Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik

  “I will make you a handsome edition of it, bound up like that nice book which you see Laurence reads from,” Laurence found Catherine saying to Lily, shortly, “if only you will eat something more every day: here, a few more bites of this tunny,” a bribery which succeeded where almost all else had failed.

  “Well, perhaps a little more,” Lily said, with a heroic air, adding, “and may it have gold hinges, too, like that one?”

  ALL THIS SOCIETY Laurence might have enjoyed, though a little ashamed to find himself preferring what he could not in justice call anything but a very ramshackle way of going on. But for all their courage and good humor, improved by the interest of the sea-voyage, the dragons still coughed their lungs away little by little. What would have otherwise seemed a pleasure-cruise carried on under a ceaseless pall, where each morning the aviators came on the deck and put their crews to work washing away the bloodstained relics of the night’s misery, and each night lay in their cabins trying to sleep to the rattling wet accompaniment of the slow, weary hacking above. All their noise and gaiety had a forced and hectic edge, defiance of fear as much as real pleasure: fiddling as Rome burned.

  The sentiment was not confined to the aviators, either. Riley might have had other excuses besides the political for preferring not to have Reverend Erasmus aboard, for the ship was already loaded besides him with a large number of passengers, most of them forced upon Riley by influence with the Admiralty, and well-found in the article of luggage. Some number departed at Madeira, to take other ship for the West Indies or Halifax from there, but others were bound for the Cape as settlers, and still others going on to India: an uneasy migration driven, Laurence was forced to suspect, little though he liked to think so ill of perfect strangers, by a dread of invasion.

  He had some evidence for his suspicion; the passengers, when he chanced to overhear them speaking as they took the air on the windward side of the quarterdeck, spoke wistfully amongst themselves of the airy chances of peace, and pronounced Bonaparte’s name with fear. There was little direct communication, separated as the dragondeck was, nor did the passengers make much effort to become friendly, but on a few occasions, Reverend Erasmus joined Laurence for dinner. Erasmus did not carry tales, of course, but asked, “Captain, is it your opinion that invasion is a settled certainty?” with a curiosity which to Laurence spoke of its being a topic much discussed among the passengers with whom they ordinarily dined.

  “I must call it settled that Bonaparte would like to try,” Laurence said, “and being a tyrant he may do as he likes with his own army. But if he is so outrageously bold as to make a second attempt where the first failed so thoroughly, I have every confidence he will be pushed off once again,” a patriotic exaggeration; but he had no notion of disparaging their chances publicly.

  “I am glad to hear you say so,” Erasmus said, and added after a moment thoughtfully, “It must be a confirmation of the doctrine of original sin, I think, that all the noble promise of liberty and brotherhood which the revolution in France first brought up to light should have so quickly been drowned by blood and treasure. Man begins in corruption, and cannot achieve grace striving only for victory over the injustices of the world, without striving also for God, and obeying His commandments.”

  Laurence a little awkwardly offered Erasmus the dish of stewed plums, in lieu of an agreement which should have felt dishonest; he was uneasily aware that he had not heard services for the better part of a year; barring the Sunday services on board, where Mr. Britten, the ship’s official chaplain, droned through his sermon with a notable lack of either inspiration or sobriety: and for those, Laurence had often to sit beside Temeraire, to keep him from interrupting.

  “Do you suppose, sir,” Laurence ventured instead to ask, “that dragons are subject to original sin?” This question had from time to time preyed upon him; he had quite failed to interest Temeraire in the Bible. Scripture rather induced the dragon to pursue such thoroughly blasphemous lines of questioning that Laurence had very soon given it up entirely, from a superstitious feeling that this would only invite greater disaster.

  Erasmus considered, and gave it as his opinion that they were not, “For surely the Bible would mention it, if any had eaten of the fruit besides Adam and Eve; and though resembling the serpent in some particulars, the Lord said unto the serpent that upon its belly it should go, whereas dragons are as creatures of the air, and cannot be considered under the same interdiction,” he added convincingly, so it was with a heart lightened that Laurence could return to the deck that evening, to once again try and persuade Temeraire to take a little more to eat.

