Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik

  She stood up when Laurence and Grey came into view, and with a quiet word left the girls at work while she led the two of them inside the house: built in the Dutch style, the walls made of thick clay, with broad wooden beams exposed above supporting the thatched roof. The windows and door all stood open to let air the smell of fresh whitewash; inside the house was only a single long room, divided into three, and Erasmus was seated in the midst of a dozen native boys scattered around on the floor, showing them the letters of the alphabet upon a slate.

  He rose to greet them and sent the boys outside to play, an eruption of gleeful yelling drifting in directly they had gone spilling out into the street, and Mrs. Erasmus disappeared into the kitchen, with a clatter of kettle and pot.

  “You are very advanced, sir, for three-days’ residence,” Grey said, looking after the horde of boys in some dismay.

  “There is a great thirst for learning, and for the Gospel, too,” Erasmus said, with pardonable satisfaction. “Their parents come at night, after they have finished working in the fields, and we have already had our first service.”

  He invited them to sit: but as there were only two chairs, it would have made an awkward division, and they remained standing. “I will come at once to the point,” Grey said. “There have been, I am afraid, certain complaints made.” He paused, and repeated, “Certain complaints” uneasily, though Erasmus had said nothing. “You understand, sir, we have but lately taken the colony, and the settlers here are a difficult lot. They have made their own farms, and estates, and with some justice consider themselves entitled to be masters of their own fate. There is some sentiment—in short,” he said abruptly, “you would do very well to moderate your activity. You need not perhaps have so many students—take three or four, most promising; let the rest return to work. I am informed the labor of the students is by no means easily spared,” he added weakly.

  Erasmus listened, saying nothing, until Grey had done; then he said, “Sir, I appreciate your position: it is a difficult one. I am very sorry I cannot oblige you.”

  Grey waited, but Erasmus said nothing more whatsoever, offering no ground for negotiation. Grey looked at Laurence, a little helplessly, then turning back said, “Sir, I will be frank; I am by no means confident of your continued safety, if you persist. I cannot assure it.”

  “I did not come to be safe, but to bring the word of God,” Erasmus said, smiling and immovable, and his wife brought in the tea-tray.

  “Madam,” Grey said to her, as she poured the cups at the table, “I entreat you to use your influence; I beg you to consider the safety of your children.” She raised her head abruptly; the kerchief which she had been wearing outside to work had slipped, and by pulling her hair back away from her face revealed a dull scarred brand upon her forehead, the initials of a former owner blurred but legible still, and superimposed on an older tattooed marking, of abstract pattern.

  She looked at her husband; he said gently, “We will trust in God, Hannah, and in His will.” She nodded and made Grey no direct answer, but went silently back outside to the garden.

  There was of course nothing more to be said; Grey sighed, when they had taken their leave, and said dismally, “I suppose I must put a guard upon the house.”

  A HEAVY MOIST wind was blowing from the south-east, draping the Table Mount in a blanket of clouds; but it abated that evening, and the Allegiance was sighted the next afternoon by the castle lookout, heralded by the fire of the signal-guns. The atmosphere of suspicion and hostility was a settled thing by then, throughout the town; although sentiments less bitter would have sufficed to make her arrival unsettling for the inhabitants.

  Laurence watched her come in, by Grey’s invitation, from a pleasant cool antechamber set atop the castle, and seeing her from this unfamiliar and reversed direction was struck by the overwhelming impression of terrible force: not only the sheer vastness of her size, but the hollow eyes of her brute armament of thirty-two-pounders, glaring angrily out of portholes, and what seemed at this distance a veritable horde of dragons coiled upon her deck, uncountable for their lying so intertwined that their heads and tails could not quite be separated one from another.

  She advanced slowly into harbor, dwarfing all the shipping in the port into insignificance, and a kind of grim silence descended upon the town as she fired her salute to the fort: a rolling thunder of guns that echoed back from the face of the mountain, and settled gently upon the town like a fog. Laurence could taste the powder-smoke at the back of his mouth. The women and children had vanished from the streets by the time her anchors were let plunging down.

