Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik

  Laurence said, “Then, under the present circumstances—I know it is damned officious, but if she has no one else, ought one not speak to him? Of the child, I mean,” he added awkwardly.

  “Why, what is there for him to do?” Warren said. “If it is a girl, God willing, the Corps needs her with both hands; and if it is a boy, he could go to sea instead, I suppose; but whatever for? It can only hurt him there, to be a by-blow, and meanwhile a captain’s son in the Corps is pretty sure to get a dragon, if he has any merit of his own.”

  “But that is what I mean,” Laurence said, puzzled to find himself so misunderstood. “There is no reason the child must be illegitimate; they might easily be married at once.”

  “Oh, oh,” Warren said, dawning wonder, confusion. “Why, Laurence, no; there’s no sense in it, you must see that. If she had been grounded, it might have answered; but thank God, no need to think of that anymore, or anything like,” and he jerked his chin gladly at the tightly lidded box which held the fruits of their day’s labors, to be carried back to Capetown in the morning: Lily would certainly be the next recipient. “A comfortable wife she would make him, with orders to follow and a dragon to look after; I dare say they would not see one another one year in six, him posted to one side of the world and she to the other, ha!”

  Laurence was little satisfied to find his sentiments so unaffectedly laughed at, but more so for the uncomfortable sensation that there was some rational cause for so dismissive an answer; and he was forced to go to sleep with his resolution yet unformed.

  Chapter 9

  MR. KEYNES,” CATHERINE said, cutting through the raised voices, “perhaps you will be so good as to explain to us what alternative you prefer, to Mr. Dorset’s suggestion.”

  Experience had improved on their rate of return, a little, and Nitidus had carried their spoils back to Capetown daily; so they returned, after a tired and dusty week, to find Lily dosed, Messoria and Immortalis also, and a small and putrid heap of mushrooms yet remaining. Of these, two had been preserved in oil, two in spirits of wine, two only wrapped in paper and oilcloth, and the lot boxed neatly up with the receipt for the cure. They would be sent back to England by the Fiona, which had been held back this long for their report: she would go with the tide.

  But there was no sentiment of triumph at their dinner back, only muted satisfaction; at best the results of all their hunting would not do for more than three dragons; six if the surgeons back in Dover took the risk of halving the dose, or used it on smaller beasts, and that only if all three methods preserved whatever virtue the mushrooms held; Dorset would have liked to dry some, also, but there were not enough of them for this final experiment.

  “Well, we are not going to do any better, not unless we hire an army of men and hounds; and where to get them, you may tell me and much obliged,” Warren said, holding the bottle in one hand as he drained his glass in the other, so he might refill the tumbler straight away. “Nemachaen is a clever little beast,” meaning the dog, who had acquired this grandiose name after the lion, courtesy of some of the younger ensigns presently being subjected to a haphazard education in the classics, “but there is only so much blasted forest we can hack through in a day, to find one mushroom or two at a time when we need scores of the things.”

  “We must have more hunters,” Laurence said, but they were rather in danger of losing those they had; the agreed-on week having passed, Demane gave signs of wishing for himself and Sipho to be returned to their home village with their reward. Laurence with many unpleasant pangs of conscience had refused to immediately understand his signs, and instead had taken him to see the pen near the castle, where the cow had been set aside: a large, handsome milch cow, placid, with her six-months’ calf browsing the grass beside her; the boy ducked through the fence slats and slipped in to touch her soft brown side with cautious, almost wary delight. He looked at the calf, and back at Laurence, a question in his face; Laurence nodded to say they would give him the other, too. Demane came out, protests silenced by this species of bribery, and Laurence went away feeling that he had behaved himself like a desperate scrub; he hoped very much the boys did not have family to be made anxious for them, although he had rather gained the impression they were orphaned, and at the very least neglected.

