Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik

  “It is just that the wind turned, and they smelled so very good,” Maximus confessed finally, when confronted with the evidence, “and it has been so long since I have had a nice fresh cow, with no cooking or spices.”

  “Why you ridiculous lummox, as though we would not feed you whatever you liked,” Berkley said, without any heat whatsoever, petting him extravagantly. “You will have two of them tomorrow.”

  “And let us have no more damned excuses out of you for not eating, during the day, when you will go wandering about at night like a rampaging lion to stuff your belly,” Keynes added more peevishly, scruffy with his night’s growth of beard and disgruntled; he had for once sought his bed at a reasonable hour, after having sat up nearly every night the week observing the dragons. “Why you did not think to tell anyone, I can scarcely understand.”

  “I did not like to wake Berkley: he has not been eating properly,” Maximus said earnestly, at which accusation Berkley, who had indeed shed another two stone of weight since their arrival, nearly spluttered himself into a fit.

  Afterwards they fed Maximus on the ordinary British diet of fresh-slaughtered cattle, occasionally sprinkled with a little salt, and he began to eat through the local herds—and their own purses—at a truly remarkable rate, until Temeraire was recruited to hunt for him northward of the Cape among the vast herds of wild buffalo; although these were not as tasty in Maximus’s mournful opinion.

  By then even Keynes had ceased to affect displeasure, and they were wholly engaged on a fresh, a desperate, search, for more of the wretched fungus. The local children had given up the hunt as too unlikely of return: despite every promise which Laurence and his fellow captains could make of their open and waiting purses, none seemed inclined to hazard their time on the pursuit.

  “We can do it ourselves, I suppose,” Catherine said doubtfully, and in the morning Laurence and Chenery took a party of men out to seek hunting grounds less picked-over, Dorset along to confirm the identity of the mushroom; the other captains would not willingly leave their sick dragons, and Berkley was plainly not up to a long traipse through wilderness, although he offered to go.

  “No need, old fellow,” Chenery said cheerfully, very cheerfully: since Dulcia’s recovery he was little short of getting on a table to sing for joy, given the least encouragement. “We will manage all right, and you had better stay here and eat with your dragon; he is right, you need fattening up again.”

  He proceeded to put himself together in the most outlandish manner imaginable, leaving off his coat and tying his neckcloth around his forehead to keep sweat off his face, and arming himself with a heavy old cavalry saber from the castle armory. The resulting appearance would not have shamed a disreputable pirate, but emerging into the clearing, Chenery looked at Laurence, who was waiting for him in coat and neckcloth and hat, with an expression as dubious as the one which Laurence himself, with more tact, was repressing.

  The dragons struck out north, over the bay with Table Mountain at their backs, the Allegiance flashing by below; crossed the glass-green shallows and scalloped curve of pale gold-sand beach at the farther shore, and curved their course north-east and inland, towards a long solitary ridge, the Kasteelberg, which jutted out alone from the rich heartland, an outlier of the mountain ranges farther inland.

  Chenery and Dulcia took the lead, signal-flags exuberantly waving, and carried them past the settlements and over a swath of thickening wilderness, setting a brisk and challenging pace that stretched Temeraire’s wings and kept her ahead and out of hailing-distance until very nearly the dinner-hour; only reluctantly did she finally set down, upon a riverbank some ten miles beyond the mountain where they had meant to stop.

  Laurence did not have the heart to say anything; he doubted the wisdom of going so far afield, when the mushrooms were perhaps native to the Cape, and they knew nothing of the territory into which they were flying, but Dulcia was stretching her wings out to the sun, drinking deep from the running river, great gulps traveling down her throat visibly. She cast her neck back in an ecstatic spray, and Chenery laughed like a boy and pressed his cheek against her foreleg.

  “Are those lions?” Temeraire asked with interest as he folded his wings, his head cocked to listen: there was a deal of angry roaring off in the bush, not the drum-and-bassoon thunder-roll of dragons, but a deep huffed breathy noise, perhaps in protest at the invasion of their territory. “I have never seen a lion,” Temeraire added, nor was likely to, so long as the lions had anything to do with the matter: however annoyed they might be, they would surely not venture anywhere in range.