  It was dreadful to see how little they had truly to fear, when Laurence went down to the shore and had himself rowed across to aid with the maneuvers under way to get the dragons transferred off the deck. The long cramped journey had stiffened them all badly, and though the Allegiance had made good time, still every day of the two months and more had eaten steadily away at their strength. The castle was established only steps from the sandy beach, the parade grounds beside it, but even this short flight wearied them now.

  Nitidus and Dulcia, the smallest, came across first, to give the others more room; they drew deep breaths and lunged valiantly off the deck, their short wings beating sluggish and slow, and giving them very little lift, so that their bellies nearly scraped the top of the low fence around the parade grounds; they landed heavily and sank down into a heap on the warm ground without even folding their wings back. Messoria and Immortalis then dragged themselves up so wearily to their feet that Temeraire, who was watching anxiously from the grounds, called out, “Pray wait, and I will come and carry you in,” and ferried them one after another upon his back, heedless of the small scrapes and scratches which he took from their claws, as they clutched at him for balance.

  Lily nosed Maximus gently, on the deck. “Yes, go on, I will be there in a moment,” he said sleepily, without opening his eyes; she gave a dissatisfied rumble of concern.

  “We will get him across, never fear,” Harcourt said coaxingly; and at last Lily was persuaded to submit to their precautionary arrangements for her own transfer: a muzzle had to be fitted over her head, from which a large metal platter was suspended beneath her jaws, and this covered with more of the oiled sand.

  Riley had come to see them off; Harcourt turned to him and held out her hand, saying, “Thank you, Tom; I hope we will be coming back across soon, and you will visit us on land.” He took her hand in an awkward sideways grip and bowed over it, somewhere between saluting her and shaking her hand, and backed away stiffly; he still avoided looking at Laurence at all.

  Harcourt put her boot on the railing and jumped up to Lily’s back; she took hold of the harness to steady it, and Lily unfurled her great wings, the feature from which the breed took its name: rippled along the edges in narrow bands of black and white with the dark blue of her body shading across their length to a brilliant deep orange the color of old marmalade; they shone iridescent in the sun. Fully extended, they made double the length of her entire body, and once she had fairly launched herself aloft, she scarcely needed to beat them, but glided stately along without great exertion.

  They managed the flight across without spilling too much of the sand, or dripping acid upon the castle battlements or the dock; and then there was only Maximus left upon the deck. Berkley spoke to him quietly, and with a great heaving sigh the enormous Regal Copper pushed himself up to his feet, the Allegiance herself rocking a little in the water. He took two slow gouty steps to the edge of the dragondeck and sighed again; his shoulder-muscles creaked as he tried his wings, and then let them sink against his back again; his head drooped.

  “I could try,” Temeraire offered, calling from shore; quite impractically: Maximus still made almost two of him by weight.

  “I am sure I can manage it,” Maximus said hoarsely, then bent his head and coughed a while, and spat more greenish phlegm out over the side. He did not move.

  Temeraire’s tail was lashing at t
he air, and then with an air of decision he plunged into the surf and came swimming out to them instead. He reared up with his forelegs on the edge of the ship and thrust his head up over the railing to say, “It is not very far: pray come in the water. I am sure together we can swim to the shore.”

  Berkley looked at Keynes, who said, “A little sea-bathing can do no harm, I expect; and perhaps even some good. It is warm enough in all conscience, and we will have sun another four hours at this time of year, to dry him off.”

  “Well, then, into the water with you,” Berkley said, gruffly, patting Maximus’s side, and stepping back. Crouching down awkwardly, Maximus plunged forequarters-first into the ocean; the massive anchor-cables complained with deep voices as the Allegiance recoiled from the force of his leap, and ten-foot ripples swelled up and went shuddering away from him to nearly overturn some of the unsuspecting slighter vessels riding at anchor in the bay.

