Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik

  Laurence was astonished to be appealed to in such a way, but answered, “A gentleman and one of the finest officers of my acquaintance; I cannot say a word against him, personally.”

  He wondered very much what should have spurred the inquiry. With the Allegiance confined by her orders to harbor, until the dragons should once again be ready to depart, Riley had of course come to the castle and dined with General Grey on more than one occasion. Laurence had absented himself, but Catherine and the other captains had gone more often than not. Perhaps some quarrel had taken place to give rise to such a question, and Laurence hoped that perhaps Warren would elaborate. But he only nodded, and changed the subject to the likelihood that the wind would change, before their return, so Laurence’s curiosity remained unsatisfied, and the question had only the effect of making him sorry afresh for the quarrel, which he now supposed should never be made up, and the termination of their friendship.

  “Nitidus does seem better, does he not?” Temeraire murmured to Laurence, in confidential tones audible only to anyone within twenty feet, while they made ready to return; Laurence could answer wholeheartedly that he thought so as well, and when they returned to the parade grounds, the light-weight ate almost to his healthy standard, putting a period to two goats before he again fell asleep.

  On the morrow Nitidus did not want to repeat the exercise, and Dulcia would only go half so far before dropping down to rest. “But she did for a whole one of those oxen, a yearling calf,” Chenery said, doing for a substantial glass of whiskey and water himself, “and a damned good sign I call it; she has not eaten so much in a sixmonth.”

  The next day neither of them would go, but sat down again, almost as soon as they had been persuaded to get up on their feet, and begged to be excused. “It is too hot,” Nitidus complained, and asked for more water; Dulcia said more plaintively, “I would rather sleep some more, if you please.”

  Keynes put a cup to her chest to listen, and straightening up shook his head. None of the others could be stirred much beyond their sleeping places. When the tallies over which the aviators had labored were examined closely together, the dragons did indeed cough less, but it was not much less; and this benefit had been exchanged, their anxious observers soon perceived, for listlessness and lethargy. The intense heat made the dragons sleepy and disinclined to move, the interest of their new surroundings having now palled, and the brief resurgence in their appetites had evidently been spurred only by the better eating available on shore, as compared to the late stages of the sea-journey.

  “I would not have regretted it, not at all,” Sutton muttered, hunched over the table and speaking to himself, but so violently that it could not but be overheard. “How could there be any regret, in such circumstances; there could be none,” in anguish as great as though his guilt over the prospect of a cure for his own Messoria, when so many others might be left to die, had been the very cause of failure; and Little was so white and stricken that Chenery took him into his tent, and plied him with rum until he slept.

  “The rate of progress of the disease has been slowed,” Keynes said, at the close of their second week. “It is not an inconsequential benefit,” he added, little consolation for their better hopes.

  Laurence took Temeraire away flying, and kept him on the shore all the night, to spare his fellow captains at least briefly the contrast between Temeraire’s health and that of their own dragons. He felt keenly his own portion of guilt and shame, the confused mirror of Sutton’s unhappiness and Little’s: he would not have contemplated trading Temeraire’s health for all the rest, and though he knew his fellow-captains would understand perfectly and feel each of them the same for their own partner, in as irrational a way he felt the failure a punishment for this private selfishness.

  IN THE MORNING, new sails stood in the harbor: the Fiona, a quick-sailing frigate, had come in during the night, with dispatches. Catherine opened them slowly, at the breakfast-table, and read off the names: Auctoritas, Prolixus, Laudabilis, Repugnatis; gone since the new year.

  Laurence, too, had a letter, from his mother:

  All is desolation; we are done, for at least another year, and likely more, if the Government should fall again. The Motion was carried in the Commons; the Lords again defeated it, despite everything which could be done, and a most extraordinary Speech, by Mr. Wilberforce, which should have moved the Possessor of any Soul deserving of the name. The Newspapers at least are with us, and speak with all the Outrage merited by so disgusting an Event: the Times writes, “Those Nay-sayers who give no Thought to the Future may sleep easy this Night; the others must try if they can to find Rest, in the sure Knowledge that they have laid up a Store of Misery and Sorrow, which they shall be asked to repay, if not in this World, then in that To Come,” only a just Reproach…

  He folded it and put it aside in his coat pocket; he had no heart to read further, and they left the dining room a silent party.