  “Are they very large?” Dulcia said anxiously; neither she nor Temeraire were very enthusiastic about letting the crew continue on foot into the ground cover, despite the party of riflemen which had been brought for their protection. “Perhaps you ought to stay with us.”

  “Pray, how are we to see any mushrooms from mid-air?” Chenery said. “You shall have a nice rest, and maybe eat something, and we will be back in a trice. We will manage quite well if we meet any lions; we have six guns with us, my dear.”

  “But what if there are seven lions,” Dulcia said.

  “Then we shall have to use our pistols,” Chenery said to her cheerfully, showing her his own as he reloaded them fresh to give her comfort.

  “I promise you, no lion will come to us to be shot,” Laurence said to Temeraire. “They will run as soon as they hear the first gun, and we will fire away a flare if we need you.”

  “Well; so long as you are careful,” Temeraire said, and settled his head on his forelegs, disconsolate.

  Chenery’s old saber served well to hack their way into the forest, where Dorset thought the mushroom most likely to be found in the cool and damp soil, and all the game they saw, slim antelope and birds, was at a distance and bounding away quickly: frightened away by the noise of their passage, which was incredible. The undergrowth was ferociously impenetrable, full of immense silver thornbushes, their teeth nearly three inches long and sharp as needles at the tip, treacherously buried in a wealth of green leaves. They were at all times beating down clinging vines and tearing branches, except occasionally where they broke across the trail where some large animals had trampled a path, leaving behind them trees scraped free of bark with red weeping sores like blood. But these offered only brief respite; Dorset would not let them follow the paths for long, from anxiety at meeting their creators, most likely elephants; he was in any case doubtful that they would find any of the mushroom in the open.

  They were very hot and tired indeed by dinner-time, no man of them having escaped bloody scratches, and would have been wholly lost but for their compasses, when at last Dyer, who had suffered less, being still a small boy and thin, gave a cry of triumph. Throwing himself flat on his belly, he wriggled beneath another thornbush and emerged again backwards holding a specimen which had been growing against the base of a dead tree.

  It was small and clotted with dirt, with two caps only, but this success at once renewed all their energy, and after giving Dyer a huzzah and sharing a glass of grog, they threw themselves again into the task and into the brush.

  “How long,” Chenery said, panting as he hacked away, “do you suppose it would take, for every dragon in England; if we must find them all like this—”

  There was a low crackling of brush like water droplets sizzling in a skillet of hot fat, and a low coughing sound, dyspeptic, came from the other side of the choked-off shrub. “Be cautious—cautious,” Dorset said, repeating the stammered word as Riggs went closer. Chenery’s first lieutenant Libbley held out his hand, and Chenery gave him the sword. “There may be—”

  He stopped. Libbley had worked the sword into the brush to cut away the entangling moss, and Riggs had with his hands pulled apart the branches; a massive head was regarding them thoughtfully through the empty space. It was a pebbled leathery grey, with two enormous horns in a line at the end of its snout and piggishly small black eyes, hard and shiny, its odd hatchet-s
haped lip moving ruminatively as it chewed. It was not large compared to a dragon; compared to an ox or even the local buffalo it was very, and so massively built and armored that it took on an inexorable quality.

  “Is it an elephant?” Riggs asked in a hushed voice, turning his head, and abruptly the thing snorted and came at them: smashing all the thicket into splinters, astonishing fast for so heavy a creature, with its head bowed forward so the horns thrust out before it as it came. There was a confused ringing clamor of yells and shouts, and Laurence had barely the presence of mind to take hold of Dyer’s and Emily’s collars and pull them back against the trees; groping only afterwards for his pistol, his sword. Too late: the thing had already gone crashing away madly on its set course, and not one of them had got off a shot.