  Maximus shook water from his head, bobbing up and down, and paddled a few strokes along before stopping, sagging in the water; the buoyancy of the air-sacs kept him afloat, but he listed alarmingly.

  “Lean against me, and we shall go together,” Temeraire said, swimming up to his side to brace him up; and little by little they progressed towards the shore until the ocean floor came up abruptly to meet them, clouds of white sand stirring up like smoke, and Maximus could stop to rest, half-submerged yet, with the waves lapping against his sides.

  “It is pleasant in the water,” he said, despite another fit of coughing. “I do not feel so tired here,” but he had still to be got out and onto the shore: no little task, and he managed it only in slow easy stages, with all the assistance which Temeraire and the oncoming tide could offer, crawling the final dozen yards nearly on his belly.

  Here they let him rest, and brought him the choicest cuts from the dinner which Gong Su had spent the day preparing to tempt the dragons’ appetites after their exertion: local cattle, fat and tender, spit-roasted with a crust of pepper and salt pressed into their flesh, as a flavoring strong enough to overcome the dulling effect of the illness on the dragons’ senses, and stuffed with their own stewed tripes.

  Maximus ate a little, drank a few swallows of the water which they carried out to him in a large tub, and afterwards fell back into sluggish torpor, coughing, and slept the night through on shore, with the ocean still coming in and his tail riding up on the waves like a tethered boat. Only in the cool early hours of the morning did they get him the rest of the way to the parade grounds, and there settled him in the best place at its edge beneath the young stand of camphor trees, where he might have a little shade as well as sun, and very near the well which had been sunk to easily bring them water.

  Berkley saw him established, and then took off his hat and went to the water trough, to duck his head and bring a couple of cupped handfuls to his mouth to drink, and wipe his red and sweating face. “It is a good place,” he said, his head bent, “a good place; he will be comfortable here—” and ending abruptly went inside the castle, where they breakfasted together in silence. They did not discuss the matter, but no discussion was required; they all knew Maximus would not leave again, without a cure, and they had brought him otherwise to his grave.

  Chapter 7

  ABOARD, THEY HAD counted every day; they had hurried, they had fretted; now they were arrived and could only sit and wait, while the surgeons went through their fastidious experiments, and refused to give any opinion whatsoever. More outrageous local supplies were brought to them in succession, presented to Temeraire, occasionally tried on one of the sick dragons, and discarded again. This proceeded without any sign of useful effect, and on one unfortunate occasion again distressed Temeraire’s digestive system, so that the shared dragon-midden took on a very unpleasant quality, and had at once to be filled in and a new one dug. The old one promptly sprang up a thick carpet of grass and a bright pink weedy flower, which to their great exasperation could not be rooted out, and attracted a species of wasps viciously jealous of their territory.

  Laurence did not say so, but it was his private opinion that all this experimentation was only half-hearted, and meant to occupy their attention while Keynes waited for the climate to do its work; though Dorset made careful notes of each trial in his regular hand, going from one dragon to the next in rounds thrice daily, and inquiring with heartless indifference how much the patient had coughed since the last inquiry, what pains he suffered, how he ate; this last was never much.

  At the close of the first week, Dorset finished his latest interrogation of Captain Warren, on the condition of Nitidus, and shut his book and went and spoke quietly with Keynes and the other surgeons. “I suppose they are all prodigious clever, but if they keep on with these secret councils, and telling us nothing, I will begin to want to push their noses in for them,” Warren said, coming to join the rest of them at the card-table, which had been set up under a pavilion in the middle of the grounds. The game was mostly a polite fiction to occupy the days: they did not have much attention to the cards at any time, and now had none, all of them instead watching the surgeons as they huddled together in deep discussion.

  Keynes evaded them skillfully for two more days, and finally cornered into giving some report said crabbily, “It is too soon to tell,” but admitted that they had seen some improvement, so far as they could determine merely from the climate: the dragons had shown some resurrection of appetite and energy, and they coughed less.

