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[personal profile] gogollescent
I spent my Thanksgiving break tearing through the Temeraire books, which I dabbled in a few years ago but never really fell in love with. This time I had no such luck-- I have been scouring the internet for fic ever since. 

Anyway, since they happen to be set in proximity with the Napoleonic wars, also the backdrop for one of my favorite fantasy novels, I… wrote a badly thought-out crossover, with a footnote taken straight from the Discworld series for good measure. It's a good thing I signed up for like three different holiday exchanges this year, none of which I have started the fics for yet, or I might feel like I was procrastinating!

Childermass did not at once hit upon the idea that dragons could be relevant to his translation of the Book. Dragons had not been very often on his mind, previous to his new employment: Mr. Norrell thought them twice as bad as men, having all men’s stupidity and arrogance in addition to a far greater capacity for giving inconvenience to their betters (even Mr. Norrell’s powers were not sufficient to dislodge a Greyling sans some preparation beforehand, whereas by the time he was thirty he could avert a human courier without looking up from his book). And of course, dragons were not very likely to dabble in magic[1]. Even among the Aureate magicians there had been no dragon spellcaster, and no magician ever took a dragon for a companion save for Catherine of Winchester, who despite her city of origin was known to associate with a Longwing called Alcippe; indeed John Uskglass would not allow the use of dragons in his army, determining that they were useless in two countries of three and not at all worth the trouble of cultivating. This indifference was often blamed by subsequent historians for the modern weakness of England’s Aerial Corps— while for three hundred years the rest of the world was breeding stronger stock, in England dragons lived in the shadow of fairies and demons and unfavorable tax rates, and were more wild than kept.

But a year in the keeping of Vinculus was enough to turn any man to previously unconsidered avenues of success, and besides 1817 saw the publication of a number of linguistic texts by dragons whose names had hitherto been known to society mainly in connection with treason; one, a Comparison of Durzagh and Turkish, with Notes on the Descent of Tongues, was of particular interest to Childermass, who saw in the previously unrecorded language of the Turkestan dragons hope for his own case. He examined the source— a George Tharkay was listed as ‘editor’ but acknowledged in his introduction that he had also served as co-author and scribe for the dragon tribe whose speech was under consideration. The actual technicalities of Durzagh’s resemblance to Turkish (scant), its likely influences from other human populations (scanter), and its grammar (surprisingly similar to that of certain dialects used by the Saan people, for no reason either author or scribe had yet to discern) were very dry and unsatisfactory reading, but in the description of Tharkay’s first introduction to the dragons and his mastery of the language, Childermass thought he had found something useful.

Tharkay was not in England, but that was no matter: Childermass merely announced one morning to his companion that they were to go to Istanbul in the afternoon: his companion, who had just seen the skin of ice on a barrel of water broken very casually by Childermass’ fist, and had his head dunked in the same water moments after, made no very audible protest. “We will go by the King’s roads,” said Childermass, “—we need not stay very long”; for while the return of English magic had made transport across great differences as easily done by inquisitive children as by long sea voyages, it had also ensured that a great many inquisitive children went to one place and found, by the time they had tired of it, that the path back was closed. It was still a matter for an experienced magician to go halfway around the world and rely on his route of return with any surety, when he had been there more than a day.

“Oh, what does it matter,” said Vinculus, soggy-glum, “you’ll drag me to both poles before you’re done, and never mind the hardship, or the penguins; at least the looking-glass is warm;” which was not quite true, but certainly that indeterminate land was more temperate than the Arctic.

“Too warm,” said Childermass. Vinculus was very fond of his own reflection, although his blue-whorled features could not be said to beautify any mirror which contained them.

But it was settled; and Childermass stopped only to assemble a compass, made from a page of Tharkay’s book wrapped around a candle-wick, and a bowl of pure water, before stepping after Vinculus into the mirror[2].

They emerged in a cave which had very little to recommend it besides a full-length mirror, before which a small blue-and-white dragon lay coiled asleep. At least, Childermass supposed it small: its back rose to the level of his shoulder, and he was not a short man. When he stepped out of the frame, it opened one opalescent eye and said something in a language he thought might be Durzagh. “Good day,” said Childermass, rather awkwardly, while Vinculus cowered against the wall and looked as if he would have liked to clamber back up into the shadowy glass.

The dragon lifted its head and sat up, doglike; behind it, they saw, another man was getting up off the rug that had served him as a bedroll. Childermass realized belatedly that it was already evening on this side of the globe, but the man did not seem to have been sleeping; there were notebooks lying open by the rug, and what looked like a half-finished map. “Good day,” he said, sounding less wary than amused. “To what do I owe the honor of…” —his eyes tracked up the side of the mirror— “…this visit?”

Childermass, who had in truth not been expecting to come out directly in the man’s sleeping-quarters, was a little puzzled as to how to proceed. He was saved from making an immediate answer by Vinculus, who said, “He’s mad,” with perfect confidence, and then turned to Tharkay and asked if he had anything to drink.

