Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik

  “It is akin to an arranged marriage of state, I suppose,” Laurence said, uncertain how to answer; it seemed to him belatedly a coarse sort of proposal, as though Temeraire were a prize stallion to be set on to a mare, neither of their preferences consulted, and not even a prior meeting. “You need do nothing you do not like,” he added abruptly; he would not see this forced on Temeraire, in the least, any more than he should have lent himself to such an enterprise.

  “Well, it is not as though I expect I would mind,” Temeraire said, “if she would like it so very much, and I am rather bored only sitting about all day,” he added, with rather less modesty than candor, “only I do not understand at all why she should.”

  Jane laughed, when Laurence had brought her this answer, and went out to the clearing and explained, “She would like to have an egg from you, Temeraire.”

  “Oh.” Temeraire immediately puffed out his chest deeply in gratification, his ruff coming up, and with a gracious air bowed his head. “Then certainly I will oblige her,” he declared, and as soon as Jane had gone demanded that he be washed and his Chinese talon-sheaths, stored away as impractical for regular use, be brought out and put on him.

  “She is so damned happy to be of use, I could weep,” said Felicita’s captain Brodin, a dark-haired Welshman not many years older than Laurence, with a craggy face which looked made for the grim and brooding lines into which it had presently settled. They had left the two dragons outside in Felicita’s clearing to arrange the matter to their own liking, which by the sound they were doing with great enthusiasm, despite the difficulties which ought to have been inherent in managing relations between two dragons of such disparate size. “And I know I have nothing to complain of,” he added bitterly, “she does better than nine-tenths of the Corps, and the surgeons think she will last ten years, at this rate of progress.”

  He poured out an ample measure of wine, and left the bottle on the table between them, with a second and third waiting. They did not speak much, but sat drinking together into the night, drooping gradually lower over their cups until the dragons fell quiet, and the shuddering aspen trees went still. Laurence was not quite sleeping, but he could not think of moving or even to lift his head, weighted with a thick smothering stupor like a blanket; all the world and time dulled away.

  Brodin stirred him awake in his chair in the small hours of the morning. “We will see you again tonight?” he asked tiredly, as Laurence stood and bent back his shoulders to crack the angry muscles loose.

  “Best so, as I understand it,” Laurence said, looking at his hands in vague surprise: they trembled.

  He went out to collect Temeraire, whose profoundly smug and indecorous satisfaction might have put him to the blush, were he disposed to be in any way critical of what pleasures Temeraire might enjoy under the present circumstances. “She has already had two, Laurence,” Temeraire said, laying himself back down to sleep in his own clearing, drowsy but jubilant, “and she is quite sure she will have another; she said she could not tell at all that it was the first time I had sired.”

  “But is it?” Laurence asked, feeling slow and stupid, “Did not you and Mei…?” Belatedly the nature of the question stopped him.

  “That had nothing to do with eggs,” Temeraire said dismissively, “it is quite different,” and coiling his tail neatly around himself went to sleep, leaving Laurence all the more confused, as he could not dream of prying further.

  They repeated the visit the following evening. Laurence looked at the bottle and did not take it up again, but with an effort engaged Brodin upon other things: the customs of the Chinese and the Turks, and their sea-journey to China; the campaign in Prussia and the great battle of Jena, which he could re-create in considerable detail, having observed the whole cataclysm from Temeraire’s back.

  This was not, perhaps, the best means for relieving anxiety; when he had laid out all that whirling offensive, and the solid massed ranks of the Prussian army, in the form of walnut shells, were swept clean from the table, he and Brodin sat back and looked at one another, and then Brodin stood restlessly up and paced his small cabin. “I would as soon he came across while some of us still can fight, if only I could give more than ninepence for our chances if he did.”

  It was a dreadful thing to hope for an invasion, with unspoken the suggestion of a desire to be killed in one: perilously close, Laurence felt uneasily, to mortal sin, an extreme of selfishness even if it did not mean that England would be laid bare after, and he was troubled to find a sympathetic instinct in himself. “We must not speak so. They do not fear their own deaths, and God forbid that we should teach them to do so, or show less courage than they themselves do.”

