Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik
Aside from all the discomfort which any strong difference of politics among shipmates might ordinarily engender, in the close quarters of a journey, Laurence had on previous occasions failed to conceal his sentiments towards the practice, and some ill-feeling had unhappily resulted. To now inflict upon Riley a passenger whose very presence would seem a silent and unanswerable continuation of their argument, had the look of a calculated insult.
“Sir,” Laurence said slowly, “I believe you said you had been taken from Louanda? We are bound for Capetown, far to the south. It will not be your own nation.”
“Beggars cannot be choosers, Captain,” Erasmus said simply, “and I have only been praying for passage to Africa. If God has opened a path for me that leads to Capetown, I will not refuse it.”
He made no further appeal, but only sat expectantly, his dark eyes leveled steadily across the table. “Then I am at your service, Reverend,” Laurence said, as of course he had to, “if you can only manage to be ready in time; we cannot miss the tide.”
“Thank you, Captain.” Erasmus rose and shook his hand vigorously. “Have no fear: in hopes of your consent, my wife has already been making our arrangements, and by now will already herself be on the road with all our worldly substance; there is not much of it,” he added.
“Then I will hope to see you tomorrow morning,” Laurence said, “in Dover harbor.”
THE ALLEGIANCE STOOD waiting for them in the cold sunny morning, looking oddly squat with her masts stubby and bare, the topmasts and yards laid out upon the deck, and the enormous chains of her best bower and kedge anchors stretching out from the water, groaning softly as she rocked on the swell. She had come into harbor some four weeks earlier, Laurence and Temeraire having reached England, in the end, scarcely any sooner than their ocean passage would have brought them, if they had sailed home with the Allegiance after all.
“You may not complain of your delays; I am too happy to find you alive and well and not skeletons in some Himalayan pass,” Riley said, shaking his hand eagerly in welcome, nearly before Laurence had stepped off Temeraire’s back. “And you brought us home a fire-breather, after all. Yes, I could scarcely help but hear of her; the Navy is bursting with the news, and I believe the ships on blockade take it in turn to go past Guernsey and watch her flaming away at that old rock heap through their glasses.
“But I am very happy we shall make shipmates again now,” he continued, “and though you will be more crowded, I hope we will make shift to see you all comfortable; you are a party of seven this time?”
He spoke with so much earnest friendliness and concern that Laurence was stricken with a sense of dishonesty and said abruptly, “Yes, we are a full complement; and Captain, I must tell you, I have brought a passenger along, with his family. He is a missionary, bound for the Cape, and applied to me only yesterday afternoon—he is a freedman.”
He regretted his words as soon as he had spoken; he had meant to make the introduction more gently, and was conscious that he had let guilt make him clumsy and indelicate. Riley was silent. “I am sorry I could not give you more warning,” Laurence added, in an attempt to make apology.
“I see,” Riley said only, “—of course you may invite anyone whom you wish,” very shortly, and touching his hat went away without further conversation.
He made no pretense of courtesy to Reverend Erasmus when that gentleman came aboard a little later that morning, neglecting even a greeting, which would have offended Laurence on the part of any guest, much less a man of the cloth; but when he saw the minister’s wife left sitting in the small and poky boat which had been sent for them, with her two small children, and no offer made to rig a bosun’s chair over the side to bring them aboard, he had had enough.
“Ma’am,” he said, leaning over the side, “pray be easy, and only keep hold of the children; we will have you aboard in a moment. I beg you will not be alarmed,” and straightening said, “Temeraire, will you lift that boat up, if you please, so the lady may come aboard.”
“Oh, certainly, and I will be very careful,” Temeraire said, and leaning over the side of the ship—well-balanced, to her other side, by Maximus, still prodigious in weight despite his reduced state—he seized the boat carefully in one enormous forehand, and plucked it dripping from the water. The boat’s crew were loud in their protestations of alarm, while the two little girls clung to their stoic-faced mother, who did not permit herself to look at all anxious; the entire operation scarcely covered the space of a moment, and then Temeraire was setting the boat upon the dragondeck.
Laurence offered his hand to Mrs. Erasmus: she silently accepted, and having climbed down, reached in herself to lift out the children, one after another, and then her own portmanteau and satchel. She was a tall, stern-faced woman, more substantial in build and considerably darker of skin than her husband, with her hair pinned severely down under a plain white kerchief. Her two small daughters, in perfectly white pinafores, having been admonished briefly to stay quiet and out of the way, clutched each other’s hands tightly.
“Roland, perhaps you will see our guests to their cabin,” Laurence said to Emily quietly, hoping her presence might comfort them. To his regret, it was time to give over any attempt to conceal her sex. The progression of a year and more having its natural consequences upon her figure, which bid fair to take after her mother’s, it would soon be quite impossible anyone should be deceived, and he must henceforth simply brazen out any challenge, hoping for the best; thankfully, in the present case, it could not signify what the Erasmuses should think of her, or the Corps, as they were to be left securely behind in Africa.