  The castle barracks were large enough to house a larger party than they made, but with the disease marching implacable along, the captains by silent agreement preferred to stay closer by their sick beasts. The other officers and men not wishing to be outdone, a small battalion of tents and pavilions sprang up about the grounds, where they most of them spent their days and nights, barring the infrequent rain. All the better to discourage the occasional invasion of the local children, who remembered Temeraire’s last visit of a year ago enough to have lost some of their fear; they had now formed the game of working one another up, until one, challenged past the point of endurance, would make a mad flurrying dash through the parade grounds among the sleeping dragons, before fleeing back out again to receive the congratulations of his peers.

  These escalating adventures Sutton quelled for good one afternoon, when a boy dashing in slapped his hand against Messoria’s side, and startled her out of a rare sound sleep. She reared up her head into snorting wakefulness, and the guilty culprit fell over into the dust, scuttling crab-like backwards on hands and feet and rump in his alarm, much greater than hers.

  Sutton rose from the card-table and went over to take the boy by the arm, heaving him up to his feet. “Bring me a switch, Alden,” he said to his runner, and leading the intruder stumbling out of the grounds, applied himself with vigor, while the other children scattered and ran a little distance away, peeking out from behind the bushes. At length the unlucky boy’s howls faded to whimpering sobs, and Sutton returned to the table. “I beg your pardon, gentlemen,” he said, and they resumed their desultory play; there were no more incursions that day.

  But Laurence woke shortly after dawn, the subsequent morning, and went out of his own tent to find a loud squabbling at their gates, two knots of older children wrestling and kicking at each other with a polyglot confusion of yelling: a handful of Malay and scruffy Dutch boys together, and against them a smaller band of the black natives of the Cape, the Khoi, although previously the two groups had all been equal offenders together. Unhappily their quarrel had roused the dragons, who thus began an hour early their morning bouts of coughing; Maximus, who had suffered badly during the night, gave a heavy sighing groan. Sutton came rushing out of his tent in a mottled rage, and Berkley would have set among the lot of them with the flat of his sword, if Lieutenant Ferris had not thrown himself in the way, his arms outspread, as Emily and Dyer scrambled out from the dusty melee.

  “We did not mean to”, she said, muffled by the hand with which she tried to stanch her bloodied nose, “only they both brought some” by some evil genius, the two parties had at the same time after weeks of searching finally uncovered some of the mushroom. Now the rival bands were squabbling over their claim to be the first to present the enormous mushroom caps, two feet and more across, and stinking even in their natural state to high Heaven.

  “Lieutenant Ferris, let us have a little order, if you please,” Laurence said, raising his voice, “and let them know they will all of them be paid: there is not the least need for this fuss.”

  Despite attempts to convey this reassurance, it took some time to drag apart the angry combatants, who if they did not speak one another’s language certainly understood the salient phrases which were being exchanged, at least well enough to keep their tempers fired up, and who kicked and swung their arms at each other even when hauled apart by main force. They stopped abruptly, however: Temeraire, having woken up also, put his head over the low fence to snuffle with appreciation at the caps, left abandoned by both sides in the grass while they attempted to settle their quarrel by might at arms.

  “Ah, mm,” said Temeraire, and licked his chops; in spite of their earlier bravado, the boys did not quite dare to run at him and snatch them away from his jaws, but they all joined into a general cry of protest, seeing themselves on the verge of being robbed, and as a consequence were at last convinced to settle down and accept their payment, counted out in gold coins with precisely equal amounts on both sides.

  The Dutch-and-Malay contingent were inclined to grumble, as theirs had been the larger specimen, with three separate caps arranged upon a single stem, as compared to the two upon the mushroom brought by the Khoi, but a speaking glare from Sutton silenced them all. “Bring us some more, and you shall be paid again,” Laurence said, but this produced discouraged looks rather than hope, and they looked at his closed-up purse a little resentfully before they scattered away, to quarrel now amongst themselves over the division of spoils.

