Non Fictions




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Reine de Mémoire
2. Le Dragon de Feu


Élisabeth Vonarburg



(Chapter 7, p. 51-63)



Gilles walks with a springy step in the dawn sun, joyously breathing in the mingled smells of the awakening port: copra, tar, cinnamon, camphor wood. He walks along the wharfs, striding over coils of rope, skirting piles of logs, the stacks of crates and bundles of all sorts, containers of rubbish not yet picked up by the port refuse collectors. Three skinny yellow dogs growl and slink away for an instant as he passes, then return to the unidentifiable carcass they were fighting over - an ill-fated monkey? The ship is not very far off now, few hundred feet away. He can see the already familiar silhouette, with the Ehmory flag waving from the foremast, a yellow caravel against a blue background, beside the red and white Danish flag - an alliance of colours that for a long time now he no longer found sacrilegious: for the Christens, all magics are black and not red.
He walks by a group of native sailors sitting or lying nonchalantly on bags of rice. One of them says a phrase to him in a dialect he has trouble recognizing, and the others burst into laughter. The colour of his hair again, no doubt. Then, after a short pause, he hears the hard tone that runs under that laughter, at the same time as he sees with sudden dread two of the men stand up to block his path, their hands on the handles of the krisses that stick out of their belts.
And suddenly Nathan Archer is beside him.
He didn't see or hear him coming. And although the talented one is very close - they were practically elbow-to-elbow - he has no sense of his nearness, the weight of his presence in space.
The two natives freeze with a start of astonishment. For a brief instant, they hesitate, glance quickly at their accomplices, who have stood up too. Then they mumble something inaudible and move away. Out of a corner of his eye, Gilles sees the others sit down.
Archer starts walking, without saying a word. Gilles follows him.
It is nearly seven o'clock in the morning, the sun is up, the shadows are long in the port.
Archer has no shadow.
They come to the Hirondelle, climb the very steep gangplank, and jump onto the deck.
Archer disappears.
At the same time, Gilles sees him coming towards him on the deck, frowning.
"We'll have to get rid of those mages," says the magician, in a voice that has barely changed.
He projected a moving illusion of such intensity, for so long, at that distance, and he's still standing?
Then Gilles recovers a little from his astonishment: "Mages?"
Archer looks at him for instant, one eyebrow arched: "Those men had orders to kill you."
Gilles can only repeat even more idiotically: "Mages?"
"Oh, even a lucid interrogation will no doubt reveal nothing of the scheme. Those men will soon have forgotten everything. And there will be no reason to investigate, right? You are alive."
Gilles stands frozen on the spot. With a little sigh, Archer takes him by the arm. "Let's go see the captain."
He enters the cabin without knocking, without even being asked in. Ehmory seems to be expecting them, leaning with both hands on the big table covered with maps, his eyes staring at them with an expression that is a little hard.
"Let's get all this out of the way before our visitors arrive," he says without preliminaries.
He starts rolling up some of the maps, closes the thick cardboard document case that contains other, puts them all in a big strong-box in the wall of the cabin, between two cabinets, and covers it again with the Islamite-patterned tapestry that was hiding it. But Gilles had time to see: there are numerous rolled-up maps in the top of the box, and other document cases standing in the lower part. He tries to contain his trepidation. Don't they say that Ehmory collects ancient forbidden maps? But he's an ardent traveller. There is no law against him possessing maps of Africa or the western part of the Indies. They could also be old maps of Europe or the Atlandies. With a magician on board, he would hide them far better if they were maps of the Line.
A magician on board.
He turns to Archer: "They'll accuse you..."
"Of using my talent outside my ship?" Then his smile vanishes. "Of course. Those two mages need a lesson."
"Have you had breakfast, Monsieur Garance?" asks Captain Ehmory.
Gilles stammers: "Yes, thank you, Monsieur." That's the least of his worries! The port guard will arrive, with vigil guards and the two pests in their wake, don't they realize... "Have a seat then, Gilles," says Nathan as he sits down himself in the chair near the window.
He follows suit, striving to mimic the calm of the other two men. Who are really very calm. Completely without anxiety. Ehmory even seems slightly amused now. Gilles slowly regains his composure.
"You're not afraid of them," he says finally.
"No," says Nathan.
"And yet you have something to hide."
The two men look at each other.
"You have a twisted mind, my young friend," says Captain Ehmory, but his smile contradicts his words.
"Not enough yet, it would seem," Gilles cannot help mumbling.
