Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik

  It planted itself on the bank and yapped piercingly and continuously at Temeraire while the older boy attempted to negotiate for its services over the noise. Laurence eyed it dubiously; but Demane took the mushroom piece again and held it out to the dog’s nose, then kneeling down covered the dog’s eyes with his hands. The younger boy ran and hid the mushroom deep in the grass, and came back again; then Demane let the dog go again, with a sharp word of command. It promptly returned to barking madly at Temeraire, ignoring all his instructions, until, looking painfully embarrassed, Demane snatched up a stick and hit it on the rump, hissing at it, and made it smell the leather satchel where the mushroom had been kept. At last reluctantly it left off and went bounding across the field, came trotting back with the mushroom held in its mouth, and dropped it at Laurence’s feet, wagging its tail with enthusiasm.

  HAVING DECIDED, VERY likely, that they were fools, or at least very rich, Demane now turned up his nose at the cowries, wishing rather to be paid in cattle, evidently the main source of wealth among the Xhosa: he opened the negotiations at a dozen head. “Tell him we will give them one cow, for a week of service,” Laurence said. “If he leads us to a good supply of the mushroom, we will consider extending the bargain, otherwise we will return the two of them here with their payment.” Demane inclined his head and accepted the diminished offer with a tolerable attempt at calm gravity; but the wide eyes of the younger boy, whose name was Sipho, and his rather excited tugging at Demane’s hand, made Laurence suspect he had even so made a poor bargain by local standards.

  Temeraire put his ruff back when the dog was carried squirming towards him. “It is very noisy,” he said disapprovingly, to which the dog barked an answer equally impolite, by the tone of it, and tried to jump out of its master’s arms and run away; Demane was no less anxious. Mrs. Erasmus sought to coax him a little closer, and reached out to pat Temeraire’s forehand to show there was no danger: perhaps not the best encouragement, since it drew his attention to the very substantial talons: Demane pushed a more interested than alarmed Sipho behind him, the wriggling dog clutched against him with his other arm, and shaking his head vocally refused to come nearer.

  Temeraire cocked his head. “That is a very interesting sound,” he said, and repeated one of the words, mimicking the clicking noise with more success than any of them but still not quite correctly. Sipho laughed from behind Demane’s shoulder and said the word to him again; after a few repetitions Temeraire said, “Oh, I have it,” although the clicking issued a little oddly, from somewhere deeper in his throat than the boys produced it; and they were gradually reconciled by the exchange to being loaded aboard.

  Laurence had learnt the art of carrying livestock aboard a dragon from Tharkay, in the East, by drugging the beasts with opium before they were loaded on, but they had none of the drug with them at present, so with a dubious spirit of experimentation they put the whining dog aboard by main force instead, and strapped it down. It was inclined to squirm and struggle against the makeshift harness, making several abortive attempts to leap off into the air, until Temeraire lifted away; then after a few yelps of excitement, it sat down on its haunches with its mouth open and tongue lolling out, thrashing its tail furiously with delight, better pleased than its unhappy master, who clung anxiously to the harness and to Sipho, although they were both well hooked on with carabiners.

  “Proper circus you make,” Berkley said, with a snort of laughter Laurence considered unnecessary, when they landed in the clearing and set the dog down; it promptly went tearing around the parade grounds, yelling at the dragons. For their part they were only interested and curious until the dog bit a too-inquisitive Dulcia on the tender tip of her muzzle, at which she hissed in anger; the dog yelped and fled back to the dubious shelter of Temeraire’s side; he looked down at it in irritation, and tried unsuccessfully to nudge it away.

  “Pray be careful of the creature; I have no idea how we should get or train another,” Laurence said, and Temeraire at last grumbling allowed it to curl up beside him.

  CHENERY LIMPED OUT to eat with them that evening in the parade grounds to reassure Dulcia of his improvement, professing himself too tired for any more bed-rest, so they made a merry meal of optimism and roast beef, and passed around the bottle freely; perhaps too freely, for shortly after the cigars were passed, Catherine said, “Oh, damnation,” and getting up went to the side of the clearing to vomit.