  “They cannot be edible?” Catherine said doubtfully, in a stifled voice, her handkerchief pressed over her mouth as she examined the things: growths more than proper mushrooms, lopsided and bulging oddly, a pallid fish-belly white irregularly spotted with brown.

  But Temeraire said, “Certainly I remember these; they were very tasty,” and only regretfully let Gong Su carry the mushrooms away, which he did by holding them at arm’s-length, gingerly, with two very long sticks.

  Having learnt from their earlier experience, they set up the cauldron out of doors instead of within the castle kitchens, Gong Su directing the crews to lay a substantial bonfire underneath the big iron pot, suspended from stakes, with a ladder beside it so he might stir from afar with a long-handled wooden ladle. “Perhaps the red pepper-corns,” Temeraire offered, “or maybe the green; I do not quite remember,” he said apologetically, as Gong Su consulted his spice-box at length in attempts to reproduce the former recipe.

  Keynes shrugged and said, “Stew the thing and have done; if we must rely on your reproducing some trick of spicing invented a year ago by five cooks, we may as well go back to England now.”

  They stewed it all the morning, Temeraire bending over the pot, sniffing at the bouquet as critically as any drinker of wine and making further suggestions: until at last he licked up a taste from the rim of the cauldron and pronounced it a success, “Or at least, it seems to me familiar; and it is very good,” he added, to an audience of none: they had all been driven away to the edge of the clearing, choking, and barely heard him. Poor Catherine had been taken violently ill, and was still retching behind a bush.

  They covered their noses and carried Maximus the posset, which he seemed to enjoy, even stirring himself so far as to put a talon inside the cauldron to tip it over, so he might lick out the last scrapings. After an initial somnolence, it put him in a thoroughly good mood, so that he roused up and even ate all of the tender young kid which Berkley had acquired for his dinner more in hope than in expectation, and asked for more; though he fell asleep again before this could be arranged.

  Berkley would have woken him to feed him another goat, and his own surgeon Gaiters agreed; but Dorset took the strongest exception and would have denied him even the first, on the grounds that the digestive processes might interfere with the effect of the posset. This shortly devolved into an argument, as violent as hissing whispers could make it, until, Keynes said finally, “Let him sleep,” overruling both, “but henceforth we will feed him as much as he can eat, after each dose; the importance of restoring his weight cannot be overstated, to the cause of his general preservation. Dulcia is better-fleshed: we will try her on the posset tomorrow as well, without food.”

  “I ate it with some oxen; or perhaps some antelope,” Temeraire said reminiscently, nosing a little sadly at the empty pot. “There was some very nice fat, I remember that particularly, the fat with the mushroom sauce; so perhaps it was the oxen after all,” the local breed possessing a queer fatty shoulder-hump over the forequarters.

  This single meal had been all Temeraire’s prior experience, but Keynes had divided their meager sample, and beginning with the following morning, Maximus and Dulcia were fed upon it three days in succession, until all the supply was gone. As Laurence remembered it, the concoction had made Temeraire mostly drowsy, and so Maximus became, but on the third day Dulcia alarmed them all by turning unexpectedly manic with excitement on the repeated dose, and nearly insisting on going for a long hectic flight, quite likely beyond her strength, and at the least sure not to be beneficial to her health.

  “I can, I am well, I am well!” she cried, her wings fanning at the air; and she went hopping about the parade grounds evasively on her back legs with the surgeons chasing after in attempts to calm her. Chenery was of no use: he had spent the intervening days since the failure of their first hopes keeping himself and Captain Little half-drunk at all times, and in defiance of all the pessimism which Keynes could inflict would happily have thrown himself aboard and gone.

  Dulcia was finally persuaded not to go flying off, with the temptation of a couple of lambs dressed hastily by Gong Su with some of the peppery local seed-pods which Temeraire liked; no one suggested she should not be allowed to eat, this time, and she devoured them so readily as to spray bits of meat around the feeding grounds, though ordinarily a rather delicate eater.