  “Too slow,” Dorset said, very decidedly despite his stammer. “Too slow, by half. All the searching in the world—we will only help to stamp it out. It has been the target of systematic eradication; we cannot hope to find much nearby. Who knows how long, how many years, the herdsmen have been digging it up. We must go away, farther away, where it may yet grow in quantity—”

  “Perfect speculation,” Keynes snapped, “on which to recommend the pursuit of wild chances. How much distance will satisfy you? I dare say all the continent has been used for herding, at some time or another. To risk the formation, dragons scarcely risen from their sickbeds, and go deep into feral territory, on such a hope? The height of folly—”

  The argument rose, grew warm, surged across the table; Dorset’s stammer grew more violent so he was scarcely comprehensible, and Gaiters and Waley, Maximus’s and Lily’s surgeons, were ranged with Keynes against him; until at last Catherine had silenced all of them, standing up to make her demand with her hands planted on the cloth.

  “I do not quarrel with your concern,” she added, more quietly, “but we did not come here to find a cure only for ourselves. You have heard the latest dispatches; nine more dead since March, and by now more gone, when we could not spare any of them in the least.” She looked at Keynes steadily. “Is there any hope?”

  He was silent, displeased, and only with a surly lowering look allowed there to be some chance of a better harvest, farther away; she nodded and said, “Then we will endure the risk, and be glad that our own dragons are well enough to do so.”

  THERE WAS NO question, yet, of sending Maximus, who had only lately begun to try at flying again: with a deal of flapping and kicking up dust, often ending only in an exhausted collapse; he could not quite manage the launching spring, which was necessary to get him aloft, although once in the air could remain for some time. Keynes shook his head and felt at his paunchy sides.

  “The weight is coming back unevenly. You are doing your exercises?” he demanded; Maximus protested that he was. “Well, if we cannot get you in the air, we must find you room to walk,” Keynes said, and so Maximus had been set to making a circuit of the town, back and forth several times daily: the only stretch of cleared ground large enough for him, as he could not go far up the mountain-slopes without pulling them down in small avalanches.

  No-one was very happy with this solution: ridiculous to have a dragon the size of a frigate ambling about like a lap-dog on an airing, and Maximus complained of the hard ground, and the pebbles which introduced themselves into his talons. “I do not notice them at first,” he said unhappily, while Berkley’s runners struggled with hoof-picks and knives and tongs to pry them out from under the hard, callused hide around the base of the claws, “not until they are quite far down, and then I cannot easily say how very unpleasant it becomes.”

  “Why do you not swim, instead?” Temeraire said. “The water is very pleasant here, and perhaps you might catch a whale,” which suggestion brightened Maximus remarkably, and infuriated the fishermen, particularly the owners of the larger boats; they came in a body to protest.

  “I am damned sorry to put you out,” Berkley said to them. “You may come with me, and tell him yourselves you do not like it.”

  Maximus continued his outings, in peace, and might be seen daily paddling about the harbor. Sadly the whales and dolphins and seals, too clever by half, stayed well-clear of him, much to his disappointment: he did not much like tunny or sharks, the latter of which occasionally beat themselves against his limbs in confused fits perhaps provoked by some traces of blood or flesh from his latest repast: on one occasion he brought back one of these to show, a monster some nineteen feet in length, weighing close on two tons, with i
ts angry snoutish face full of teeth. He had lifted the shark straight out of the water whole, and when he laid it down on the parade grounds before them, it abruptly went into a paroxysm of thrashing: knocking over Dyer, two ensigns, and one of the Marines, snapping and gnashing furiously at the air, before Dulcia managed to pin it to the ground with her foretalons.

  Messoria and Immortalis, both older beasts, were perfectly happy to lie in the parade grounds and sleep in the sun, after their short daily flights for exercise; but Lily, having stopped coughing, shortly displayed that same restless energy which had overcome Dulcia, and began to insist on activity. But if she were to go flying anywhere, she must go far abroad, where a stray lingering sneeze or cough would not spray anyone below; Keynes, quite ignoring the covert gestures, the attempts at signaling, of nearly every senior officer, examined her and declared that she was perfectly fit to fly, “had better fly, I should say; this agitation is unnatural, and must be worked off.”

  “But perhaps,” Laurence said, voicing the reluctance which the captains all privately shared, and they as a body began to suggest flights out over the ocean, along the scenic and settled coastline and back; gentle exercise.