Nathan bursts out laughing, but he is not laughing at Gilles at all, nor is Ehmory, and Gilles smiles in turn.
There is a knock at the door - without much violence, very respectful. They must have been very close by, forewarned, to have acted so quickly.
Archer goes to open the door. An officer of the Byzantine guard enters, hat in head, accompanied by two ecclesiastics dressed in blue. Behind him in the passageway, Gilles can see the black and green uniforms of four vigil guards. Domma de Courcelles cannot help glancing triumphantly at him as she walks past. Her husband, as usual following behind, seems more uncertain. A Byzantine magister enters in turn at a dignified pace, looking very stern in his blue-green cassock with its small mantelet. Three mages! Gilles struggles to remain calm: this is to be expected, these are not just civil infractions.
"My dear Captain Iannis, Magister Alexis, to what do we owe this pleasure?" says Ehmory standing up.
The Byzantine magister pushes through to the first row of visitors. "We have been informed, Monsieur, that your magician has again used his talent on the wharfs. We accepted the last time that it was for urgent and charitable motives. But a fine will not suffice this time, because the motive seems to have been purely frivolous."
Gilles bites his lips to keep from reacting. Archer was right: it's a set-up by the mages, and what is more, in collaboration with the Byzantine magister; his attackers will not be probed at all.
"The young Monsieur Garance was being attacked again," says Archer. "I had to intervene."
"Again?" asks Captain Iannis, giving Gilles an inquiring look. "He must be making himself many enemies."
But Domma de Courcelles steps forward and interrupts: "So you were observing him remotely!" she concludes with surly satisfaction.
"Ah, good day to you too, Domma de Courcelles," says Ehmory amiably. "My friend Nathan never left the ship, may I point out."
"Spare us your technicalities! He broke the laws of the trading post, that is absolutely clear."
"Well," says Captain Iannis, a little stiffly, "if it was to prevent a criminal act..."
"The good citizens who informed us saw nothing of the kind, as far as I know!"
From the quick face the official makes, it is easy to guess the response he is suppressing - "good citizens," those thugs in the port?
"It is time to put a stop to this scandalous, disorderly magic!" continues Domma de Courcelles. You forget too frequently that you are in Geminite territory here, Monsieur."
Captain Iannis clears his throat: "And in Byzantine territory. Monsieur Ehmory, we have heard tell moreover of illicit maps that are said to be in your possession," he says in his French, adorned with its pretty rolled r's. The role they are having him play does not really seem to please him.
"Illicit maps? Great god, no!" Ehmory replies, feigning wounded innocence.
"You wouldn't find it at all inconvenient then to show us your portolanos?" Domma de Courcelles retorts immediately with a venomous smile.
"This definitely does not fall under the jurisdiction of the Holy Vigilance," Ehmory remarks, still in an amiable tone of voice. "Do you have a formal order from another authority, Captain Iannis?"
The ecclesiastic immediately goes crimson with rage, fulminating: "Do you have the insolence to..."
But Captain Iannis cuts him short. "Captain Ehmory's question is entirely legitimate. And no, in fact, I did not receive any formal order in this regard."
Gilles suppresses a smile. Whatever had been said to the officer to explain this intervention, it smells of a rivalry between mages. The local constabulary, whatever the locale, prefer not to get involved in this kind of business: the actors slip out of their hands too easily, to end up being interrogated and punished only by the Magisterium.
"You will have one soon enough," replies Domma de Courcelles haughtily. And, turning to her husband: "Gaëtan?"
The man moves his lips silently - he is accessing his talent. Gilles feels a touch of anxiety stirring in his guts. He glances quickly at Ehmory, then at Archer. Neither of them seems worried.
A very peculiar expression comes over the face of Dom de Courcelles: a mixture of astonishment and consternation.
"I... I am very sorry, Captain Iannis, Magister Alexis. It would seem there has been a misunderstanding. I have just been so informed by Monsieur de Carremines."
The French ambassador to Sardopolis? Through the mage network?
"What then, what are you saying, my friend?" barked Domma de Courcelles.
"We must return to the Sainte-Pierre Diocese at once," continues Dom de Courcelles, laying an urgent hand on her companion's arm.
The ecclesiastic's face has the same expression as her husband's earlier. There is no doubt whatsoever that they are silently sharing the contents of the message he received.
"But... and what about him?" she says finally, turning and pointing at Gilles. He stiffens. "Look at him! He has dyed his hair, you can see it, his deception is obvious! He has entered forbidden territory."