  “Do you think they do not learn fear by the end?” Brodin laughed unpleasantly and short. “Obversaria scarcely knew Lenton, by the end, and he took her out of the shell with his own hands. She could only cry for water, and for rest, and he could give her none. You may think me a heathen dog if you like: I would thank God or Bonaparte or the black Devil himself for giving her a clean death in battle.”

  He poured the bottle, and when he was finished Laurence reached for it across the table.

  “The breeders prefer two weeks,” Jane said, “but we will be glad for as long as he feels himself up to the task,” so Laurence dragged himself from his bed the next day, his sleep gone all to pieces, taken half in wine at Brodin’s table and half during the early hours of the morning, and crept through his day, supervising the useless harness-work and lessons for Emily and Dyer, until it was time to go again. They repeated the engagement twice more, and then on the fifth day, while he sat lumpen and considering the chessboard dully, Brodin raised his head and said to Laurence abruptly, “Has he not yet begun to cough?”

  “PERHAPS MY THROAT is a little sore,” Temeraire said judiciously. Laurence was sitting, his head bent nearly to his knees, scarcely able to support the weight of hope resting so unexpectedly upon his shoulders, while Keynes and Dorset clambered over Temeraire like monkeys: they had listened to his lungs with a great paper cone placed against the chest, to which they put their ears, and stuck their heads in his jaws to examine his tongue, which remained a healthy and unspotted red.

  “We must cup him, I think,” Keynes said at last, turning to his medical satchel.

  “But I am perfectly well,” Temeraire objected, sidling away from the approach of the wicked curved blade of the catling. “It does not seem to me that one ought to be forced to take medicine when one is not sick; anyone would think you had no other work to do,” he said, aggrieved, and the operation was only achieved by persuading him of the noble service which it should be, to the sick dragons.

  It yet required a dozen attempts: he kept withdrawing his leg at the last moment, until Laurence convinced him not to look, but to keep his eyes turned in quite the opposite direction until the ready basin held by Dorset was filled, and Keynes said, “There,” and clapped the cautery, waiting ready in the fire, to the nick at once.

  They would have carried the steaming bowlful of dark blood away without another word, if Laurence had not chased after them to demand their verdict: “No, of course he is not sick, and does not mean to be, so far as I can tell,” Keynes said. “I will say no more at present; we have work to do,” and went away, leaving Laurence almost ill himself with reaction; he felt a man who had stepped out of the shadow of the gallows, two weeks of anxious dread giving way quite suddenly to this almost shattering relief. It was very difficult not to yield to the force of his emotions, with Temeraire saying, “It is not very nice to be cut open, and I do not see what good it will do at all,” nosing experimentally at the tiny seared-shut wound, and then nudging him in alarum. “Laurence? Laurence, pray do not worry; it does not hurt so much, and look, it has already stopped bleeding.”

  JANE WAS WRITING papers before Keynes had half made her his report, her face lit with energy and purpose, the grey shroud of sorrow and weariness fully visible only now with its removal.

“Let us not have any rioting, if you please,” Keynes said almost angrily. His hands were still gory with blood crusted under the fingernails; he had come straight from his work, in making comparisons of the samples of blood beneath his microscope. “There is no justification for it. It may very well be merely a difference in physiognomy, or an individual trait. I have said only there is the merest possibility, worthy of a trial—worthy of a small trial, with no expectations—” His protests were useless: she did not pause for a moment. He looked as though he would have liked to snatch away her pen.

  “Nonsense; a little riot is just what we need,” Jane said, without even looking up, “and you will write the most damned encouraging report ever seen, if you please; you will give no excuses to the Admiralty.”

  “I am not speaking to the Admiralty at present,” Keynes said, “and I do not care to give unfounded hopes. In all likelihood, he has never had the disease—it is some natural resistance, unique to his breed; and the cold which he suffered last year merely coincidence.”

