Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik

  “I wonder he should have come,” Wilberforce said: it was Nelson himself, who had entered the clearing in the company of several friends, some of them naval officers of Laurence’s acquaintance, and was presently paying his respects to Lord Allendale. “Of course we did not omit an invitation, but I had no real expectation; perhaps because it was sent in your name. Forgive me, I will take myself off awhile; I am happy enough to have him come and lend his reflected glow to our party, but he has said too much in public for me to converse easily with him.”

  Laurence was better pleased, for his own part, to find Nelson not offended in the least at whatever whispers and comparisons had been put about between them; that gentleman was rather as amiable as anyone could wish, offering his good hand. “William Laurence; you have gone a long way since we last met. I think we were at dinner together on the Vanguard in ninety-eight, before Aboukir Bay: how very long ago, and how short a time it seems!”

  “Indeed, sir; and I am honored your Grace should remember,” Laurence said, and at his request rather anxiously took him back to be presented to Temeraire, adding, when Temeraire’s ruff ominously unfurled at the name, “I hope you will make his Grace most welcome, my dear; it is very kind of him to come and be our guest.”

  Temeraire, never very tactful, was unfortunately not to be warned by so subtle a hint, and rather coldly asked, “What has happened to your medals? They are all quite misshapen.”

  This, he certainly meant as a species of insult; however Nelson, who famously preferred only to win more glory, than to speak of what he already had gained, could not have been better pleased at the excuse to discuss the battle, told over so thoroughly by the public before ever he had risen from his injuries, with an audience for once innocent of the details. “Why, a rascal of a Spanish fire-breather gave us a little trouble, at Trafalgar, and they were caught in the flame,” he said, taking one of the ample number of vacant chairs at the table nearby, and arranging bread rolls for the ships.

  Temeraire, growing interested despite himself, leaned in closely to observe their maneuvers on the cloth. Nelson did not flinch back in the least, though the onlookers who had gathered to observe took nearly all of them several steps back. He described the Spanish dragon’s passes with a fork and much lurid detail, and further rescued his character, in Temeraire’s eyes, by concluding, “And very sorry I am that we did not have you there: I am sure you should have had no trouble in running the creature off.”

  “Well, I am sure, too,” Temeraire said candidly, and peered at the medals again with more admiration. “But would the Admiralty not give you fresh ones? That is not very handsome of them.”

  “Why, I consider these a better badge of honor, dear creature, and I have not applied for replacement,” Nelson said. “Now, Laurence, do I recall correctly; can I possibly have read a report in the Gazette that this very dragon of yours lately sank a French ship, called the Valérie, I believe, and in a single pass?”

  “Yes, sir; I believe Captain Riley of the Allegiance sent in his report, last year,” Laurence said uneasily; that report had rather understated the incident, and while he was proud of Temeraire’s ability, it was not the sort of thing he thought civilian guests would find reassuring; still less so should any of them learn that the French, too, now had their own Celestial, and that the same dreadful power might be turned against their own shipping.

  “Astonishing; quite prodigious,” Nelson said. “What was she, a sloop-of-war?”

  “A frigate, sir,” Laurence answered, even more reluctantly. “—forty-eight guns.”

  There was a pause. “I cannot be sorry, although it was hard on the poor sailors,” Temeraire said, into the silence, “but it was not very noble of them, stealing upon us during the night, when their dragon could see in the dark and I could not.”

  “Certainly,” Nelson said, over a certain murmur from the assembled company; he, having recovered from his surprise, had rather a quick martial gleam in his eye, “certainly; I congratulate you. I think I must have some conversation with the Admiralty, Captain, on your present station; you are on coastline duty at present, am I not correct? A waste; an unconscionable waste; you may be sure they will hear from me on the subject. Do you suppose he could manage as much on a ship-of-the-line?”

  Laurence could not explain the impossibility of a change in their assignment without revealing the secret; so he answered a little vaguely, with gratitude for his Grace’s interest.