Instead of saying, "How do you know?" as Gilles bites his lip to keep himself from asking the question, Ehmory opens his hands in a conciliatory gesture. "Of course not. He's young. He wanted to impress me with his skill by passing himself off as a native. As you know, it is a talent I prize greatly among the members of my crew..." Did he use the term "talent" deliberately? The ecclesiastic's face tensed. "It often helps us in our contacts with the savage populations who have never seen Europeans."
Both mages are visibly straining to contain themselves. Will they, in desperation, finally mention the avers bracelet, and the incident three days ago? Gilles chuckles to himself. And how would they, once again, explain knowing about it? The rule for all Geminite clergy is not to probe anyone unless it has been reasonably established that there is the possibility of guilt. In this case, however, there is no concrete evidence, and if the mages know too much about his comings and goings, won't that seem suspicious to the Byzantine officer? And how would they respond, in fact, if the man expressed surprise about their unwarranted interest in him? They certainly wouldn't want to answer that question if they were asked.
He looks at the two mages with ironic scorn, while keeping his face expressionless. Ambitious, zealous subordinates, who want to put themselves in good stead with the Holy Vigilance by ridding the Magisterium of an embarrassing witness, while using him to destroy Archer, an abomination in their eyes. Minds that are stupid in their arrogance, above all, incapable of believing that a Christen like Ehmory and a wild talent - since that is how they also must see Archer - could stand up to them.
"Gaëtan!" exclaims Domma de Courcelles, rather flushed, turning to her companion to ask him to intervene in turn.
"We must withdraw," says her husband, taking her by the arm again. And, to no one in particular: "We are expected for a matter of the highest importance."
Passing in front of Archer, Domma de Courcelles hisses at him through her teeth, furiously: "We have not finished with you, infidel!"
"I believe you are, Madame," Archer murmurs with a slight bow.
"My dear Iannis," says Ehmory, "will you come visit us to try my new Madeira?"
The officer gives him a curious but rather amused look. "Later today, Monsieur Ehmory, with pleasure, I'm sure."
"Thank you, Monsieur, but I don't drink. Good day to you," replies the Byzantine mage stiffly.
The door closes, and boot steps move away in the passageway.
"Sit down, then, my young friend," says Ehmory, once they are gone. He goes and takes a bottle and glasses from the cabinet, while Nathan drops into one of the chairs with a broad smile.
"So early in the morning, Monsieur?" asks Gilles, trying to make light, but his head is spinning.
"Any time is a good time to celebrate a victory properly. Your problems, and ours, are now resolved."
"I have the impression that you didn't really have any," mutters Gilles.
"A pest is a pest. You have to get rid of them some time, for the sake of your health." He raises his glass: "And so, to our health."
Gilles does the same, still completely stunned. Monsieur de Carremines. And the bishop, Monsieur de Montluc. Who called back the nasty runts to the kennel. The legate of the French hierarchs in Sainte-Pierre, in cahoots with the French ambassador to Sardopolis. Captain Ehmory has friends in high places. Captain Ehmory is very well protected.
Captain Ehmory, a Catholic Christen Hutlander, with an English magician at his side, works for the Monarchy and Hierarchy of France.
He slowly savours a second sip of his port - the first had gone down a little too fast - hesitates an instant, then ventures: "Would they have found illicit maps?"
"So you believe the gossip they've been spreading about me?" asks Ehmory, feigning offence.
"I believe it more, Monsieur, since the intervention of Monsieur de Carremines."
Ehmory bursts into laughter. "That's good, my boy, you're learning to be more devious! Come and look at my maps then, and we'll see what you think of them."
He takes the maps again from the strongbox in the wall, unrolls and unfolds them one after the other. Very ancient, most of them, and they would not earn him a death sentence, like possession of copies of the official maps of the Line. But it would mean certain ruin, and long years in prison.
"So these are the maps you use, Monsieur?" asks Gilles with astonishment. "Are the royal maps no longer accurate?"
"Ach! I've seen them, my boy," says the captain offhandedly, and astounding him more - but upon reflection, he should not have been surprised: the French Monarchy obviously must have shown Ehmory its own maps, like their wind and tide tables. "They show nothing more than mine. In fact, they often show less. Look at them closely, these three maps here. Do you see what they have in common?"
