Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik


  “He wishes you to know that the mushroom does not grow here in the Cape, if I have understood correctly,” Erasmus explained, “but that the Xhosa—” He was here interrupted by the Khoi merchant, who impatiently repeated the name quite differently, incorporating an odd sort of clicking noise at the beginning which reminded Laurence of nothing more than some sounds of the Durzagh language, difficult for a human tongue to render.

  “In any case,” Erasmus said, after another unsuccessful attempt to repeat the name properly, “he means a tribe which lives farther along the coast and, having more dealings inland, may know where more is to be found.”

  Pursuing this intelligence, however, Laurence soon discovered that to make any contact would be difficult in the extreme: the tribesmen who dwelt nearest the Cape had withdrawn farther and farther from the Dutch settlements, after their last wave of assaults—not unprovoked—had been flung back, some eight years before. They were now settled into an uneasy and often-broken truce with the colonists, and only at the very frontiers was any intercourse still to be had with them.

  “And that,” Mr. Rietz informed Laurence, the two of them communicating by means of equally halting German on both sides, “the pleasure of having our cattle stolen: twice a month we lose a cow or more, for all they have signed one truce after another.”

  He was one of the chief men of Swellendam, one of the oldest villages of the Cape, and still nearly as far inland as any of the settlers had successfully established themselves: nestled at the foot of a sheltering ridge of mountains, which deterred incursions by the ferals. The vineyards and farmland were close-huddled around the neat and compact white-washed homes, only a handful of heavily fortified farmhouses more widely flung. The settlers were wary of the feral dragons who often came raiding from over the mountains, against whom they had built a small central fort bolstered with two six-pounders, and resentful of their black neighbors, of whom Rietz further added, “The kaffirs are all rascals, whatever heathenish name you like to call them; and I advise you against any dealings with them. They are savages to a man, and more likely will murder you while you sleep than be of any use.”

  Having said so much mostly under the unspoken but no less potent duress of Temeraire’s presence on the outskirts of his village, he considered this final and was by no means willing to be of further assistance, but sat mutely until Laurence gave it up and let him go back to his accounts.

  “Those certainly are very handsome cows,” Temeraire said, with a healthy admiration of his own, when Laurence rejoined him. “You cannot blame the ferals for taking them, when they do not know any better, and the cows are just sitting there in the pen, doing no-one any good. But how are we to find any of these Xhosa, if the settlers will not help? I suppose we might fly about looking for them?”—a suggestion which would certainly ensure they did not catch the least sight of a people who surely had to be deeply wary of dragons, as likely as the settlers to be victims of the feral beasts.

  General Grey snorted, when Laurence had returned to Capetown seeking an alternative, and reported Rietz’s reaction. “Yes; and I imagine if you find one of the Xhosa, he will make you the very same complaint in reverse. They are all forever stealing cattle from one another, and the only thing they would agree on, I suppose, is to complain of the ferals worse. It is a bad business,” he added, “these settlers want more grazing land, badly, and they cannot get it; so they have nothing to do but quarrel with the tribesmen over what land the ferals do not mind leaving to them.”

  “Can the ferals not be deterred?” Laurence asked. He did not know how ferals were managed, precisely; in Britain he knew they were largely induced to confine themselves to the breeding grounds, by the regular provision of easy meals.

  “No; there must be too much wild game,” Grey said. “They are not tempted enough, at any rate, to leave the settlements alone, and there have been trials made enough to prove it. Every year a few young hotheads make a push inland; for what good it does them, which is none.” He shrugged. “Most of our adventurers are not heard from again, and of course the inaction of the government is blamed. But they will not understand the expense and difficulty involved. I tell you I should not undertake to carve out any more sizable territory here without at the least a six-dragon formation, and two companies of field artillery.”

  Laurence nodded; there was certainly no likelihood of the Admiralty sending such assistance at present, or for that matter in the foreseeable future; even apart from the disease, which had so wracked their aerial strength, any significant force would naturally be committed to the war against France.