“There is nothing to be afraid of,” Emily informed the girls blithely as she led them away, seeing their stares, “at least, not the dragons; although we had some terrific storms on our last sea-voyage,” which left them as easy in their minds as they had been; they looked very meek as they followed her below to their quarters.
Laurence turned back to Lieutenant Franks, commanding the boat’s crew, who had gone silent, having been set down amidst seven dragons, even if these were mostly sleeping. “I am sure Temeraire would be happy to put the boat back in her traces,” he said, but when that young man only stammered miserably, a pang of guilt made him add, “but perhaps you have another return to make,” and on Franks’s relieved assent, had Temeraire set the boat back down into the water.
He then went himself below, to his cabin, much reduced from the previous voyage, as the space was now divided with six other captains; but he had been given a forward room, with a share of the bow windows, and it was better than many a cabin he had endured in the Navy. He did not have to wait long; Riley came and knocked—unnecessarily, as the door was standing open—and begged the favor of a word.
“That will do, Mr. Dyer,” Laurence said, to the young runner presently ordering his things, “pray go see if Temeraire needs anything, then you may attend to your lessons,” as he wanted no audience.
The door was shut; Riley began stiffly, “I hope you are settled to your satisfaction.”
“—I am.” Laurence did not mean to begin the quarrel; if Riley wished to stand upon the point, he might do so.
“Then I am sorry to say,” Riley said, not looking very sorry, only pale with anger, “I am very sorry to say, that I have received a report, which I could scarcely credit, if I had not seen with my own eyes—”
He was not speaking loudly, yet; the door swung open in the middle of his sentence, and Catherine Harcourt looked in. “Pray forgive me,” she said, “but I have been trying to find you these twenty minutes, Captain Riley; this ship is too damned large. Not that I mean to complain of her in the least, of course: we are very obliged to you indeed for our passage.”
Riley stammered a vague polite reply, staring very fixedly at the top of her head. He had not known her for a woman at the time of their first meeting, which had encompassed little more than a day, and that the day after a battle. Catherine was of a slimmer stature than Jan
“And I hope you are comfortably—that your cabin—” he said now, at a loss for the form of address.
“Oh, my bags are stowed; I suppose I will find them sometime,” Harcourt said briskly, either unconscious or deliberately blind to Riley’s awkward constraint. “That makes no nevermind; it is these tubs of oiled sand, for Lily to rest her head upon. I am very sorry to have to trouble you, but we are quite at a loss where they are to be stowed: we must have them near the dragondeck, in case she should have a fit of sneezing and we must change them out quick.”
As the acid of a Longwing was perfectly capable, unchecked, of eating through an entire ship straight down to the hull and sinking her, this topic naturally engaged all the interest which could be imagined, of the ship’s captain, and Riley answered her with energy, his discomfort forgotten in the practical concern. They settled it that the tubs should be stored in the galley, directly below the dragondeck, and this decided, Catherine nodded and thanked him, adding, “Will you dine with us to-night?”—an inconvenient friendliness, but of course her prerogative: to make a technical point of the matter, she was Laurence’s superior officer, as formally their assignment remained to form a part of Lily’s formation, although Temeraire had operated under independent orders now for so long that Laurence himself scarcely remembered the fact.
But it was delivered informally, at least, so it did not seem offensive when Riley said, “I thank you, but I must be on deck to-night, I am afraid,” a polite excuse, which she accepted on its face, and nodding her farewells left him alone with Laurence once again.
It was awkward to resume, with the first natural impulse of anger thus blunted, but with a will they rose to the occasion, and after only a few more moderate exchanges, Riley’s “And I hope, sir, that I need never again see the ship’s crew or her boats subjected to, I am sorry to call it so, outright interference, under not only the permission but the encouragement—” progressed very neatly to Laurence’s reply,
“And for my part, Captain Riley, I would be glad to never again be witness to such a positive disdain not only for all the generally understood requirements of courtesy, but for the very safety of her passengers, from the crew of one of His Majesty’s vessels—I will not say deliberate insult—”
They were soon in such fine form as might be expected from two men both in the habit of command, and of full voice, whose former acquaintance made it no difficulty to touch upon such subjects as might provoke the most dramatic reaction. “You cannot claim,” Riley said, “not to have a proper understanding of precedence in these matters; you can make no such excuse. You know your duty perfectly well. You set your beast deliberately onto the ship’s crew, without permission. You might have asked for a chair, if you wished one slung—”
“If I had imagined that such a request needed to be made, upon what I had supposed to be a well-run ship, when a lady was to come aboard—” Laurence said.
“I suppose we must mean a little something different by the term,” Riley retorted, sarcastic and quick.