  Though Temeraire had not taken sick, he grew limp and faded in sympathy with the other dragons’ illness, and, ashamed of his appetite when his companions could not share in it, began to disdain his food. Laurence coaxed and cajoled with little effect, until Gong Su came up to him on deck and in flowery Chinese of which Laurence understood one word in six, but Temeraire certainly followed entire, offered his resignation in shame that his cooking was no longer acceptable. He dwelt at elaborate length upon the stain on his honor and that of his teacher and his family, which he would never be able to repair, and declared his intentions to somehow return home at the nearest opportunity, so that he might remove himself from the scene of failure.

  “But it is very good, I promise, only I am not hungry just now,” Temeraire protested, which Gong Su refused to credit as anything but a polite excuse, and added, “Good cooking ought to make you hungry, even if you are not!”

  “But I am, only—” Temeraire finally admitted, and looked sadly at his sleeping companions, and sighed when Laurence gently said, “My dear, you do them no good by starving yourself, and indeed some harm; you must be at your full strength and healthy when we reach the Cape.”

  “Yes, but it feels quite wrong, to be eating and eating when everyone else has stopped and gone to sleep; it feels as though I am sneaking food, behind their backs, which they do not know about,” Temeraire said, a perplexing way of viewing the situation, as he had never shown the least compunction about out-eating his companions while they were awake, or jealously guarding his own meals from the attention of other dragons. But after this admission, they gave him his food in smaller portions throughout the day, while the other dragons were wakeful; and Temeraire exhibited no more very extreme reluctance, even though the others still refused any more food themselves.

  But he was not happy with their situation, any more than was Laurence; and grew still less so as they traveled southward, Riley’s caution keeping them near the shore. They did not put in at Cape Coast, or at Louanda or Benguela; and from a distance these ports looked gaily enough, full of white sails clustering together. But there was reminder enough at hand of their grim commerce, the ocean being full of sharks that came eagerly leaping to the ship’s wake, trained like dogs by the common passage of slave-ships to and from those harbors.

  “What city is that?” Mrs. Erasmus asked him abruptly. She had come to take the air with her daughters, who were parading themselves decorously back and forth under a shared parasol, for once unattended by their mother.

  “Benguela,” Laurence said, surprised to be addressed; in nearly two months of sailing she had never spoken to him direct before. She was never forward on any occasion, but rather in the habit of keeping her head bowed and her voice low; her English still heavily accented with Portuguese when she used it at all. He knew from Erasmus that she had gained her manumission only a little while before her marriage; not through the indulgence of her master but by his ill-fortune. That gentleman, a landowner from Brazil, had gone on business to France, passenger on a merchant ship taken in the Atlantic; she and his other slaves had been made free, when the prize had been brought in to Portsmouth.

  She was drawn up very tall and straight, both her hands gripping the rail, though she had excellent sea-legs and scarcely needed the support; and she stood a long time looking there, even after the little girls had grown tired of their pro
menade and abandoned both parasol and decorum to go scrambling over the ropes with Emily and Dyer.

  A great many slave-ships went to Brazil from Benguela, Laurence recalled; he did not ask her, but offered her instead his arm to go below again, when at last she turned away, and some refreshment. She refused both, with only a shake of her head, and called her children back to order with a quick low word; they left off their game, abashed, and she took them down below.

  Past Benguela there were no more slave ports, at least; both from the hostility of the natives to the trade, and the inhospitable coastline, but the oppressive atmosphere on board was no less. Together Laurence and Temeraire often went aloft to escape, flying in closer to shore than Riley would risk the Allegiance and pacing her from there, so they might watch the African coastline wear away: here impenetrably forested, here spilling yellow rock and yellow sand into the ocean, here the shore crammed with lazy seals; then the long stretch of endless orange desert, bound regularly in thick banks of fog, which made the sailors wary. Almost hourly the officer of the watch called for them to take soundings of the ocean floor, voices muffled and oddly far-away in the mist. Very occasionally a few black men might be glimpsed on shore, observing them in turn with wary attention; but for the most part there was only silence, watchful silence, except for the shrieking of birds.

