Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik

  “I wonder if it is not the effects of the protea,” Dorset said absently, poking through the pot with a stick and fishing out the remnants of the spiny blossom. “I do not believe we have seen it used as an ingredient before: the Cape vegetation has quite a unique construction, among the plant kingdom. I must send the children for some specimens.”

  “As glad as we must be to have delivered you a curiosity, it is certainly nothing which he ever ate before; perhaps you might consider how we are to proceed, instead, without making him ill again,” Laurence snapped, and went to Temeraire’s side before he could make a further display of his ill-temper and frustration. He laid a hand on the slowly heaving muzzle, and Temeraire twitched his ruff in an attempt at bravery.

  “Roland, go you and Dyer and fetch some sea-water, from beneath the dock,” Laurence said, and taking a cloth used the cool water to wipe down Temeraire’s muzzle and his jaws.

  They had been in Capetown now two days, experimenting lavishly: Temeraire perfectly willing to sniff or swallow anything which anyone should give him, if only it might by some chance be a cure, and exercise his memory; so far without any notable success, and Laurence was prepared to consider this latest episode a notable failure, whatever the surgeons might say. He did not know how to refuse them; but it seemed to him they were trying a great deal of local quackery, without any real grounds for hope, and making a reckless trial of Temeraire’s health.

  “I already feel a good deal better,” Temeraire said, but his eyes were closing in exhaustion as he said it, and he did not want to eat anything the next day; but said wistfully, “I would be glad of some tea, if it would not be much trouble,” so Gong Su made a great kettle of it, using a week’s supply, and then to his disgust they put in an entire brick of sugar. Temeraire drank it with great pleasure when it had cooled, and afterwards stoutly declared himself perfectly recovered; but he still looked rather dismally when Emily and Dyer came huffing back from the markets, hung all over with the day’s new acquisitions in net-bags and parcels, and stinking from ten-yards’ distance.

  “Well, let us see,” Keynes said, and went poking through the materials with Gong Su: a great many local vegetables, including a long pendulous fruit like an oversized yam, which Gong Su dubiously picked up and thumped against the ground: not even the skin so much as split, until he at last took it into the castle, to the smith, and had it smashed open upon the forge.

  “That is from a sausage-tree,” Emily said. “Maybe it is not quite ripe, though; and also we did find some of the hua jiao today, from a Malay stall-keeper,” she added, showing Laurence a small basket of the red peppery seeds, for which Temeraire had acquired a great liking.

  “Not the mushroom?” Laurence asked: this being a hideously pungent specimen they all recalled vividly from their first visit, which in its cooking had rendered the entire castle nearly uninhabitable from its noxious fumes. Laurence had his share of the seaman’s instinctive faith in unpleasant medicine, and secretly the best part of his own hopes lay on the thing. But it was surely a wild growth, uncultivated: no person in their senses would ever deliberately eat the thing, and so far it was not to be found, for any price.

  “We found a boy who had a little English and told him that we would pay gold for it, if they would bring some,” Dyer piped up; a group of native children had brought them the first example mostly as a curiosity.

  “Perhaps the seed husks in combination with another of the native fruits,” Dorset suggested, examining the hua jiao and stirring them with a finger. “They might have been used on any number of dishes.”

  Keynes snorted, and, dusting his hands as he straightened from the survey, he shook his head at Gong Su. “No, let his innards have another day’s rest, and leave off all this unwholesome stuff. I am increasingly of the opinion that the climate alone must cook it out of them, if there is to be any benefit to this enterprise at all.”

  He prodded the ground with the stick he had been using to turn over the vegetables: dry and hard several inches down, with only the stubborn frizz of short yellow grass to hold it together, the roots long and thin and spidery. A few days into March, they were deep in the local summer, and the steady hot weather made the hard-packed bare ground a baking stone, which fairly shimmered with heat during the peak of the day.

  Temeraire cracked an eye from his restorative drowse. “It is pleasant, but it is not so much warmer than the courtyard at Loch Laggan,” he said doubtfully, and in any case the suggestion was not a very satisfying one, as this cure could not be tried until the other dragons arrived.

  And for the moment they were alone, although the Allegiance was expected now daily. As soon as the ship had come in flying distance of the Cape, Laurence had packed the surgeons and the barest handful of men and supplies aboard Temeraire’s back, and taken them on ahead, that they might begin this desperate business of attempting to find the cure.

  It had not been merely an excuse: their orders unequivocally stated without the loss of a moment, and Maximus’s ragged, gurgling cough was a constant spur to their sides. But in all honesty, neither had Laurence been sorry in the least to go. The quarrel had not been made up, at all.

  LAURENCE HAD MADE attempts: once, three weeks into the journey, he paused, belowdecks, as they passed one another by chance, and removed his hat; but Riley only just touched his own brim and shouldered by, a quick surge of red color mounting in his cheeks. This had stiffened Laurence another week, long enough to make him refuse an offer of a share in one of the ship’s milch goats, when the one which he had provided himself ran dry and was sacrificed instead to the dragons.