  “A rhinoceros,” Dorset was saying calmly. “They are near-sighted, and prone to ill-temper, or so I understand from my reading. Captain Laurence, will you give me your neckcloth?”—and Laurence looked up to see Dorset working busily on Chenery’s leg, a copious flow of blood pumping freely from the thigh where a thick jagged branch jutted out.

  Dorset sliced open the breeches with a large catling, intended for use on the delicate layered membranes of dragon wings, maneuvering the tip deftly, and performed a skillful ligature of the pumping vein; afterwards he wrapped the neckcloth several times around the thigh. Meanwhile Laurence had directed the others in making a litter of tree-branches and their coats. “It is only the merest scratch,” Chenery said vaguely, “pray do not disturb the dragons,” but at the quick negative shake of Dorset’s head, Laurence paid Chenery’s protests no attention and fired away the blue gun, sending up the flare.

  “Only lie easy,” he said to Chenery, “they will come in a moment, I am sure,” and almost instantly the great shadow of dragon wings came spilling over them, Temeraire’s backlit form solidly black against the sun, the outline too bright to look at him directly. The trees and branches crackled and shattered under his weight, and then he thrust his head in close among them, sniffing, a great reddish head with ten curving ivory tusks set in its upper lip: it was not Temeraire at all.

  “Christ preserve us,” Laurence said involuntarily, reaching for his pistol. The beast was not very much smaller than Temeraire, larger than he had imagined ever seeing a feral dragon, built heavy in the shoulders with a double ridge of spikes, the color of red-brown mud, patterned liberally with yellow and grey. “Another gun, Riggs, another gun—”

  Riggs fired away, and the feral dragon hissed in irritation, batting, too late, at the streaking flare that burst blue light overhead. His head snaked back towards them, the pupils of his virulent yellow-green eyes narrowing, and he bared his jaws; then Dulcia came darting through the canopy of the trees, crying, “Chenery, Chenery,” and flung herself clawing madly at the much larger feral’s head.

  Taken aback by the ferocity of her reckless attack, the red-brown dragon recoiled at first, but snapped back at her with astonishing speed, caught the leading edge of her wing in his mouth, and shook her up and down by it. She shrilled in pain, but when he let her go, apparently satisfied that she had learnt her lesson, she dived back at him again, her teeth bared, despite blood spider-webbing blackly over the membrane of her wing.

  He backed away a few paces as best as he could in the close press of the forest, crushing over a few more trees with his rump, with rather a bewildered air, and hissed at her again. She had put herself between them and the feral, and, spreading her wings wide and sheltering, reared up as large as she could make herself, foreclaws raised. Still she looked rather toy-like next to his massive bulk, and instead of attacking, he sat back on his haunches and scratched his nose against his foreleg, in an attitude almost of embarrassed confusion. Laurence had seen Temeraire often express a certain reluctance at fighting a smaller beast, conscious of the difference in their weight-class; but in turn, smaller dragons would not offer battle to one so much larger, ordinarily, without supporting allies to make the contest a more equal one; only the incentive of her captain’s safety was inducing Dulcia to do so now.

  Temeraire’s shadow fell over them, and the feral jerked his head up, shoulders bristling, and launched himself aloft to meet the new threat, more his match. Laurence could not see very well what was going forward, though he craned desperately: they had Dulcia to contend with, who in her anxiety to see Chenery and gauge his injuries was bending close and interfering. “Enough, let us get him aboard,” Dorset said, rapping her smartly upon the breast until she backed away. “In the belly-rigging; he must be strapped down properly,” and they hurriedly secured the makeshift litter to the harness.

  Meanwhile above the feral darted back and forth about Temeraire in short half-arcs, hissing and clicking at him like a kettle on the boil. Temeraire paused in mid-air, his wings beating the hovering stroke which only Chinese dragons could manage, and his ruff came up and spread wide as his chest expanded deeply. The feral promptly beat away a few more wing-spans, widening the distance between them, and kept his position until Temeraire gave his terrible thundering roar: the trees shaking with the force of it so that a hail of old leaves and twigs, trapped in the canopy, came shedding down upon them, and also some of the ugly lumpen sausage-shaped fruits, whose impact thumped deep aggressive dents in the ground around them; Chenery’s midwingman Hyatt uttered a startled oath as one glanced off his shoulder. Laurence rubbed dust and pollen from his face, squinting up: the feral looked rather impressed, as well he might be, and after a moment’s more hesitation peeled away and flew out of their sight.