  “We will just have to make shift as best we can,” Catherine said, when he had grimly reported his lack of success that night. “Surely Reverend Erasmus can help us; he can speak with the natives, and perhaps that merchant will know where we can find them.”

  Laurence and Berkley went to apply to him the next morning at the mission, already much altered since the last visit which Laurence had made: the plot of land was now a handsome vegetable-garden, full of tomato and pepper plants; a few Khoi girls in modest black shifts were tending the rows, tying up the tomato plants to stakes, and another group beneath a broad mimosa tree were sewing diligently, while Mrs. Erasmus and another missionary lady, a white woman, took it in turn to read to them out of a Bible translated into their tongue.

  Inside, the house was almost wholly given over to students scratching laboriously away at writing on scraps of slate, paper too valuable to be used for such an exercise. Erasmus came walking outside with them, for lack of room to talk, and said, “I have not forgotten to be grateful to you for our passage here, Captain, and I would gladly be of service to you. But there is likely as much kinship between the Khoi tongue and that of the Xhosa as there is between French and German, and I am by no means yet fluent even in the first. Hannah does better, and we do remember a little of our own native tongues; but those will be of even less use: we were both taken from tribes much farther north.”

  “You still have a damned better chance to jaw with them than any of us do,” Berkley said bluntly. “It cannot be that bloody difficult to make them understand: we have a scrap of the thing left, and we can wave it in their faces to show them what we want.”

  “Surely having lived neighbor to the Khoi themselves,” Laurence said, “there may be those among them who speak a little of that tongue, which would allow you to open some communication? We can ask only,” he added, “that you try: a failure would leave us no worse than we stand.”

  Erasmus stopped before the garden gate, watching where his wife was reading to the girls, then said low and thoughtfully, “I have not heard of it, if anyone has brought the Gospel to the Xhosa yet.”

  THOUGH BARRED FROM much expansion inland, the settlers had been creeping steadily out along the coast eastward from Capetown. The Tsitsikamma River, some two long days’ flight away, was now a theoretical sort of border between the Dutch and the Xhosa territories: there were no settlements nearer than Plettenberg Bay, and if the Xhosa were lurking in the brush five steps beyond the boundaries of the outermost villages, as many of the settlers imagined they were, no-one would have been any the wiser. But they had been pushed across the river in the last fighting, it was a convenient line upon a map, and so it had been named in the treaties.

  Temeraire kept to the coastline in their flight: a strange and beautiful series of low curved cliffsides, thickly crusted with green vegetation and in some places lichen of bright red, cream and brown rocks spilling from their feet; and beaches of golden sand, some littered with squat penguins too small to be alarmed by their passage overhead: they were not prey for dragons. Late in their second day of flying they passed the lagoon of Knysna sheltered behind its narrow mouth to the ocean, and arrived late in the evening on the banks of the Tsitsikamma, the river driving its way inland, deep in its green-lined channel.

  In the morning, before crossing the river, they tied onto two stakes large white sheets, as flags of parley, to
avoid giving provocation; and set these streaming out to either side of Temeraire’s wings. They flew cautiously onwards into Xhosa territory, until they came to an open clearing, large enough to permit them to settle Temeraire some distance back, and divided by a narrow, swift-running stream: no obstacle, but perhaps enough of a boundary to provide comfort to someone standing on the other side.

  Laurence had brought with him, besides a small but substantial heap of gold guineas, a wide assortment of those things which were commonly used in the local barter, in hopes of tempting out the natives: foremost among them several great chains of cowrie shells, strung on silk thread; in some parts of the continent these were used as currency, and the sense of value persisted more widely; locally they were highly prized as jewellery. Temeraire was for once unimpressed: the shells were not brightly colored enough nor glittery nor iridescent, and did not awaken his magpie nature; he eyed the narrow chain of pearls which Catherine had contributed to the cause with much more interest.