  “It will be no joke, ferrying all the Corps down here,” Little said quietly, after their first early jubilation. “How many transports have we, in all?”

  “Seven, I think, if the Lyonesse is out of dry-dock,” Laurence said.

  There was a pause; then he added strongly, “But consider, we scarcely need a ship of a hundred guns only to move dragons; transports are meant foremost to deliver them to the front,” this being not entirely a misrepresentation, but only because there was little cause other than war to go to the difficulty and expense of shifting dragons about. “We can put them on barges at Gibraltar instead, and send them along the coast, with an escort of frigates to keep the French off them.”

  It sounded well enough, but they all knew that even if not inherently impractical, still such an operation was wholly unlikely to be carried out on the scale of the entire Corps. They might return with the dragons of their own formation preserved, but such a cure was likely to be denied half their comrades or more. “It is better than nothing,” Chenery said a little defiantly, “and more than we had; there is not a man of the Corps who would not have taken such odds, if offered him,” but the odds would be unequal ones.

  Longwings and Regal Coppers, heavy-combat dragons and the rarer breeds, no expense or difficulty would be spared to preserve; but for the rest—common Yellow Reapers or quick-breeding Winchesters; older dragons likely to be difficult when their captains died; the weaker or less-skilled flyers; these, a brutal political calculus would not count worth the saving, and leave to die in neglect and misery, isolated undoubtedly in the most distant quarantines which could be arranged. Their cautious satisfaction was dimmed by this shadow, and Sutton and Little took it worst; their dragons were both Yellow Reapers, and Messoria was forty. But even guilt could not extinguish all their eager hope; they slept very little that night, counting coughs instead, tallies to go into Dorset’s book; and in the morning, with only a little coaxing, Nitidus was persuaded to try his wings. Laurence and Temeraire went with him and Warren, for company and in case the little Pascal’s Blue should exhaust his strength; Nitidus was panting hoarsely from his mouth and coughing, now and again, as they flew.

  They did not go far. The local hunger for grazing land and timber had scraped the fields and hillsides down to scrubby low grass, all the way to the base of Table Mountain and its satellite peaks, where the slopes grew prohibitive: loose conglomerations of grey and yellow rock in stepped terraces like old rotting stone walls held together by grass and green moss, and clayey dirt for mortar. They ha
lted there and rested on the loose scrubby ground in the shadow of the sheer cliff wall. An extensive scurrying went on in the underbrush as the small game fled from their presence, small furry creatures like brown badgers.

  “It is a very strange sort of mountain,” Temeraire observed, craning his head to look back and forth along the long ridge of the peak above them, sheared smooth and flat as if by a leveling knife.

  “Yes; oh, very; and how hot it is,” Nitidus said, meaninglessly and half-asleep, and tucked his head beneath his wing to nap. They let him sleep in the sun, and Temeraire yawned, too, and followed his example; Laurence and Warren stood together looking back down into the deep bowl of the harbor where it ran down into the ocean, the Allegiance a toy ship among ants at this distance. The neat geometric pentagon of the castle was drawn in yellow upon the dark earth, with the dragons small, still lumps upon the parade grounds beside it.

  Warren took off his glove and rubbed the back of his hand across his brow to wipe the sweat off; he left a careless smudge. “I suppose you would go back to the Navy, if it were you?” he asked.

  “If they would have me,” Laurence said.

  “A fellow might buy a cavalry commission, I suppose,” Warren said. “There will be no shortage of soldiers needed if Bonaparte continues to have things his way; but it could hardly compare.”

  They were silent a while, considering the unpleasant options which would be the portion of so many men cast effectively on shore, by the death of the dragons on which they served.

  “Laurence,” Warren went on, after a moment, “this fellow Riley, what sort of a man is he? Ordinarily, I mean; I know you were lately both standing on your honor.”

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