  “I hope,” Catherine said, going pink clear up to her forehead in a wave of color, “I hope that no-one is going to fuss; I would dislike fuss extremely,” and insisted on joining the hunting party, with Dulcia and Chenery, who likewise declared himself perfectly well, although Dulcia would only agree if he was bundled aboard in a heavy cloak, with a warming brick at his feet.

  “After all, it cannot hurt to have more of us: we can make several parties and cover more ground; we do not need the dog so badly if the notion is we are looking for larger patches of the stuff,” Chenery said. “Just as well to have more of the dragons in hailing-distance, if any of us should run into a larger band of ferals, and your natives can keep us out of trouble with the animals.”

  Laurence applied to Erasmus and his wife for their persuasive assistance, and pressed the cowrie necklace on Demane to open the conversation, as a preliminary bit of bribery. He objected vehemently nonetheless, his voice rising in high complaint, and Mrs. Erasmus said, “He does not like to go so far, Captain: he says that country belongs to the dragons, who will come and eat us.”

  “Pray tell him there is no reason why the feral dragons should be angry with us; we will only stay a very little while, to get more of the mushrooms, and our own will protect us if there is any difficulty,” Laurence said, waving at the fine display the dragons made now. Since their recovery, even the older beasts who had not acquired the habit of bathing had been stripped of their harnesses and scrubbed in the warm ocean until their scales shone, and all the leather worked and polished until it, too, gleamed, warm and supple, the buckles glittering bright in the sun.

  The parade grounds themselves had been plowed clean, and the refuse-pits filled in, now there was only occasional coughing to manage; the whole fit to welcome an admiral for inspection, aside from the wreckage of a couple of goats, whose bones Dulcia and Nitidus were presently meditatively gnawing. Maximus alone still had a fragile air, but he was bobbing in the ocean a little way off, his hollow sides buoyed up by the water and the somewhat faded orange and red of his hide refreshed by the lingering sunset pouring in over the wide ripples of the water. The rest of the dragons were rather bright-eyed and tigerish, having been worn lean over the course of the sickness; their reawakened appetites were savage.

  “And that is another reason it will be just as well for us all to go,” Chenery said, when Demane had at last been brought around to reluctant agreement, or at least worn out from trying to convey his objections through translation. “Grey is a good fellow, and he has not said as much outright, yet; but the townsfolk are kicking up a real dust. It is not just having the dragons about; we are eating them out of hearth and home. The game is getting shy; as for cattle, no one can afford to eat beef anymore at all, and the prices are only getting higher. We had much better get out into wild country and shift for ourselves, where we needn’t annoy anyone.”

  It was settled: Maximus would stay to continue his recovery, and Messoria and Immortalis, to sleep and hunt for him; Temeraire and Lily would go abroad as far as a strong day’s flight could take them, with little Nitidus and Dulcia to ferry back their acquisitions, perhaps every other day, and bring back messages.

  They were packed and gone with the sun, in the morning, in the usual pell-mell way of aviators; the Fiona in the harbor rising up and falling with the swell, a great deal of activity on her deck in preparation for the morrow. The Allegiance was riding farther out to sea; the watch would be changing in a moment, but for now all was quiet aboard her. Riley had not come ashore; Laurence had not written. He turned his face away from the ship and towards the mountains, dismissing the matter for the present with a vague sense of leaving the question up to fate: by the time they returned with mushrooms in any quantity, perhaps there would be no need to speak; they would have to go home by way of the Allegiance, and it could not be hidden forever; he wondered if Catherine did not already look a little plumper.

  Lily set a fine, fast pace; the wind poured over Temeraire’s back as Table Bay rolled away behind them. Barring a few banks of clouds, penned up against the slopes, the weather held clear and not windy, good flying, and there was an extraordinary relief in being once again in company: Lily on point, with Temeraire bringing up the rear and Nitidus and Dulcia flying in wing positions, so their shadows falling on the ground below made the points of a diamond, skimming over the vineyard rows below in neat perforated lines of red and brown, past their first autumnal splendor.