  Temeraire watched her enviously; not only was he not allowed more than a taste of the posset itself, which he so enjoyed, but his belly was still inclined to be delicate after his excessive adventuring; so that Keynes had placed him on a strict and uninteresting diet of plain-roasted meat which his palate now disdained. “Well, at least we have found the cure, then, surely?”

  Dulcia, having finished her repast, fell down asleep and began at once snoring loudly, with a thin wheezing whine on the exhale: nevertheless an improvement, as she had only lately been perfectly unable to breathe save through her mouth. Keynes came over and sat down heavily on the log beside Laurence, mopping his sweating red face with a kerchief, and said disgruntled, “Enough, enough of this casting ourselves into alt; have none of you learnt your lesson? The lungs are by no means clear.”

  A heavy bank of clouds blew in during the night, so they all woke to a steady dripping grey rain and clammy wet ground, the air still unpleasantly hot and clinging damply to the skin like sweat. Dulcia was worse again, drooping and tired after her previous day’s cavorting, and the dragons were all of them more inclined to sneeze than ever; even Temeraire sighed and shivered, trying to get more of the rain off his hide and out of the hollows of bone and muscle where it collected. “I do miss China,” he said, picking unhappily at his wet dinner; Gong Su had been unable to sear the antelope carcass properly.

  “It must be something else; we will find it, Laurence,” Catherine said, giving him his coffee-cup at the breakfast table inside the castle. Laurence accepted it mechanically and sat down among the rest of them; they ate silently, only the clatter of forks and plates; no one even offered around the salt-cellar, or asked for it. Chenery, ordinarily their life and gaiety, had bruised hollows under his eyes as if he had been beaten about the face, and Berkley had not come in to breakfast at all.

  Keynes came in stamping his feet clear of mud, his coat sodden with rain and traces of whitish mucus, and said heavily, “Very well: we must have more of the thing.” They looked at him, made uncomprehending by his tone, and he glared back ferociously before he admitted with reluctance, “Maximus can breathe again,” and sent them all running for the door.

KEYNES DISLIKED GREATLY giving them even this much hope, and resisted all their demands for more; but they could stand by Maximus’s head and hear for themselves the slow wheeze of air through his nostrils, and the same for Dulcia also. The two of them yet coughed and coughed and coughed, but the aviators all agreed amongst themselves that the tenor of the sound was entirely altered: a salutary and productive cough, and not the wet terrible lung-rattle which did not end; or so they contrived to persuade one another.

  Dorset still made his daily implacable notations, however, and the surgeons continued with the other experiments: a sort of custard made out of green bananas and cocoanut meat was offered to Lily, who tasted one swallow and refused any more point-blank. Messoria was persuaded to lie curled on one side and a battery of candles were melted onto her skin, lit and cupped, to attempt and heat the lungs, with no apparent effect except to leave great streaks of wax upon her hide. A tiny white-haired Khoi matron appeared at their gates dragging behind her a laundry tub nearly her own size, packed to the brim with a preparation made of monkey livers; with only her broken bits of pidgin Dutch she managed to convey the impression she had brought them a sovereign remedy for any illness whatsoever. When tried on Immortalis, he ate one unenthusiastic bite and left the rest; but they had still to pay, as the remainder was quickly raided by Dulcia, who cleaned out the tub and looked for more.

  Her appetite increased by leaps and bounds as the sensation of taste returned, and she coughed less daily; by the end of the fifth day almost not at all, except for an occasional hacking. Maximus coughed a while longer, but in the middle of the night towards the end of the week, they were all woken by a terrible squealing, distant shrieks of terror and fire; in a panic they burst out from the tents to discover Maximus attempting guiltily to sneak unnoticed back into the parade grounds, with as much success as was to be expected in this endeavor, and carrying in his already-bloodied jaws a spare ox. This he hurriedly swallowed down almost entire, on finding himself observed, and then pretended not to know what they were talking about, insisting he had only got up to stretch his legs and settle himself more comfortably. The track of his dragging tail, followed through dust spotted liberally with blood, led them to a nearby stable now half-collapsed, the paddock circled by the wreckage of a fence, and the owners apoplectic with rage and terror at the loss of their valuable team of oxen.

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