  “Very clever,” Lord Allendale said grimly, in conference with them and Wilberforce, when Nelson had gone away again, nodding his farewells in the most affable manner to all who sought his attention. “I suppose we must consider it a badge of success that he should prefer to send you away.”

  “Sir, I believe you are mistaken; I cannot allow his motives on this matter to be other than sincere, in wishing the best use made of Temeraire’s abilities,” Laurence said stiffly.

  “It is very boring, always going up and down the coast,” Temeraire put in, “and I should much rather have some more interesting work, like fighting fire-breathers, if we were not needed where we are; but I suppose we must do our duty,” he finished, not a trifle wistfully, and turned his attention back to the other guests, who were all the more eager to speak with him now in imitation of Nelson’s example: the party most assuredly a success.

  “LAURENCE, MAY WE fly over the quarantine-grounds, as we go, and see how comes the pavilion?” Temeraire asked, the next morning, as they made ready for the flight back to Dover.

  “It will not be very far advanced,” Laurence said; Temeraire’s ulterior motive, to look into the quarantine-grounds to see Maximus and Lily, was tolerably transparent: there had been no reply to the letters which Laurence had sent, either to them or to their captains, and Temeraire had begun to inquire after them with increasing impatience. Laurence feared Temeraire’s likely reaction to seeing them so reduced by illness as he supposed them to be, but could think of no very good reason with which to divert him.

  “But I should like to see it in all its stages,” Temeraire said, “and if they have made any mistakes, we ought to correct it early, surely,” he finished triumphantly, with the air of having hit upon an unanswerable justification.

  “Is there any reason to fear infection in the air?” Laurence asked Dorset quietly, aside. “Will there be a danger to flying over the grounds?”

  “No, so long as he keeps a good distance from any of the sick beasts. It is certainly the phlegmatic humors which carry the infection. So long as he does not put himself directly in the way of a sneeze or a cough, I cannot think the danger substantial, not aloft,” Dorset said absently, without much consideration to the question, which did not fill Laurence with great confidence.

  But he settled for extracting a promise that Temeraire should stay well aloft, where perhaps he might not see the worst of the ravages which had been inflicted on his friends, nor approach any dragon in the air.

  “Of course I promise,” Temeraire said, adding, unconvincingly, “I only want to see the pavilion, after all; it is nothing to me if we see any other dragons.”

  “You must be sure, my dear, or Mr. Dorset will not countenance our visit; we must not disturb the sick dragons, who require their rest,” Laurence said, resorting to stratagem, which at last won Temeraire’s sighs and agreement.

  Laurence did not truly expect to see any dragons aloft; the ill beasts only rarely left the ground anymore, for the brief showy patrols which Jane continued to use to keep up their illusion of strength for the French. The day was cloudy and drear, and as they flew towards the coast, they met a thin misting of rain blowing in from the Channel; the exertion surely would not be asked of the sick dragons.

  The quarantine-grounds were inland of Dover itself, the borders marked off by smoking torches and large red flags, planted into the ground: low deserted rolling meadows, the dragons scattered about with little cover even from the wind, which snapped all the flags out crisply and made them all huddle down s
mall to escape. But as Temeraire drew near the proscribed territory, Laurence saw three specks, increasing rapidly into three dragons: aloft, and flying energetically, two on the heels of a much smaller third.

  Temeraire said, “Laurence, that is Auctoritas and Caelifera, from Dover, I am sure of it, but I do not know that other little dragon at all; I have never seen one of that kind.”

  “Oh, Hell, that is a Plein-Vite,” Ferris said, after a single borrowed look through Laurence’s glass. The three dragons were directly over the quarantine-grounds, and the great miserable hulks of other sick beasts were plainly visible for the French dragon to see, even through the mist, in all their bloodstained dirt. And already the two dragons who had attempted to halt her were falling off the pace and drooping earthwards, exhausted, as the tiny French dragon darted and looped and evaded, beating her wings mightily, and flung herself past the borders of the grounds, heading towards the Channel as quick as ever she could go.