  Then regret won out again, and he said to Catherine, “Perhaps we ought to invite the captain and the ship’s officers to dinner?” on deck and perfectly audible to anyone who might be curious, so when the invitation was sent it could not be mistaken as anything but a peace offering. But though Riley came, and his officers, he was utterly withdrawn all the meal, scarcely answering except when Catherine spoke to him and never lifting his head from his plate. His officers, of course, would not speak without he or another captain addressing them, so it was a strange and silent affair with even the younger aviators stifled by the uneasy sense that their manners did not suit the formality of the occasion.

  With such a standing quarrel among the officers, the men, who at no time made any great secret of their dislike of the dragons and their aviators, now made still less of one. Their hostility was leashed tightly by their fear, of course, even among those who had sailed with Laurence and Temeraire on the previous voyage to China. Seven dragons made a great difference from one, and the sudden violent fits of coughing or sneezing which wracked the poor creatures and ate at their strength only made them all the more fearsomely unpredictable to the common sailors, who could scarcely be made to ascend the foremast for its being too close to the beasts.

  What was worse, their officers corrected them none too sharply for their hesitation, with predictable results: off the coast of the Horn she missed stays, and had to be hurriedly box-hauled, because the men were slow moving on the dragondeck to shift over the jib and foretop-mast staysail sheets. The maneuver jarred the dragons sadly about, setting them to coughing, and then nuisance in a moment nearly became tragedy: Nitidus went tumbling off Temeraire’s back and knocked Lily’s head askew.

  Her greasy tub of oiled sand slid with ponderous majesty over the edge of the dragondeck, and plunged immediately into the ocean. “Over the side, dearest, put your head over the side,” Catherine cried, her crew all of them to a man rushing to fetch one of the other replacements from the galley below. Lily had with a tremendous effort lunged forward and now was clutching precariously at the edge of the ship, her head thrust out over the water and her shoulders curled up into great knots as she tried to hold from coughing; drops spilled from her bone spurs and smoked thin black hissing streams from the tarry sides of the ship: the Allegiance was coming up through the wind, which blew them back against the wood.

??Shall I try and carry you away from the ship?” Temeraire asked anxiously, wings half-spread. “Will you climb on my back?”—a dangerous maneuver at the best of times, with a dragon not dripping poisonous acid from her jaws, if Lily could even have managed to get upon him.

  “Temeraire,” Laurence called instead, “will you see if you can break up the deck, here,” and Temeraire turned his head. Laurence had only meant him to try and wrench the planks up, but instead Temeraire opened his jaws experimentally over the place and gave a queer, throttled version of his usual roar: four planks cracked, one opening up along the ring-pattern of the wood and dropping a knot straight down onto the startled heads of the galley cooks, crouched and covering themselves in terror.

  The space was nearly wide enough: with a few frantic moments of work they had it enlarged, and Temeraire could reach down and heave up the tub directly. Lily pressed her jaw down into the sand and coughed and coughed, miserably and long, the fit worsened by her having repressed it at first. The oily sand hissed and smoked and stank with the fumes of the acid, and the deck gaped with the splintered hole, jagged edges threatening the dragons’ bellies and letting the steam out of the galley which kept them warm.

  “A damned disgrace; we might as well be sailing on a Frenchman,” Laurence said, angrily and not low; it had already been in his mind that tacking into the wind was incautious for so large and ponderous a vessel, better suited to old-fashioned wearing about, particularly when weighted down as she was with so many dragons.

  Riley had appeared on the quarterdeck, and across the ship faintly drifted the sound of his furious voice, calling Owens, the deck officer, to account, and the men to fresh order. But Laurence’s voice carried, too; there was a momentary pause in Riley’s tirade, and then it finished more abruptly.

  Riley made his stiff and formal apologies for the incident only to Catherine, catching her as she came off the dragondeck to go below, at the end of the day, in what Laurence could only imagine a design to avoid going up to speak to all of the aviators together. Her hair had come loose from its plait, her face was smudged with smoke and charred soot, and she had taken off her coat to pad under Lily’s jaw, where the bare edge of the tub had chafed. When he stopped her, she straightened and put her hand through her hair, loosening it entirely about her face, and his speech, undoubtedly prepared with care, quite fell apart. He only said, “I beg your pardon—deeply regret—” incoherently, and looked all confusion, until she interrupted tiredly, “Yes, of course, only pray not again, and do let us have the carpenters make the repairs at once tomorrow. Good-night,” and brushed past him and went below.

  She meant nothing by it but that she was tired, and wished to go to sleep; but it looked cutting to one who did not know her well enough to know her not in the least likely to resort to social stratagem to express offense; and perhaps Riley was ashamed. In any case, by morning all the ship’s carpenters were at work on the dragondeck before even the aviators arose, with not a word of grumbling or fear even if a great deal of sweating, particularly when the dragons roused and began watching with close interest. By the end of the day they had not only repaired the injury, but also put in a smooth hatch, which could be opened up into the galley if the operation required repeating.

  “Well, I call that handsome,” Catherine said, though Laurence felt it small amends for the earlier neglect; and when she added, “we ought to thank him for it,” glancing at him, he said nothing and made no shifts to take her place. When she did go and ask Riley to dine again, this time Laurence was careful to absent himself for the meal.