  The hope was indeed a very tenuous one. Temeraire had been ill en route to China, briefly, the sickness settling itself out of hand after little more than a week in Capetown, and so dismissed at the time and afterwards as a mere trifling cold. Only his present resistance to the disease had given Keynes the suspicion that the illnesses might perhaps have been one and the same. But even if he were not mistaken, there might be no cure; if there were a cure, it might not be easily found; if it were found, still it might not be brought back in time to save many of the sick.

  “And it is by no means the least likely possibility,” Keynes added peevishly, “that there may be no curative agent whatsoever; many a consumptive has found a temporary relief in warmer climes.”

  “Whether the climate or the waters or the food, I do not care two pins; if I must ship every dragon in England to Africa by boat to take the cure, you may be sure I will do it,” Jane said. “I am almost as glad to find some cause to lift our spirits again as for the chance of a cure, and you will do nothing to depress them again,” Little hope riches enough to those who until lately had none, and worth pursuing with every means at hand. “Laurence, you and Temeraire must go, though I hate to give you up again,” she added, handing him his orders, hastily written and scarcely legible, “but we must rely on him to remember best whatever might have suited his taste, and be the foundation of the cure. The ferals come along as well as could be hoped, thank Heavens, and with this latest spy captured, perhaps we will be lucky, and Bonaparte will not be in such a hurry to send good dragons after bad.

  “And I am sending along all your formation,” she continued. “They are in urgent need, having been among the first to take sick; if you bring them back well, which God willing, you can hold the Channel while we treat the others.”

  “Then I may see Maximus and Lily again, now,” Temeraire said jubilantly, and would not wait, but insisted that they go at once: they had scarcely set down outside the barren clearing where Maximus slept, before Berkley came striding out to them and seizing Laurence by the arms nearly shook him, saying ferociously, “For God’s sake, say it is true, and not some damned fairy-tale,” and he turned aside and covered his face when Laurence gave his assent.

  Laurence pretended not to see. “Temeraire, I believe your harness is loose, there over the left flank, will you look at it?” he said firmly, when Temeraire would have kept peering at Berkley’s bowed shoulders.

  “But Mr. Fellowes was working on it only last week,” Temeraire said, diverted, nosing over it experimentally. He delicately took up a bit of the harness between his teeth and tugged on it. “No, it lies perfectly well; it does not feel the least bit loose at all.”

  “Here, let’s have a look at you,” Berkley interrupted brusquely, having mastered himself. “A good twelve feet more since you sailed away to China, no? And you look well, Laurence; I expected to see you ragged as a tinker.”

  “You would certainly have found me so, when we had first returned,” Laurence answered, gripping his hand. He could not return any compliment; Berkley had put off some six stone of weight, at first glance, and it did not suit him; his jowls hung loose from his cheeks.

  Maximus looked still more dreadfully altered, the great scaly red-and-gold hide sagging in folds around the base of the neck, and forward of his chest with the massive fretwork of his spine and shoulders holding it up like tent-poles, and what Laurence supposed to be the air-sacs swollen and bulging from his wasted sides. His eyes were slitted nearly shut, and a thin raspy noise of breathing issued from his cracked-open jaws, a trail of drool puddling beneath them; the nostrils were caked over with dried flaking effluvia.

  “He will wake up in a bit, and be glad to see you both,” Berkley said gruffly, “but I don’t like to wake him when he can get any rest. The blasted cold will not let him sleep properly, and he don’t eat a quarter of what he should.”

  Temeraire, having followed them into the clearing, made no sound, but crouched himself down, his neck curved back upon itself like a wary snake, and sat there utterly still, his wide unblinking gaze fixed on Maximus, who slept on, rasping, rasping. Laurence and Berkley conversed in low voices, discussing the sea-voyage. “Less than three months to the Cape,” Laurence said, “to judge by our last voyage; and we had some fighting off the Channel to see us off, which did not speed matters.”

  “However long, better on a ship to some purpose than lying about like this, if we all drown at it,” Berkley said. “We will be packed by morning, and the lummox will eat properly for once if I have to march the cows down his gullet.”

  “Are we going somewhere?” Maximus said sleepily, in a voice much thickened, and turned his head aside to cough low and deep, several times, and spit into a small leaf-covered pit dug for the purpose. He rubbed each of his eyes against his foreleg, in turn, to clear away the mucus, and then seeing Temeraire slowly brightened, his head rising. “You are back; was China very interesting?” he asked.