Tharkay regarded him with some irony. “Gherni?” he said— Childermass first thought this was the name of some local spirit— but no, the dragon stood, and padded over to Vinculus on clawed feet. “If you don’t mind, I’d like you to take this man to the inn,” said Tharkay. “I believe his associate and I have business to discuss.”

“He stays here,” said Childermass simply.

Tharkay’s eyebrows lifted. “Ah?”

“He is my charge, and I don’t care to lose him.”

“Thus the expeditions through other people’s mirrors,” Tharkay murmured, but he nodded and said something else to Gherni, this time in Durzagh. With a sigh she settled back to her rest— in front of the cave mouth, now. Tharkay glanced at her, and back at Vinculus. “Though I can’t see that he’s much less safe in the company of a dragon than a magician, Mr. …?”

“I am called Childermass,” said he, and looked Tharkay directly in the eye.

“Childermass,” Tharkay repeated, and then said, “Never mind. How can I be of service?”

“I have read your book on Durzagh,” said Childermass, and when they had sat down again next to the rug he explained why he had come, at one point rolling up Vinculus’ sleeves by way of demonstration. Tharkay followed the story with keen interest, his eyes bright: he interrupted only at the end, saying, “And you have followed him around ever since?”— with refreshing rudeness.

“He was almost dead when I found him,” Childermass said over Vinculus’ protests: “I was not about to risk a more successful murderer coming along to wring his neck.”

“Unless of course you proved inadequate protection,” said Tharkay, to which Childermass had no reply.

“Well,” said Tharkay, “I am afraid you have been misled; or rather, misdirected; the summary of my exploits I gave in the book was very abridged, and the hard work of translation was done by a dragon of my acquaintance, a Celestial.”

Childermass frowned. “I thought,” he said, “you acquired it over the course of several expeditions through the area, bartering for safe passage,” but Tharkay was shaking his head. “Some of the vocabulary,” he said, “a very basic knowledge of perhaps a hundred words; but it was Temeraire who from exposure was able to describe to me in detail their syntax. He had a most extraordinary ability, like that of a child, to decode through experience alone, although he was fully grown by the time I met him.”

Vinculus broke his sulk. “Well, where’s this Temeraire, then? England? Do say England, and we can go and have at him, and let him eat us for our troubles—”

“Temeraire is dead,” said Tharkay.

There was a silence; a very bad silence. “I’m sorry,” said Childermass.

Something like surprise flickered across Tharkay’s hard-teak face. “Thank you,” he said, “but no matter; it was some years ago. I’m sorry I can’t be of more help to you.” He looked again at Gherni, his expression remote, and Childermass was very convinced, all of a sudden, that he could.

“You’ll forgive me for pressing you,” said Childermass, “but this talent. Is it usual among dragons?”

“No,” said Tharkay. “It is found only in the Celestials, of whom there are six living today; you might if you like go to China, but I don’t think they will be very interested in your suit. Their own history of magic is a remarkable one, of course— but I see you are concerned with England’s; I will not regale you. I’m not, in any case, an expert.”

This time Childermass raised his eyes: at the admission, Tharkay seeming to him to be the sort of man who did not have much truck with ignorance, his own or others’. As this was the sort of man Childermass was, as well, he thought he was qualified to recognize the inclination. “I must seem a little monomaniacal,” he said aloud. Tharkay shrugged.

“We each of us have our passions,” he replied, and then looked a little dubious; passion not being a word one applied to tattooed charlatans lightly. “I cannot criticize.”

Again there was that flash of something that made Childermass believe he had not, after all, been misled, like wind over water, breaking an opacity of blue to bare the void beneath. “I like criticism,” Childermass said. “It was a staple of my childhood and can only be associated with that idyll.”

Tharkay smiled, very slightly. “It’s only,” he said, and stopped, his gaze falling on the face of Vinculus, who had in resignation laid down next to the dragon and was even now entering upon a doze. “It seems to me that language is easily enough learned from the living, but recovering it by letter alone is another thing. Of course, this is no ordinary script: it may be said to be, in its way, as vital and energetic as any talkative dragon. But what are its wants, and its concerns? That was how I learned what I did of Durzagh, before Temeraire— by common interest.”

Childermass stared. “What does a book want?” he said shortly, to cover his irritation— it seemed very obvious now that he heard it, but it had never quite occurred to him how difficult it would be, surrounded by isolate sounds without any clue as to what they signified, to find meaning: how dependent is the work of the translator on the world in which he speaks.

“Well,” said Tharkay, “as to that, I can only guess. A leather binding? But you might start with what Vinculus wants.”

He watched Childermass closely.

“Do you think getting him blind drunk will reveal the truths of English magic?” said Childermass.

“How many times has he been blind drunk since you met him?” said Tharkay, dryly. “But no, I don’t think wine will do the job alone. Men like Vinculus don’t want drink for its own sake, any more than you want magic.” At Childermass’ opening mouth he held up a hand. “—or there is an argument to be made for the sake of magic being also its ends, but either way, you must admit, you want to achieve things by it as well as to see it achieved.”