  “After her, Temeraire,” Laurence said, and they leapt into pursuit, Temeraire’s enormous wings beating once to every five of hers, but eating up the yards with every stroke.

  “They haven’t much endurance, they’re close-couriers only, for all they’re fast as bloody lightning; they must have brought her nearly up to the coast by boat, at night, to save her strength for the flight back,” Ferris said, shouting over the knife-cut wind. Laurence only nodded, to save his voice: Bonaparte had likely been hoping to slip so small a messenger-beast through where the larger had not been able to manage.

  He raised the speaking-trumpet and bellowed, “Rendezvous,” to no effect. The flare they fired off for emphasis, launched ahead of the little dragon’s nose, was a signal less easily missed or misinterpreted, but there was no slackening in the furious pace. The Plein-Vite had only a small pilot, a young boy scarcely much older than Roland or Dyer, whose pale and frightened face Laurence could plainly see in his glass as the boy looked back to see the vast black-winged pursuit ready to engulf him. He turned back to speak encouragement to his beast, casting off bits of harness and buckle as she flew: the boy even kicked off his shoes, and threw overboard his belt with its sword and pistol, flashing in the sunlight as they turned end-over-end, surely prized treasures; and heartened by her rider’s example, with an effort the little dragon began to speed her strokes and pull away, her advantage in speed and small breadth before the wind telling.

  “We must bring her down,” Laurence said grimly, lowering his glass; he had seen what effect the divine wind had on enemy dragons of fighting-weight, and on soldiers under arms: what damage it might wreak, upon so small and helpless a target, he neither liked to think nor wished to witness, but their duty was plain. “Temeraire, you must stop them; we cannot let them slip away.”

  “Laurence, she is so very little,” Temeraire objected unhappily, turning his head only just enough to be heard; he was still pressing on after her, with all the will in the world, but she would not be caught.

  “We cannot try to board her,” Laurence answered, “she is too small and too quick; it would be a death-sentence to make any man attempt that leap. If she will not surrender, she must be brought down. She is pulling away; it must be now.”

  Temeraire shuddered, then with decision drew breath and roared out: but over the French dragon, not directly at her. She gave a startled shrill cry of alarum, backwinging as if she was trying to reverse her course, her pace dropping off to nothing for a moment. With a convulsive gathered lunge, Temeraire was above her and folding his wings, bearing her bodily down towards the earth below: soft pale yellow sand, heaped in rolling dunes, and the little French dragon went tumbling pell-mell as they plowed into the dirt behind her, oceanic waves of dust billowing up in a cloud around them.

  They slid across the ground some hundred yards, Laurence blind and trying to shield his mouth from the flying sand, hearing Temeraire hissing in displeasure and the French dragon squalling. Then “Hah!” Temeraire said triumphantly, “je vous ai attrapé il ne faut pas pleurer; oh, I beg your pardon, I am very sorry,” and Laurence wiped the grit from his face and nostrils, coughing violently, and clearing his stinging vision found himself looking almost directly into the alarming fiery orange of a Longwing’s slit-pupiled eye.

  Excidium turned his head to sneeze, acid droplets spraying involuntarily with the gesture, smoking briefly as the sand absorbed them. Laurence gazed in horror as the great head swung wearily back and Excidium said, in a harsh and rasping voice, “What have you done? You ought not have come here,” while the sand-cloud settled to show him one among a half-a-dozen Longwings, Lily raising her head out of her shielding wing beside him, all of them huddled close in the sand-pit that was their place of quarantine.

  Chapter 5

  THEY HAD NO companion in their isolated quarantine-meadow but little Sauvignon, the French courier-beast, who had not even the solace of her captain’s presence. He, poor child, had been marched away in irons against her good behavior, while she made piteous cries under the restraint of Temeraire’s reluctant but irresistible hold upon her back, his great claw nearly pinning her to the ground entirely.