  Thirty miles on the wing north-west from the bay took them past the swelling outcroppings of grey granite at Paarl, the last settlement in this direction; they did not stop, but continued on into the rising mountains. A few isolated and intrepid farmsteads could be glimpsed as they wound through the passes, clinging to sheltered folds of the mountain-slopes: the fields browning, the houses nearly impossible to see without a glass, buried as they were in stands of trees and their roofs disguised with brown and green paint.

  They stopped to water after mid-day, having come to another valley between the mountain lines, and to discuss their course; they had not seen a cultivated field for some half-an-hour now.

  “Let us go on another hour or two, and then we shall stop at the first likely place to make a search,” Harcourt said. “I do not suppose that there is any chance of the dog scenting them from aloft? The smell of the things is so very strong.”

  “The best-trained foxhound in the world cannot pick up a vixen’s trail from horseback, much less from mid-air,” Laurence said, but they had been aloft again only a turn of the glass when the dog began barking in furious excitement, and trying to wriggle free of its harness in the most heedless way. Fellowes had gradually taken the handling of the dog into his own hands, disapproving of Demane’s haphazard discipline; his father had been a master of hounds, in Scotland. He had been giving the thin creature a gobbet of fresh meat every time it discovered them a mushroom; by now it would tear away after the least trail of scent with the greatest enthusiasm.

  Temeraire had scarcely landed when it escaped its straps and went skidding down his side and abruptly vanished into the high grasses at a place where the slope rose up sharply. They had come into a wide valley, very warm, cupped in a bowl of mountains and still richly green despite the advancing season: fruit-trees everywhere in curiously even rows.

  “Oh; I can smell it, too,” Temeraire said, unexpectedly, and when Laurence had slid down from his shoulder, he was no longer surprised at the dog’s frenzy: the smell was pronounced, hanging like a miasma in the air.

  “Sir,” Ferris said, calling: the dog was still invisible, but its barking was coming to them with a hollow echoing ring, and Ferris was bending down to the slope; Laurence came up to him and saw half-hidden by a thicket there was an opening, a fissure in the dirt and limestone rock. The dog went silent; in another
moment it came scrambling out of the hole and back up to them, an enormous, an absurdly enormous mushroom in its mouth, so large its third cap was dragging upon the ground between the dog’s legs and making it stumble.

  It flung the mushroom down, wagging. The opening was near five feet high, and a gentle slope led downwards. The stench was astonishing. Laurence pushed up the clot of vines and moss which hung over the fissure like a curtain, and stepped inside and down, eyes watering from the smoky torch which Ferris had improvised out of rags and a tree-branch. There was surely a draught somewhere at the far end of the cavern; it drew like a chimney. Ferris was looking at him with a half-disbelieving, half-joyful expression, and as his eyes adjusted to the dimness, Laurence made out the strange hillocky appearance of the cavern floor, and knelt to touch: the floor was covered, covered in mushrooms.

  “THERE IS NOT a moment to lose,” Laurence said. “If you hurry, the Fiona may not yet have gone; if she has, you must go and recall her—she will not have gone far; she will not have rounded Paternoster Bay.”

  All the crews were busy, breathless; the grass of the field had been trampled flat, and Temeraire’s belly-netting and Lily’s was spread out on the ground, every bag and chest emptied out to be filled with mushrooms, heaps and heaps. A small pale cream-colored breed shared the cavern with the great double-and triple-capped monsters, and also a large black fungus which grew in slabs, but the harvesters were making no attempt to discriminate: sorting could wait. Nitidus and Dulcia were already vanishing into the distance, sacks and sacks slung across their backs giving them a curiously lumpy appearance in silhouette against the sky.

  Laurence had the map of the coastline dug out of Temeraire’s bags, and was showing him the likely course the Fiona would have followed. “Go as quickly as you can, and bring back more men. Messoria and Immortalis, too, if they can manage the flight; and tell Sutton to ask the governor for everyone who can be spared from the castle, all the soldiers, and no damned noise about flying, either.”

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