  “LAURENCE, SURELY WE can reach Capetown from here, quicker than the ship can go,” Temeraire said at last, grown weary of the oppressive atmosphere. They were still nearly a month’s sailing from that port, however, and the country too dangerous to risk a long overland passage. The interior of the continent was notoriously impenetrable and savage, and had without a trace swallowed whole parties of men; more than one courier-dragon tempted off the coastal route had likewise vanished. But the suggestion appealed, with its prospects of quitting sooner the unhappy conditions of the voyage, and advancing more quickly the crucial research which was their purpose.

  Laurence persuaded himself that he should not be derelict in going on early, once they should be near enough to make the flight one which might be accomplished in a day, if a strenuous one. With this incentive, Temeraire was easily induced to eat properly and go for long and uninteresting circular flights around the ship, to build up his strength; and no one else raised objection to their departure. “If you are quite sure you will reach in safety,” Catherine said, with only the most obligatory reluctance; none of the aviators could help but share the urgent desire to have the work begun, now they were so close.

  “You shall of course do as you please,” Riley said, when officially informed, without looking Laurence in the face; and bent his head down again over his maps to pretend to be making calculations: a pretense which succeeded not at all, Laurence being perfectly aware that Riley could not do so much as a sum in his head without scratching it out on paper.

  “I will not take all the crew,” Laurence told Ferris, who looked dismal, but even he did not protest over-much. Keynes and Dorset would come, of course, and Gong Su: the cooks in the employ of Prince Yongxing, on their previous visit, had experimented with great enthusiasm on the local produce, which thus formed one of the surgeons’ foremost hopes of reproducing the cure.

  “Do you suppose you can prepare these ingredients in the same way as they might have used?” Laurence asked Gong Su.

  “I am not an Imperial chef!” Gong Su protested, and to Laurence’s dismay explained that the style of cooking in the south of China, whence he hailed, was entirely different. “I will try my poor best, but it is not to be compared; although northern cooking is not very good usually,” he added, in a burst of parochialism.

  Roland and Dyer came to be assistants to him, and run and fetch in the markets, their slight weight a negligible burden; for the rest, Laurence packed aboard a chest of gold, and took little more baggage than his sword and pistols and a pair of clean shirts and stockings. “I do not feel the weight at all; I am sure I could fly for days,” Temeraire said, grown still more urgent: Laurence had forced himself to let caution keep them back a full week, so they were now less than two hundred miles distant: still a desperately long single day’s flight, but not an impossible one.

  “If the weather holds until morning,” Laurence said.

  One final invitation he made, which he did not think would be accepted, to Reverend Erasmus. “Captain Berkley begs me inform you he would be happy if you continued aboard as his guests,” Laurence said, rather more elegantly than Berkley’s, “Yes, of course. Damned formal nonsense; we are not going to put them overboard, are we?” could be said to have deserved. “But of course you are my personal guests, and welcome to join me, if you would prefer it.”

  “Hannah, perhaps you would rather not?” Erasmus said, looking to his wife.

  She lifted her head from her small text on the native language, whose phrases she was forming silently with her mouth. “I do not mind,” she said; and indeed climbed up to Temeraire’s back without any sign of alarm, settling the girls around her and chiding them firmly for their own anxiety.

  “We will see you in Capetown,” Laurence told Ferris, and saluted Harcourt; with one grateful leap they were gone, flying and flying over clean ocean, with a good fresh wind at their heels.

  A DAY AND a night of flying had seen them coming in over the bay at dawn: the flat-topped fortress wall of Table Mount standing dusty and golden behind the city, light spilling onto the striated rock face and the smaller jagged sentinel peaks to either side. The bustling town crammed full the crescent slice of level ground at the base of the slope, with the Castle of Good Hope at its heart upon the shore, its outer walls forming a star-shape from above with the butter-yellow pentagon of the fort nested within, gleaming in the early morning as her cannon fired the welcoming salute to leeward.