  IT WAS AN END to any hope of resolution. The rest of the journey passed in a cold distance between them, barely an exchange of greetings and only the briefest gesture when passing on deck or below: made rarer still, as the Navy officers were quartered to the stern. There could be nothing comfortable in traveling aboard a ship while at unconcealed and bitter odds with her captain; the officers likewise cold, if they were men who had never served with Laurence himself, or stiff with discomfort otherwise. These constant chafing indignities of cold treatment from the ship’s complement daily refreshed not only of the pain of the quarrel but his resentment of Riley’s anger.

  There was one saving grace; thus isolated from the life of the ship, and naturally brought into the closest contact with his fellow captains of the Corps and their habits, Laurence had sailed this time not merely in theory but in practice as an aviator: a very different experience, and he startled himself by preferring it. They had little practical work to do; by noon the daily slaughter was over, the dragondeck had been holystoned as best as could be managed without shifting the dragons too much, the younger officers examined on their schoolwork, and they were all at liberty: as much liberty as could be had within the space of a fully occupied dragondeck, and their half-a-dozen small cabins below.

  “Do you mind if we knock down the bulkhead, Laurence?” Chenery had said, putting in his head scarcely three days into the journey, as Laurence was writing letters in his cabin: a habit he had much neglected on shore of late. “We want to set up a card-table, but it is too wretchedly cramped,” an odd request, but he gave his assent; it was pleasant to have the larger space restored, and to write his letters with the companionable noise of their game and conversation. It became so settled a practice among them that the crewmen would have the bulkheads down without asking, no sooner had they finished dressing; and restored only for sleeping.

  They took their meals almost always thus in common: a convivial and noisy atmosphere, with Catherine presiding and all talking across the table heedless of etiquette, the junior officers squeezed in at the lower half in order of their promptness in arrival rather than their rank; and afterwards they gave the loyal toast standing on deck, followed with coffee and cigars in the company of their dragons, who were dosed with a posset against coughing, for what little relief it gave them, in the cooler hours of the evening. And after supper, he would read to Temeraire, occasionally from the Latin or the French, with Temeraire translating for the other dragons.

  Laurence assumed Temeraire particularly unusual, among dragons, for his scholarship; to better suit the rest, he kept, at first, to their small store of literature, and only then gave way to those mathematical and scientific treatises which Temeraire doted upon and he himself found hard going. Many of these interested the company as little as Laurence had expected, but he was surprised in reading a sadly wearing treatise upon geometry to be interrupted by Messoria, who said sleepily, “Pray skip ahead a little; we do not need it proven, anyone can tell it is perfectly correct,” referring to great circles. They had no difficulty at all with the notion that a curved course rather than a straight was the shortest distance for sailing, which had confused Laurence himself for a good week when he had been obliged to learn it for the lieutenant’s examination, in the Navy. The next evening he was further interrupted in his reading by Nitidus and Dulcia taking up an argument with Temeraire about Euclid’s postulates, one of which, referring to the principle of parallel lines, they felt quite unreasonable.

  “I am not saying it is correct,” Temeraire protested, “but you must accept it and go on: everything else in the science is built upon it.”

  “But what use is it, then!” Nitidus said, getting agitated enough to flutter his wings and bat his tail against Maximus’s side; Maximus murmured a small reproof without quite waking. “Everything must be quite wrong if he begins so.”

  “It is not that it is wrong,” Temeraire said, “only it is not so plain as the others—”

  “It is wrong, it is perfectly wrong,” Nitidus cried decidedly, while Dulcia pointed out more calmly, “Only consider a moment: if you should begin in Dover, and I a little south of London, on the same latitude, and we should then both fly straight northward, we should certainly meet at the Pole if we did not mistake our course, so what on earth is the sense of arguing that straight lines will never meet?”

  “Well,” Temeraire said, scratching at his forehead, “
that is certainly true, but I promise you the postulate makes good sense when you consider all the useful calculations and mathematics which may be arrived at, starting with the assumption. Why, all of the ship’s design, which we are upon, is at base worked out from it, I imagine,” a piece of intelligence which made nervous Nitidus give the Allegiance a very doubtful eye.

  “But I suppose,” Temeraire continued, “that we might try beginning without the assumption, or the contrary one—” and they put their heads together over Temeraire’s sand-table, and began to work out their own geometry, discarding those principles which seemed to them incorrect, and made a game of developing the theory; which entertained them a good deal more than most amusements Laurence had ever seen dragons engage in, with those listening applauding particularly inventive notions as if they were performances.

  Shortly it became quite an all-encompassing project, engaging the attention of the officers as well as the dragons; the scant handful of aviators with good penmanship Laurence was soon forced to press into service, for the dragons began to expand upon their cherished theory quicker than he alone could take their dictation, partly out of an intellectual curiosity, and partly because they very much liked the physical representation of their work, which they insisted on having separately copied out one for each of them, and treated in much the same way that Temeraire treated his much-beloved jewels.

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