  It was not the first time she had been ill lately, but the bout was an enthusiastic one. They politely averted their faces, and in a little while she rejoined them at the fire, with a dismal expression. Warren offered her a little more wine, but she shook her head and only rinsed her mouth with water and spat on the ground, and then looking around them all said heavily, “Well, gentlemen, I am sorry to be indelicate, but if I am going to be sickly like this all the way through, you had better know now. I am afraid I have made a mull of it.—I am increasing.”

  Laurence only gradually realized that he was staring, with an intolerably rude gaping expression. He closed his mouth at once and held himself rigidly still, fighting the inclination to look at his fellow captains, the five of them sitting around the fire, and study them in the light of candidates.

  Berkley and Sutton, both senior to him by ten years, he thought stood more in the relation of uncle to Catherine than anything else. Warren also was older, and had been matched to his rather nervous beast Nitidus for the very steadiness of his nature, which made it difficult to easily imagine him in the light of a lover, under their present circumstances. Chenery was a younger man of high and cheerful spirits, thoroughly innocent of any sense of decorum, and made more handsome by his smiles and a rough careless charm than his looks deserved, being a little thin in the chest and face, with an unfortunately sallow complexion and hair generally blown straight as straw. He was perhaps in personality the most likely, although Immortalis’s captain Little, of a similar age, was the better-looking, despite a nose which was inclined to be beaky, with china-blue eyes and wavy dark hair kept a little long in a poetic style; but this, Laurence suspected, was due more to a lack of attention than any deliberate vanity, and Little was rather abstemious in his habits than luxurious.

  There was of course Catherine’s first lieutenant, Hobbes, an intense young man only a year her junior, but Laurence could scarcely believe she would engage herself with a subordinate, and risk all the resentment and difficulties which he had known similar practices, albeit of a more illegal nature, to produce aboard ship. No; it must be one of them; and Laurence could not help but see, from the corner of his eye, that Sutton and Little at least bore expressions more or less of surprise, and that he was being looked at with the same spirit of speculation he himself had been unable to repress, exhibited more openly.

  Laurence was unhappily conscious that he could not object. He had committed an equal indiscretion, without ever considering what he should say, or do, if he and Jane were to similarly be taken aback. He could hardly imagine his father’s reaction and even his mother’s, on being presented with such a match: a woman some years his senior, with a natural-born child, of no particular family wholly aside from her complete sacrifice of respectability to her duty. But marriage it would have to be; anything else should be as good as offering insult, to one who deserved from him the confusion of respect of a gentlewoman and a comrade-in-arms, and exposing her and the child to the censure of all society.

  Therefore to just such a dreadful situation he had willingly hazarded himself, and he could hardly complain if he were now to suffer a share of that pain on another party’s behalf. Only the one who knew himself guilty could know the truth, of course; and so long as he remained unconfessed, Laurence and his fellow captains should all jointly have to endure the curiosity of the world, however unpleasant, without remedy.

  “Well, it is damned bad luck,” Berkley said, setting down his fork. “Whose is it?”

  Harcourt said easily, “Oh, it is Tom’s, I mean Captain Riley; thank you
, Tooke,” and held out her hand for the cup of tea which her young runner had brought her, while Laurence blushed for all of them.

  HE PASSED AN uncomfortable and wakeful night, suffering the incessant shrill barking of the dog outside, and, within, all the confusion which could be imagined: whether to speak to Riley, and on what grounds, Laurence scarcely knew.