One has columns of Chinese ideograms, another lines of almost illegible Indian characters, and the third, the most recent judging by the still fresh colour of the illuminations, had great many comments written in every direction, in graceful Arab letters. But while he can now get by in all these languages, he does not read them. In any case, they show the east coast of India, more or less identical on all three, with the big tear of Sirilanka at its tip and, to the east, the slightly curving coast of the huge Gulf of China. Far to the south, the big islands of the Malay Archipelago, spread out in a fan: Malacca, Sumatra, Java, Borneo... Even farther to the east, two of the maps indicate only the contour of a continent that must be China, oriented north-south in line with the Malay Archipelago. But the third - the Chinese map - shows instead another archipelago; Gilles's geographical knowledge does not extend that far and he is not able to determine how fanciful it is.
He would love, however, not to disappoint Ehmory. The relief of the coast, along the Gulf of China, differs quite a lot from one map to the next, even though in all three it continues without interruption from Calcutta to Guangzhou. A portion of the contours seems quite similar, however, about the middle of the gulf, where it curves the most.
He examines the three maps again, paying attention to the secondary details, a little worried about finding nothing, even though Ehmory does not seem to be growing impatient. These are really ancient maps, on which mythical creatures half-emerging from the waters are represented here and there by undulations or lines of small crests, or else rearing up, rampant, on the mountains or in the deserts, each in the characteristic style of the cartographer's country: mermaids, roc birds, leviathans, krakens with raised tentacles, and even dragons, on the Chinese map!
"Well," says Gilles, carefully pointing to show them on the parchment - but he has to say something, in the end - "there is a line of dragons, there."
Ehmory gives him a little pat on the shoulder: "Very good! Follow them."
He does so, following with his index finger the sinuous bodies and ferocious snouts pointing at painted waves, from the north-east corner of the island of Malacca to some distance from Guangzhou. They are placed along a kind of irregular, elongated ellipse, inside which there are none. No wave symbol either. A blue space, empty.
Ehmory takes the Arab map and places it next to the Chinese map. "Follow the mermaids."
The layout of these illuminations follows a curve that is almost identical. Intrigued, he picks up the Indian map himself. Krakens and leviathans, this time. He could not swear, however, that the spacing between the drawings or their placement in relationship to each other is the same. In fact, quick glances back and forth show him that this is not the case. But the general curve is similar.
And it seems to trace, indirectly, the approximate contour of a huge bulge of land that divides the Gulf of China in two, right down the middle..
He taps his finger on the empty space, more confident: "Would that be what the royal maps do not show?"
Ehmory tilts his head with a satisfied look and leans back in his chair, turning his glass between his fingers: "One day, you see," he said in a voice that is growing little by little more pensive, "I met a sailor who drew me a map, with bad wine, on a tavern table. The island of Malacca on it was actually a peninsula. It always seemed very strange to me that the Great Circle, as the Line is also called, was not really a circle at all, and that no one sails all the way down the gulf of China, which would be shorter, safer and certainly less costly than the current route."
Gilles again examines the Chinese map to give himself more time to think. In fact, if Malacca were a peninsula, stretching out as it does from north to south, it would impede trade by sea and would almost justify in itself the existing route of the Line. But this is not the case.
"The Land of Dragons," he murmurs, trying to erase all incredulity from his voice. He glances quickly at Ehmory. The captain watches him, his eyes shining.
Gilles studies the maps, without knowing whether he is appalled or thrilled. The real secret of the famous Captain Ehmory is not even that he sails in the pay of the Kingdom of France. His secret is that he really believes in the existence of the Land of Dragons. The land of the legends of the Line, the forbidden land, the land that does not exist on the maps. Its beautiful, ferocious female magicians who defend the surrounding waters, its terrifying magic creatures, but above all its treasures that have been accumulated for centuries, cities paved with gold, idols encrusted with precious gems. Legends, certainly. And yet the treasures of the Incas were legends, too, until the Portuguese mages travelling with Baptiste Felizarro arrived to confound their wizards and win their respect and their friendship.
But what does making one's fortune matter? Gilles knows, he feels it, that he has to sail with Ehmory. That is his destiny. In the two years since he's been in Sirilanka, his instincts have never been wrong - his only setbacks occurred when he refused to follow them. If he said now "This country is only a fantasy," he would miss his chance.
He straightens up: "How, and above all why, would such a country, with such coasts, want to and be able to keep all its neighbours away, and for so long?"
"Because of its riches, and thanks to its magic," replies Archer from the chair from which he has not moved. "And human peculiarities must not be considered insignificant. When you have travelled as much as the captain and I, Gilles, you will understand better..."

© 2005 Éditions Alire & Élisabeth Vonarburg

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