Black Powder War

Black Powder War by Naomi Novik Read Free Book Online

Book: Black Powder War by Naomi Novik Read Free Book Online
Authors: Naomi Novik
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 himself 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

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