Green a few drops of water from the handkerchief-squeezings and to fan him, despite their almost satisfied airs of pessimism. "He is sure to die, and he will not be the last man of us to go, either, you may be sure of it," O'Dea said, tenderly wiping his brow.

At length, Laurence stretched himself on the ground, rather out of duty than a real desire to sleep. The leaves were thick blotches overhead: for backdrop, the moon had sunk deeper into cloudbank, imbuing the sky with a general pallor instead of the pitch-black of a clear night. The silence, the heat, remained. Laurence thought perhaps he slept a little; but he had no sense of time passing when he opened his eyes. There was a strange low moaning, but it was not Jonas Green, as he first thought: it was a song, somewhere in the distance.

Laurence remained prone a moment, then abruptly sat up as the noise broke fully into his mind. Several other of the men were sitting up already, tense and listening, their eyes showing white in the corners. They could not make words out, but the rise and fall and rise of the drumming came clearly, over and over: and over it an unnatural and repetitive rattle like dried leaves shaking in wind. It died away even while they listened; then began once more afresh.

"That is a very strange sound," Temeraire said, drowsily, without opening his eyes. "Whoever can be making it? It sounds as though they did not feel very well; or perhaps were angry."

This interpretation plainly did not recommend itself to the listening convicts. "Pray do not disturb yourself," Laurence said, loud enough to carry over the noise, and reach their ears. "It cannot be of concern to us in your company, and you had much better get as much rest as you can."

Temeraire did not answer, except to sigh a little breath and sleep again. Laurence put a hand on his muzzle, and turned back to his pallet; beside it Tharkay's lay empty, and his small pack gone with him.

Laurence lay down again, mostly to give an example to the men which should reassure; he did not feel very much like sleep, with that strange inhuman music still lingering. It felt of a piece with all the rest, the alien cry of an alien land.

There were more low whispers, inarticulate yet uneasy, until abruptly Rankin's voice rang out in its drawling, ironic vowels, "I am sorry to have to ask you gentlemen to be so good as to reserve your presentiments of disaster for morning: I am not competent to endure the hysterics without the fortification of a night's rest and strong coffee."

The cold contempt did what sympathy, perhaps, would not have: it silenced them. The strange moaning song died away once more, fading into the dry air. Laurence watched the leaves stirring overhead, and again time slid away from him; he opened his eyes this time to a touch upon his shoulder, and pushed himself up to look at Tharkay, who silently handed him a canteen, full and dripping wet.

"Thank Heaven," Laurence said, low; and looked a question at Tharkay, why he had not roused all the camp for the discovery.

"I did not find our singers," Tharkay said, "but their tracks, I believe: there is a way over the ridge to another river, and its banks are not impassable. I have found only the fewest signs of passage, but the trail is not unused. I think it may answer your search - and perhaps mine, also."

"The - smugglers?" Laurence said, slowly, relying on Temeraire's intuition.

Tharkay paused and said, "I imagine you find I have been very close; although perhaps not so close as I might have prided myself upon."

"You may congratulate yourself as much as you like," Laurence said ruefully, " - my intelligence is borrowed: Temeraire worked out the whole, not myself, and that only by guessing. But I cannot see I have the least right to demand candor from you on the subject of your private affairs. I am sufficiently in your debt," he added, "that I hope you know I would be glad of an opportunity to make some return; and you need not make me explanations."

Tharkay smiled, glinting a little even in the dark. "You are kind to make me such an offer; I can well imagine how little you would like in practice to lend yourself so blindly to another man's course."

Very true, Laurence was forced to admit, "but despite that, I will not withdraw," he said, "and if you prefer to keep your silence, I beg you to believe I will not press you."

"I do not propose to entertain myself unnecessarily," Tharkay said, "though I will ask you to come aside with me: I have been silent all this while shipboard only because I am not content with the genteel fiction of privacy when separated by only a plank of wood from a hundred idle ears, and I am no more so here in an open forest, surrounded by men who may only pretend to sleep."

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