  The whole collection the crew laid out upon a large blanket, near enough the edge of the stream to be visible plainly to an observer on the other bank, and with these hoped to coax out some response. Temeraire crouched down as best he could, and then they waited. They had made enough noise, to be sure, but the region was vast: they had flown two days to reach the river, and Laurence was not sanguine.

  They slept that night on the bank with no response; and the second day also passed without event, except that Temeraire went hunting and brought back four antelope, which they roasted on a spit for dinner. Not very successfully: Gong Su had remained back at the camp, to feed the other dragons who yet continued ill, and young Allen, detailed to turn the spit, grew distracted and forgot, so that they were scorched black on one side and unappetizingly raw on the other. Temeraire put back his ruff in disapproval; he was, Laurence sadly noted, becoming excessive nice in his tastes, an unfortunate habit in a soldier.

  The third day crept onward, hot and clinging from the first, and the men wilted gradually into silence; Emily and Dyer scratched unenthusiastically at their slates, and Laurence forced himself to rise at intervals to pace back and forth, that he would not fall asleep. Temeraire gave a tremendous yawn and put down his head to snore. At an hour past noon they had their dinner: only bread and butter and a little grog, but no one wanted more in the heat, even after the debacle of the previous evening’s meal. The sun dipped only reluctantly back towards the horizon; the day stretched.

  “Are you comfortable, ma’am?” Laurence asked, bringing Mrs. Erasmus another cup of grog; they had set her up a little pavilion with the traveling-tents, so she might keep in the shade: the little girls had been left back at the castle, in the charge of a maid. She inclined her head and accepted the cup, seeming as always quite careless of her own comfort. A necessary quality, to be sure, for a missionary’s wife being dragged the length of the globe, yet it felt uncivilized to be subjecting her to the violence of the day’s heat for so little evident use; she did not complain, but she could not have enjoyed being packed aboard a dragon, however well she concealed her fears, and she wore a high-necked gown with sleeves to the wrist, of dark fabric, while the sun beat so ferociously that it glowed even through the leather of the tent.

  “I am sorry we have imposed upon you,” he said. “If we hear nothing tomorrow, I think we must consider our attempt a failure.”

  “I will pray for a happier outcome,” she said, in her deep steady voice, briefly, and kept her head bowed down.

  Mosquitoes sang happily as dusk drew on, though they did not come very close to Temeraire; the flies were less judicious. The shapes of the trees were growing vague when Temeraire woke with a start and said, “Laurence, there is someone coming, there,” and the grass rustled on the opposite bank.

  A very slight man emerged in the half-light on the far bank: bare-headed, and naked but for a small blanket which was draped rather too casually around his body to preserve modesty. He was carrying a long, slim-hafted assegai, the blade narrow and spade-shaped, and over his other shoulder was slung a rather skinny antelope. He did not come across the stream, keeping a wary eye on Temeraire; he craned his neck a little to look over their blanket of goods, but plainly he would come no farther.

  “Reverend, perhaps if you would accompany me,” Laurence said softly and set out, Ferris following along doggedly behind them without having been asked. Laurence paused at the blanket and lifted up the most elaborate of the cowrie chains, a neck-collar in six or seven bands of alternating dark and light shells, interspersed with gold beads.

  They forded the river, shallow here and not coming over the tops of their boots; Laurence surreptitiously touched the butt of his pistol, looking at the javelin: they would be vulnerable, coming up the bank. But the hunter only backed away towards the woods as they emerged from the water, so in the dim light he was very nearly invisible against the underbrush, and could easily have dived back into the obscurity which this afforded: Laurence supposed he had more right than they to be alarmed, alone to their large party, with Temeraire behind them sitting cat-like on his haunches and regarding the situation with anxiety.

  “Sir, pray let me,” Ferris said, so plaintively Laurence surrendered the neck-chain to him. He edged cautiously out across the distance, the necklace offered across his palms. The hunter hesitated, very obviously tempted, and then he tentatively held out the antelope towards them, with a slightly abashed air, as if he did not think it a very fair exchange.