He at once looked heartily embarrassed, when the remark had escaped him; but Laurence was in no way inclined to wait for him to withdraw, and said angrily, “It would grieve me indeed to be forced to impute any un-gentlemanlike motive—any selfish consideration, which might prompt a gentleman to make remarks so nearly intolerable upon the character and respectability of a clergyman’s wife, and a mother, wholly unknown to him and therefore offering no grounds whatsoever to merit his scorn—save perhaps as an alternative, preferable to the examination of his own conscience—”
The door flung open without a knock; Berkley thrust his head into the cabin. They stopped at once, united in appalled indignation at this perfect disregard for privacy and all shipboard etiquette. Berkley paid no attention to their stares. He was unshaven and gaunt; Maximus had passed an uncomfortable night after his short flight aboard, and Berkley had slept no more than his dragon. He said bluntly, “We can hear every damned word on deck; in a moment Temeraire will pull up the planking and stick his nose in. For God’s sake go knock each other down somewhere quietly and have done.”
This outrageous advice, more suitable for a pair of schoolboys than grown men, was not heeded, but the quarrel was necessarily ended by the open reproof; Riley begged to be excused, and went at once away.
“I MUST ASK you to go-between for us, with Captain Riley, I am afraid, henceforth,” Laurence said to Catherine, some time afterwards, when his temper had been as much relieved as could be managed by the violent pacing of the narrow length of his cabin. “I know we agreed I should manage it, but matters have arisen so that—”
“Of course, Laurence, you need say nothing more,” she interrupted, in practical tones, leaving him in some despair of the discretion of all his fellow aviators; it was such a settled part of his understanding of shipboard life, that one should pretend not to have heard, even what of necessity had been perfectly audible, that he hardly knew how to answer their frankness, “and I will give him a private dinner, instead of making it a common one with all of us, so there will be no difficulty. But I am sure you will make up the matter in a trice. What is there worth arguing about, when we have three months of sailing together ahead of us?—unless you mean to entertain us all with the gossip of the thing.”
Laurence did not in the least like to form the subject of whispers, but he drearily knew her optimistic hopes to be ill-founded. No unforgivable remarks had been made but many unforgettable ones, a good number by himself, he was sorry to recall, and if they did not need for honor’s sake to avoid one another entirely, he felt they could hardly be on such terms of camaraderie as they had formerly known, ever again. He wondered if he was to blame, perhaps for continuing, too much, to think of Riley as his subordinate; if he had presumed too far on their relationship.
He went to sit with Temeraire as the ship made ready to weigh anchor: the familiar old shouts and exhortations strangely distant from him, and he felt a disconnect from the life of the ship such as he had never expected to know; almost as though he had never been a sailor at all.
“Look there, Laurence,” Temeraire said; south of the harbor, a small ragged knot of dragons could be seen winging away from the covert: towards Cherbourg, Laurence guessed, by their line of flight. His glass was not to hand, and they were little larger than a flock of birds at the distance, too far to make out their individual markings, but as they flew, one among them briefly fired out a small exuberant tongue of flame, yellow-orange-hot against the blue sky: Iskierka set out with a handful of the ferals, for the first time on a real patrol; the measure of the desperate circumstances which they left behind.
“Are we not leaving soon, Laurence?” Temeraire asked; he was painfully impatient to be under way. “If we would make better speed, I would be very happy to pull, at any time,” and he turned to look at Dulcia, presently lying in an uneasy sleep upon his back, coughing miserably every so often without even opening her eyes.
She and Lily, who lay with her head half-buried up to the bone spurs in a great wooden tub full of sand, were yet in much better state than the rest of the formation; poor Maximus had made the flight to the ship in easy short stages, and even so with much difficulty. He had been given all the far side of the dragondeck and was sleeping there already, heedless of the furious bustle around him as the last of the preparations to launch them commenced. Nitidus lay sprawled in exhaustion tucked against Maximus’s side, where once the Pascal’s Blue would have lain comfortably on his back, and Immortalis and Messoria, huddled to either side of Lily in the middle of the deck, were grown a sort of pale lemon yellow like milk custard.
“I could drag up the anchors in a tr
“We would only be in the way,” he said; “they will manage quicker without us.” He laid his hand on Temeraire’s side, looking away from the labor in which they could have no part, to the open ocean ahead.
OH,” TEMERAIRE SAID, in a very strange tone, and he pitched forward and vomited tremendously all over the open ground before him, heaving up an acrid stinking mess in which the traces of banana leaves, goat horns, cocoanut shells, and long green ropes of braided seaweed might be distinguished among the generalized yellowish mulch, scattered through with unrecognizable scraps of cracked bones and shreds of hide.
“Keynes!” Laurence bellowed, having leapt out of the way just in time, and to the two hapless medicine-men who had offered the latest remedy, savagely said, “Get you gone, and take that worthless draught with you.”
“No, let us have it, if you please, and the receipt,” Keynes said, approaching a little gingerly, and bending to sniff at the pot which they had presented. “A purgative may be of some use on future occasions, if this is not simply a case of excess; were you feeling ill before?” Keynes demanded of Temeraire, who only moaned a little and closed his eyes; he was lying limp and wretched, having crept a little way off from the former contents of his stomach, which steamed unpleasantly even in the overheated late-summer air. Laurence covered his mouth and nostrils with a handkerchief and beckoned to the deeply reluctant groundsmen to bring the midden-shovels, and bury the refuse at once.
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