  “It was, oh, it was, but,” Temeraire burst out, “I am sorry I was not at home, while all of you were sick; I am so very sorry,” and hung his head, miserably.

  “Why it is only a cold,” Maximus said, only to be interrupted by another bout of coughing, after which he added regardless, “I will be perfectly hearty soon, I am sure; only I am tired.” He closed his eyes almost directly he had said this, and fell again into a light stupor.

  “They have the worst of it,” Berkley said heavily, seeing Laurence away; Temeraire had crept very quietly out of the clearing again, so they might go aloft without disturbing Maximus. “All the Regal Coppers. It is the damned weight; they do not eat, so they cannot keep up their muscle, and then one day they cannot breathe. Four lost already, and Laetificat will not see summer, unless we find your cure.” He did not say that Maximus would follow soon after, if not precede her; he did not need to.

  “We shall find it,” Temeraire said fiercely, “we shall, we shall, we shall.”

  “I HOPE TO find you well, and your charge, when we return,” Laurence said, shaking Granby’s hand; behind him a great bustle and commotion were under way as the crew made their final preparations: they would depart tomorrow on the evening tide, the wind permitting, and needed to be well aboard by morning, with so many dragons and their crews to be stowed. Emily and Dyer were busily folding his clothing into his battered old sea-chest, which had only just survived their most recent voyage, and Ferris was saying sharply, “Don’t think I do not see you with that bottle, Mr. Allen; you may pour it out directly, do you hear?”

  He had a great many new men aboard, replacements for the unhappy number of his crew who had been lost in their year’s absence. Jane had sent them all on trial, for his approval, but in the torment and anxiety of the past two weeks, and the heavy work of those before, he had grown only indifferently acquainted with them; now suddenly there was no more time, and he must make do with whomever had been given him. He was not a little sorry to be making his farewells to a man whose cha
racter he knew and understood, and upon whom he would have been happy to rely.

  “I expect you will find us all to pieces,” Granby said, “with half of England on fire, and Arkady and his lot celebrating in the ruins, roasting cows; it will be wonderful otherwise.”

  “Tell Arkady from me that they are all to mind properly,” Temeraire said, craning his head over carefully, so as not to dislodge the harness-men scurrying upon his back, “and that we will certainly be back very soon, so he need not think he has everything all to himself, even if he does have a medal now,” he finished, still disgruntled.

  They were prolonging their conversation over a cup of tea when a young ensign came for Laurence. “Begging your pardon, sir, but there is a gentleman to see you, at the headquarters,” the boy said, and added, in tones of amazement, “a black gentleman,” so a very puzzled Laurence had to say his last farewells more abruptly and go.

  He came into the officers’ common room; there was no difficulty in picking out his guest, although Laurence struggled for a moment before recalling his name: Reverend Erasmus, the missionary whom Wilberforce had presented to him, at the party two weeks before—had it been so short a time? “You are very welcome, sir; but I am afraid you find me at sixes and sevens,” Laurence said, beckoning to the servants, who had not yet brought him any refreshment. “We are leaving port tomorrow—a glass of wine?”

  “Only a cup of tea, I thank you,” Erasmus said. “Captain, I knew as much; I hope you will forgive me for descending on you at such a time, without notice. I was with Mr. Wilberforce this morning, when your letter of apology arrived, informing him you were bound for Africa: and I have come to beg you for passage.”

  Laurence was silent. He had every right, as a point of etiquette, to invite some number of guests; this being the prerogative of dragon captains aboard a transport as much as that of the captain of the ship herself. But the situation was not a simple one, for they would travel on the Allegiance, under a captain, who though one of Laurence’s dearest friends, and indeed his former first officer, owed no small portion of his fortune to his family’s substantial plantations in the West Indies, manned by slaves. Erasmus himself, Laurence realized with a sinking feeling, might even once have toiled in their very fields: he believed some of Riley’s father’s holdings were in Jamaica.

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