  Ferris shook his head, and then he stiffened: the bushes behind the hunter had rustled. But it was only a small boy, no more than six or seven, his hands parting the leaves so he could peek out at them with large, curious eyes. The hunter turned and said something to him sharply, in a voice which lost some of its severity by cracking halfway through the reprimand. He was not stunted at all, but only a boy himself, Laurence realized; only a handful of years between him and the one hiding.

  The small boy vanished again instantly, the branches closing over his head, and the older one turned back to Ferris with a defiant wary look; his hand was clenched sufficiently on the assegai to show pale pink at the knuckles.

  “Pray tell him, if you can, that we mean them no harm,” Laurence said quietly to Erasmus. He did not wonder very much what might have lured them here to take a risk perhaps others of his clan had preferred not to run; the hunter was painfully thin, and the younger boy’s face had none of the soft-cheeked look of childhood.

  Erasmus nodded, and approaching tried his few words of dialect, without success. Retreating to more simplistic communication, he tapped his chest and said his name. The boy gave his as Demane; this exchange at least served to make him grow a little easier: he did not seem quite so ready to bolt, and he suffered Ferris to approach him closer, to show him the small sample of the mushroom.

  Demane exclaimed, and recoiled in disgust; with no little cause: its confinement in the leather bag during the day’s heat had not improved its aroma. He laughed at his own reaction, though, and came back; but though they pointed to the mushroom, and the string of shells in turn, he continued to look perfectly blank; although he kept reaching out to touch the cowries with rather a wistful expression, rubbing them between thumb and forefinger.

  “I suppose he cannot conceive anyone should want to trade for it,” Ferris said, not very much under his breath, his face averted as much as he could.

  “Hannah,” Erasmus said, startling Laurence: he had not noticed Mrs. Erasmus come to join them, her skirts dripping over her bare feet. Demane stood a little straighter and dropped his hand from the shells, very like he had been caught at something by a schoolteacher, and edged back from her. She spoke to him a little while in her low voice, slowly and clearly; taking the mushroom from Ferris, she held it out, imperiously gesturing when Demane made a face. Once he had gingerly taken it from her, she grasped him by the wrist and showed him holding it out to Ferris. Ferris held out the shells in return, miming the transfer, and comprehension finally
dawned.

  A small voice piped up from the bushes; Demane answered it quellingly, then began to talk volubly at Mrs. Erasmus, a speech full of the odd clicking, which Laurence could not imagine how he produced, at such speed; she listened, frowning intently as she tried to follow. He took the mushroom and knelt down to put it on the ground, next to the base of a tree, then mimed pulling it up and throwing it on the ground. “No, no!” Ferris sprang only just in time to rescue the precious sample from being stamped upon by his bare heel.

  Demane observed his behavior with a baffled expression. “He says it makes cows sick,” Mrs. Erasmus said, and the gesture was plain enough: the thing was considered a nuisance, and torn up where it was found; which might explain its scarcity. It was no wonder, the local tribesmen being cattle-herders by livelihood, but Laurence was dismayed, and wondered where they should look for the enormous quantities necessary to their cause if it had been the settled practice of generations, perhaps, to eradicate what to them was nothing more than an unpleasant weed.

  Mrs. Erasmus continued to speak to the boy, taking the mushroom, and miming a gesture of stroking it, gently, to show him they valued it. “Captain, will you have the crew bring me a pot?” she asked, and when she had put the mushroom into it, and made stirring motions, Demane looked at Laurence and Ferris with a very dubious expression, but then shrugged expressively and pointed upwards, drawing his hand from horizon to horizon in a sweeping arc. “Tomorrow,” she translated, and the boy pointed at the ground where they stood.

  “Does he think he can find us some?” Laurence asked intently, but either the question or the response she was unable to convey, and only shook her head after a moment. “Well, we must hope for the best; tell him if you can that we will return,” and the next day, at the same hour near dusk, the boys came out of the brush again, the younger now trotting at Demane’s heels, perfectly naked, and with them a small raggedy dog, its mongrel fur mottled yellow and brown.

 
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