  Chenery was got aboard with no less haste, and they flew at once back to Capetown, Dulcia constantly craning her head down towards her own belly to see how he did. They unloaded him sadly in the courtyard, and he was carried into the castle, already become feverish and excited, to be examined by the governor’s physician, while Laurence took in the one poor sample that was all the day’s work had won them.

  Keynes regarded it somberly, and finally said, “Nitidus. If we must worry about ferals in the forests, even so near, you must have a small dragon to carry you into the woods; and Dulcia will not go away when Chenery is so ill.”

  “The thing grows hidden, under bushes,” Laurence said. “We cannot be hunting from dragon-back.”

  “You cannot be getting yourselves knocked about by rhinoceri and eaten by ferals, either,” Keynes snapped. “We are not served, Captain, by a cure which consists in losing more dragons than are made healthy, in the process of acquiring it,” and turning, stamped away with the sample to Gong Su, to have it prepared.

  Warren swallowed when he heard Keynes’s decision, and said in a voice which did not rise very high, “Lily ought to have it,” but Catherine said strongly, “We will not quarrel with the surgeons, Micah; Mr. Keynes must make all such determinations.”

  “When we have enough,” Keynes said quietly, “we may experiment to see how far the dose may be stretched: at present we must have some strength in dragons to get more, and I am by no means confident that this quantity would do for Lily’s size. Maximus will be in no condition to do more than a little easy flying for weeks yet.”

  “I understand perfectly, Mr. Keynes, let us say not another word on the subject,” she said, so Nitidus was fed upon the posset, and Lily continued to cough miserably; Catherine sat by her head all the night, stroking her muzzle, heedless of the real danger to herself from the spatters of acid.

  Chapter 8

  WHOLLY UNLIKELY—WHOLLY unlikely,” Dorset said severely, when Catherine in despair suggested, two weeks later, that they had already acquired all the specimens which there were in the world.

  Nitidus had suffered less than most of the dragons, although complained somewhat more, and he recovered with greater speed even than Dulcia, despite a nervous inclination to cough even after the physical necessity had gone. “I am sure I feel a little thickness in my head again this morning,” he said fretfully, or his throat was a little sensitive, or his shoulders ached.

bsp; “It is only to be expected,” Keynes said of the last, scarcely a week since he had been dosed, “when you have been lying about for months with no proper exercise. You had better take him out tomorrow, and enough of this caterwauling,” he added to Warren, and stamped away.

  With this encouraging permission, they had promptly renewed the search which had been curtailed by Chenery’s injury, confining the sphere a little closer to the immediate environs of the Cape; but after two more weeks had gone by, they had met with no more feral dragons and also with no more success. They had brought back in desperation several other varieties of mushroom, not entirely dissimilar in appearance, two of which proved instantly poisonous to the furry local rodents which Dorset made their first recipients.

  Keynes prodded the small curled dead bodies and shook his head. “It is not to be risked. You are damned fortunate not to have poisoned Temeraire with the thing in the first place.”

  “What the devil are we to do, then?” Catherine demanded. “If there is no more to be had—”

  “There will be more,” Dorset said with assurance, and for his part, he continued to perform daily rounds of the marketplace, forcing the merchants and stall-keepers there to look at his detailed sketch of the mushroom, rendered in pencil and ink. His steady perseverance was rewarded by the merchants growing so exasperated that one of the Khoi, whose Dutch and English encompassed only the numbers one through ten, all he ordinarily required to sell his wares, finally appeared at their gates with Reverend Erasmus in tow, having sought his assistance to put a stop to the constant harassment.

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