  She huddled upon herself after he was gone, and was only gradually persuaded by Temeraire to eat a little, and then to talk. “Voici un joli cochon,” Temeraire said, nudging over one of the spit-roasted hogs which Gong Su had prepared for him, lacquered in dark orange sauce. “Votre capitaine's’inquiétera's’il apprend que vous ne mangez pas, vraiment.”

  She took a few bites, shortly proceeding to greater enthusiasm once Temeraire had explained to her that the recipe was à la Chinois: her naïve remark that she was eating “comme la Reine Blanche” and a little more conversation confirmed to Laurence that Lung Tien Lien, their bitter enemy, was now securely established in Paris, and deep in Napoleon’s councils. The little courier, full of hero-worship for the other Celestial, was not to be led into exposing any secret plans, if she knew of any, but Laurence needed no revelations to tell him that Lien’s voice was sure to be loud for invasion, if Napoleon required any additional persuasion, and that she would strive to keep his attention firmly fixed upon Britain and no other part of the world.

  “She says Napoleon is having the streets widened, so Lien may walk through all the city,” Temeraire said, disgruntled, “and he has already built her a pavilion beside his palace. It does not seem fair that we have such difficulties here, when she has everything her own way.”

  Laurence answered only dully; he cared very little anymore for such larger affairs, when he was to watch Temeraire die as Victoriatus had died, reduced to that hideous bloody wreckage; a devastation far more complete than any Lien might have engineered from the deepest wells of malice. “You were with them only a few moments; let us hope,” Jane had said, but no more than that, and in her lack of encouragement Laurence saw Temeraire’s death-warrant signed and sealed. All the sand-pit was surely thick with the contagion; the Longwings had been penned up there for the better part of a year, the effluvia buried in the sand along with their poisonous acid.

  He understood, belatedly, why he had seen none of his former colleagues, why Berkley and Harcourt had not answered his letters. Granby came to visit him, once: they could neither of them manage more than half-a-dozen words, painfully stilted; Granby consciously avoiding the subject of his own healthy Iskierka, and Laurence not wishing in the least to speak of Temeraire’s chances, especially not where Temeraire himself might hear, and learn to share his own despair. At present Temeraire had no concern for himself, secure in the confidence of his own strength, a comfort which Laurence had no desire to take from him before the inevitable course of the disease should manage the job.

  “Je ne me sens pas bien,” Sauvignon said, on the morning of the fourth day, waking herself and them with a violent burst of sneezing; she was taken away to join the other sick beasts, leaving them to wait alone for the first herald of disease.

  Jane had come to see him daily, with encouraging words as long as he wished to hear them,
and brandy for when he could no longer; but she reluctantly said, coming to see him on the unhappy day, “I am damned sorry to speak of this so bluntly, Laurence, but you must forgive me. Would Temeraire have begun to think of breeding yet, do you know?”

  “Breeding,” Laurence said bitterly, and looked away; it was natural, of course, that they should wish to preserve the bloodline of the rarest of all breeds, acquired with such difficulty, and now also in the possession of their enemy; yet to him it could be only a desire to replace what should be irreplaceable.

  “I know,” she said gently, “but we must expect it to come on him any day now, and mostly they are disinclined once they get sick; and who can blame them.”

  Her courage reproached him; she suffered as much herself with no outward show, and he could not yield to his own feelings before her. In any case there was no shading of the truth to be had; he could not lie, and was forced to confess that Temeraire had “grown very fond of a female Imperial, in the retinue of the Emperor, while we were in Peking.”

  “Well, I am glad to hear it: I must ask if he would oblige us with a mating, to begin as soon as tonight, now he has been without question exposed,” Jane said. “Felicita is not very poorly, and informed her captain two days ago that she thinks she has another egg in her; she has already given us two, good creature, before she fell sick. She is only a Yellow Reaper, a middle-weight; it is not the sort of cross any breeder of sense would choose to make, but I think any Celestial blood must be better than none, and we have few enough who are in any state to bear.”

  “But I have never seen her in my life,” Temeraire said puzzledly, when the question was put to him. “Why should I wish to mate with her?”

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