  The parade grounds where Temeraire was lodged were beside the castle, only a few dragon-lengths from where the ocean came grumbling onto the sandy beach: a distance inconvenient when the wind was blowing too strongly at high tide, but which otherwise made a pleasant relief against the summer heat. Although the courtyard enclosed within the fort itself was large enough to house a few dragons in times of emergency, it would not have made a comfortable situation, either for the soldiers stationed in the castle barracks, or for Temeraire; and happily, the grounds had been much improved since their last visit breaking their journey to China. While the couriers no longer flew routes this far south, too remote for their failing strength, a fast frigate had been sent on ahead of the Allegiance with dispatches to warn the acting-governor, Lieutenant-General Grey, both of their arrival and, secretly, of their urgent purpose. He had widened the grounds to house all the formation, and put up a low fence around.

  “I am not afraid you will be pestered; but it may keep away prying eyes, and stifle some of this damned noise,” he said to Laurence, referring to the protests of the colonists at their arrival. “It is just as well that you have come on ahead: it will give them some time to get over the notion, before we have seven dragons all in a lump. The way they wail, you would think they had never heard of a formation at all.”

  Grey had himself reached the Cape only in January; he was the lieutenant-governor, and would soon be superceded by the arrival of the Earl of Caledon, so that his position, with all the awkwardness of a temporary situation, lacked a certain degree of authority; and he was much beset by cares not a little increased by their arrival. The townspeople disliked the British occupation, and the settlers, who had established their farms and estates farther out into the countryside and down the coast, despised it and indeed anything in the shape of government that would have interfered with their independence, which they considered dearly and sufficiently paid for by the risk which they ran, in pressing the frontier into the wild interior of the continent.

  The advent of a formation of dragons was viewed by them all with the deepest suspicion, especially as they were not to be permitted to know the real purpose. Thanks to much slave labor cheaply acquired, in the earlier yea
rs of the colony, the settlers had come to disdain manual labor for themselves and their families; and their farms and vineyards and herds had expanded to take advantage of the many hands which they could forcibly put to the work. Slaves were not exported from the Cape; they wanted rather more slaves than they could get: Malay by preference, or purchased from West Africa, but not disdaining, either, the unhappy servitude of the native Khoi tribesmen, who if they were not precisely slaves were very little less constrained, and their wages unworthy of the term.

  Having thus arranged to be outnumbered, the colonists now exerted themselves to maintain the serenity of their establishments by harsh restrictions and an absolutely free hand with punishment. A resentment yet lingered that under the previous British government, the torture of slaves had been forbidden; on the further outskirts of the town might yet be observed the barbaric custom of leaving the corpse of a hanged slave upon his gibbet, as an illustrative example to his fellows of the cost of disobedience. The colonists were well informed, also, of the campaign against the trade, which they viewed with indignation as likely to cut them off from additional supply; and Lord Allendale’s name was not unknown to them as a mover of the cause.

  “And if that were not enough,” Grey said tiredly, when they had been in residence a few days, “you brought this damned missionary with you. Now half the town thinks the slave trade has been abolished, the other half that their slaves are all to be set free at once and given license to murder them in their beds; and all are certain you are here to enforce it. I must ask you to present me to the fellow; he must be warned to keep more quiet. It is a miracle he has not been already stabbed in the street.”

  Erasmus and his wife had taken over a small establishment of the London Missionary Society, lately abandoned by the death of its previous tenant, a victim of malarial fevers, and in far from an ordered state. There was neither a school nor a church building, yet, only a mortally plain little house, graced by a few depressed and straggling trees, and a bare plot of land around it meant for a vegetable-garden, where Mrs. Erasmus was presently laboring in the company of her daughters and several of the young native women, who were being shown how to stake tomato plants.

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