  He felt a certain responsibility for Catherine’s honor and the child’s; irrational under the circumstances, perhaps, when she herself seemed wholly unconcerned. But though she might not care for the good opinion of society or feel herself dishonored, nor her fellow aviators, Laurence was well aware that Riley could claim no such disdain for the eyes of the world. All Riley’s odd constraint, towards the end of the voyage, now bespoke a guilty conscience; certainly he had not approved the notion of women officers, and Laurence did not for a moment imagine that his opinion had altered in consequence of this affair. Riley had only taken personal advantage where it became available to him, and with full knowledge had entered into what for him must be seen as the ruin of a gentlewoman, an act selfish if not vicious, and deserving of the strongest reproof. But Laurence had no standing whatsoever in the world to pursue it; any attempt would only make a thorough scandal of the whole, and as an aviator he was forbidden to enter into personal challenges in any case.

  To complicate matters still further, he had a wholly separate motive for speaking, and that to give Riley intelligence of the child’s existence, of which he might well be ignorant. Jane Roland, at least, thought nothing of her daughter Emily’s illegitimacy; by her own admission she had not so much as seen the father since the event of conception, nor seemed to think he had anything to do with the child in the least. This perfect lack of sensibility Catherine evidently shared. Laurence had not dwelt long on this pragmatic ruthlessness before the event; but now he put himself in Riley’s place, and felt that Riley at once deserved all the difficulties of the situation, and the opportunity of rising to meet them.

  Laurence rose undecided and unrested, and without much enthusiasm entered into their first attempt to take out the dog. Seeing them make ready, the cur did not wait to be carried aboard, but leapt onto Temeraire’s back and settled itself in pride of place at the base of his neck, just where Laurence ordinarily sat, and barked officiously to hurry the rest of their preparations. “Cannot it ride with Nitidus?” Temeraire said, disgruntled, craning his neck to give it a repressive hiss. Familiarity had already bred contempt; the dog only wagged its tail back at him.

  “No, no; I do not want it,” Nitidus said, mantling his wings in resistance. “You are bigger, it does not weigh on you at all.” Temeraire flattened his ruff against his neck and muttered.

  They crossed over the mountains again and settled themselves just past the leading edge where the settlements petered out, on a slope lately somewhat bared by a rockslide, which offered the dragons the best opportunity to land deep in the undergrowth. Nitidus managed to wedge himself into a gap left among the trees, where a larger had fallen, but Temeraire was forced to try and make himself a landing place by trampling down the smaller but more stubborn shrubs which had invaded the space. The acacia thorns were long and slender enough to probe between his scales, and catch the flesh beneath, so he flinched to one side or another several times before at last he had something like sure footing and could let them clamber down off his back, to hack themselves out some room and pitch the tents once again.

  The dog made itself a nuisance while they made camp, inclined to frolic and startle up the fat brown-and-white pheasants, which ran away from it unhappily, their heads bobbing; until all at once it went very quiet, and its lean rangy body stiffened with excitement. Lieutenant Riggs raised his rifle to his ear, and they all froze, remembering the rhinoceros; but in a moment a troop of baboons came out from among the trees. The largest, a grizzled fellow with a long sour face and a shining rump of bright scarlet protruding from his fur, impossible to ignore, sat back on his haunches and gave them a jaundiced eye; then the band ambled off, the smallest clinging to their mothers’ fur and turning their heads around to stare with curiosity as they were carried away.

  There were few large trees; the thickness was made rather of yellow grass everywhere, higher than a man’s head, which filled in every gap the green thornbrake allowed. Above, the thin trees threw up little cloud-like clusters of branches, which gave no relief from the sun. The air was close and hot and full of dust, crumbled grass and dried leaves, and clouds of small birds twitting each other in the brush. The dog led them on an aimless straggling path through the ferocious underbrush; it more easily than they could work through the tangled shrubs and deadwood.

  Demane gave the dog occasional encouragement by lectures and yelling, but for the most part gave the cur its head. He and his brother followed on its heels closely and quicker than the rest of them could manage, occasionally disappearing up ahead. Their young clear voices came calling back impatiently to guide them, now and then, and at last, in the mid-afternoon, Laurence came stumbling out of the brush and caught them up to find Sipho proudly holding out one of the mushrooms for their inspection.