“Semantics,” said Childermass, and Tharkay grinned.

“Isn’t that why we’re here?” he said.

Childermass said nothing.

“So,” Tharkay resumed, “where is the commonality? Are you interested in forgetfulness, or the dulling of pain? When he’s vomiting behind the tavern, is he trying to commune with the transcendent mind of the world? Choose a god, and you might find a name for it, at least.”

He broke off then, and shrugged. Childermass thought of the pavilions that were being built all over England, and the dragons who flew over Parliament not in protection but in protest; and Tharkay here, far away from the pivot of belated change, amassing his careful notes. “Were you always so theoretical?” said Childermass, which made the other man snort. “Always,” he said, “but I used to theorize about what the world ought to be, and now I find myself more concerned with cataloguing what it is.” At Childermass’ look: “It pays better. And only by fluency in both states does one manage to change one into the other.”

[1] Childermass was not of the set which believed that dragons were to be compared with parrots, or dogs, in having speech but no reason. If he had thought about the matter at all he would have supposed that dragons suffered less from the human disease of ambition, being rather bound up in the happiness of their keepers, and not inclined to pursue the subtle and dangerous rewards of magic, when they could accomplish so much by native force. He might also have pondered how magic could be done without thumbs. But in both objections he was quite mistaken; magic is subject to the will and not the finger-joint, and in their size and buoyancy dragons have many other means of moving through the world in an interesting and communicative way; and dragons, who lust for treasure and love creatures much shorter-lived than they, are as susceptible to the temptations of magic as any man, and more than some. Dragons do not do magic for the plain reason that they are even more rational than men. It is the same reason that dragons make bad Christians. In a dragon madness comes only with the onset of grief, and then generally there is no place for arts where violence will do.

[2] Traveling by mirror is a very old magic which existed before the Raven King and will no doubt persist long after his roads have fallen all to pieces. A recent example is the case of a woman in France, Lilith de Tempscire, who once sought to magnify her own magical gifts by standing between two opposite mirrors, and instead found herself teleported to Rome. She received the information of her new environs with equanimity, and immediately thereafter found a husband in passing prince, but as an afterthought to this coup she wrote an essay on her discovery and its possible applications. Several hundred copies were distributed through Europe by her loving spouse, all but one of which Mr. Norrell subsequently burned. Lilith de Tempscire, had she bothered to find out their fates, would have been more pleased than vexed; although she never used the word magician, preferring in correspondence with her sister to call herself a witch, she is now generally considered by historians to be one of the most powerful and destructive magicians of the Enlightenment[3].

[3] Once Lily found her husband looking with some concern through her letters, which she had carelessly left under a secret floorboard in her own room. Next time, she thought, I will burn them with the blood of a rodent, and she walked angrily but silently to his side. In fact she was so quiet that when he looked up from his reading— his face as drawn and pale as that of a man ten years older, though on the eve before he had been young and luminous as a milch-cow— her proximity surprised him very badly, and he fell over dead. This surprised Lily as well, although she would not have liked to admit it. After nudging him a little with her foot, she decided she would not tolerate such a painless demise, and set about to bring him back to life.

Now, as thoughtful readers will realize, it is not hard for a talented magician to recall a soul from its resting place, especially if that place be Hell and the soul already eager to flee it; but Lily wanted quite another thing, that is to say, a real resurrection, for a soul trapped in a body cannot feel pain. So she set about to return her husband to his former state of breathing wholeness, the better to punish him properly.

For the purpose she summoned a fairy named Erzulie Gogol. Erzulie was not very enthused to be summoned, having been halfway through preparation of heartbreak gumbo, a single taste of which could tell the future and also forever ruin the taster for broth; now it would thicken in the pot, unattended, unless she could finish Lily’s task quickly and get back at once to Faerie. She told Lily this, and that lady very foolishly dismissed her concerns as domestic; so even if one had not already condemned her for her cruelty and sadism, one would certainly have to lament her ignorance of art (shrimp-flavored). Erzulie, now both impatient and annoyed, said, “Very well, I will start his heart for you;” and with a snap of her pearl-tipped fingers she turned the corpse into a frog.

It was a very lively frog, and Erzulie instantly disappeared back whence she came, having satisfied the terms on which Lily conjured her up. If it was not what Lily had imagined, she had only herself to blame for that; but I am afraid she did not take any very important lesson, and only began after a moment to philosophically plan a regimen of torture more suited to amphibians.

Date: 2012-12-01 12:06 pm (UTC)
hedda62: my cat asleep (Default)
From: [personal profile] hedda62
Ooh, I like this! Was just recently glancing at JSAMN and thinking I needed a reread. And they blend quite nicely, once the "if dragons, why not magic?" barrier is down. Also, <3 Tharkay, with his equanimity about someone turning up suddenly through his mirror.

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