  “Better by far, but we will still need a week at this rate to get enough for the rest of the formation alone,” Warren said that evening, offering Laurence a glass of port in front of his small tent, with an old stump and a smooth rock serving them as formal seating. The dog had found three more mushrooms on the way back to camp, all of them small ones which would have escaped attention otherwise. They were of course happily collected; but they would not make much of the posset, or the draught.

  “Yes, at least,” Laurence said tiredly; his legs ached from their unaccustomed labor. He unfolded them with an effort towards the heat of the small twiggy fire, smoky from the green wood but pleasantly hypnotic.

  Temeraire and Nitidus had made good use of their idleness to improve upon the camp, trampling down the earth of the slope to make it more level and tearing up several trees and bushes to clear more ground. Temeraire had rather vengefully hurled the bristling acacia far down the slope, where it could now be seen, incongruously, sitting caught upon two tree-tops with a great clump of dirt around its roots in mid-air.

  They had provided also a couple of antelope for the party’s dinner, or had meant to; but the hours had dragged, and with nothing better to do they had eventually eaten most of the kill themselves, and were found licking their chops and empty-handed at the end of the day. “I am sorry, but you were so very long,” Temeraire said apologetically. Happily, Demane showed them the trick of catching the plentiful local pheasants, by driving them towards a waiting collaborator with a net, and these, roasted quickly on a spit and rounded out with ship’s biscuit, made the company a dinner pleasant enough: the birds not the least gamy, having fed evidently only on the local grass-seeds and berries.

  Now the dragons had curled around the borders of their camp; protection enough to ward off any nightly dangers; the crews had arranged themselves for sleep on beds of crumpled brush, coats used haphazardly for pillows, or were playing at dice and cards in distant corners, murmuring their wagers and occasionally a cry of victory or despair. The boys, who had been eating like wolves, and already looked rather better fleshed, were stretched upon the ground at Mrs. Erasmus’s feet. She had persuaded them to put on some loose duck trousers, sewn by girls from the mission; her husband was methodically laying out for them on the ground, one at a time, stiff picture-cards showing objects to be identified in their language, and rewarding them with doled-out sweetmeats while she noted down the answers in her log-book.

  Warren prodded the fire with a long branch, idly, and Laurence felt at last that they were near enough alone to satisfy discretion; that he might speak, however awkwardly.

  “No; I did not know about the child,” Warren said, with not the least discomfiture at the inquiry, but gloomily. “It is a bad business: God forbid she should come to a bad pass here; that little runner of yours is the only girl we have, and she is no wise r
eady to make a captain, even if Lily would have her. And what the devil we should do for Excidium if she did, I would like to know; the admiral cannot be running about having another child now, with Bonaparte on the other side of the Channel, ready to toss his glove across at any minute.

  “I damned well hope you have been taking precautions? But I am sure Roland knows her business,” Warren added, without waiting for reply; just as well, as Laurence had never been asked a question he would have less liked to answer; all the more as it had abruptly and appallingly illuminated certain curious habits of Jane’s, which he had never brought himself to inquire into, and her regular consultations of the calendar.

  “Oh, pray don’t take me wrong,” Warren said, misunderstanding Laurence’s fixed expression. “I don’t mean to carp in the least; accidents will happen, and Harcourt has had every excuse for distraction. Bad enough for us, these last months, but what the devil was ever to become of her? Half-pay would keep body and soul together, but money don’t make a woman respectable. That is why I asked you, before, about the fellow; I thought, if Lily died, they might make a match of it.”

  “She has no family?” Laurence asked.

  “None left, none to speak of. She is old Jack Harcourt’s daughter—he was a lieutenant on Fluitare. He cut straps in the year two, damned shame; but at least he knew she’d been tapped for Lily, by then,” Warren said. “Her mother was a girl down Plymouth way, near the covert there. She went off in a fever when Catherine was scarce old enough to crawl, and no relations to take her in: that is how she was thrown on the Corps.”

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