Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik

  “He can always get them drunk if need be,” Chenery said, without lifting his head; he was sitting by the netting and keeping a tally as the mushrooms were thrown in, his lips moving in the count along with his fingers. “So long as they can stumble back and forth by the time you have got them here, they may be soused to their skulls.”

  “Oh, and barrels, also,” Harcourt added, looking up from the stump where she was sitting, with a cool cloth soaked in water upon her forehead: she had attempted to help with the harvest, but the stink had overwhelmed her, and after a second round of vomiting, painful to all of them to hear, Laurence had at last persuaded her to go and sit outside instead. “That is, if Keynes thinks the mushrooms had better be preserved here; and oil and spirits.”

  “But I do not like our all leaving you here,” Temeraire said a little mulishly. “What if that big feral should come back again, or another one? Or lions: I am sure I hear lions, not very far away.” There was not the least sound of anything but monkeys, howling in the tree-tops at a fair distance, and birds clamoring.

  “We will be perfectly safe: from dragons, or lions, too,” Laurence said. “We have a dozen guns and more, and we need only step into the cave to hold them off forever: that mouth would not let in an elephant, much less a dragon, and they will not be able to fetch us out.”

  “But Laurence,” Temeraire said quietly, putting his head down to speak confidentially; at least, as he fancied. “Lily tells me that Harcourt is carrying an egg; surely at least she ought to come, and I am sure she will not, if you refuse.”

  “Why, damn you for a back-alley lawyer; I suppose you have cooked this up between the two of you,” Laurence said, outraged at the deliberate calculation of this appeal, and Temeraire had the grace to look ashamed of himself, but only a little. Lily did not even do as much, but abandoning subterfuge only said to Harcourt, wheedling, “Pray, pray, do come.”

  “For Heaven’s sake, enough cosseting,” Catherine said. “In any case, I will do much better sitting here in the cool shade than tearing back and forth, weighing you down to no purpose when you might be carrying another pair of hands instead. No, not a man will you take; only make all the speed in the world, and the sooner you have gone, the sooner you will come back again,” she added.

  The belly-netting was as full as it could be without cramming, and Temeraire and Lily were got off at last, still making wistful complaints. “Near enough five hundred, already,” Chenery said triumphantly, looking up from his tally, “and most of them fat, handsome things; enough to dose half the Corps, if only they will last the journey.”

  “We will give them their damned herd of cows,” Laurence said to Ferris, meaning Demane and Sipho, who were now taking their ease stretched out upon the ground before the cavern mouth, making grass whistle and refusing to pay much attention to Reverend Erasmus’s attempts to read them an instructive tract for children, his first attempt at translation into their tongue; his wife was helping with the harvest.

  Ferris blotted his forehead against his sleeve and said, in stifled, choked tones, “Yes, sir.”

  “We will need larger quantities than required of the fresh,” Dorset said, joining them. “Should some potency be lost in the journey, a concentrated dose will compensate for the preservation. Pray stop the harvesting for now: at this rate no one will be left to carry.” The frantic pace had already slackened, with the wearing away of the first flush of excitement and the urgency of getting the dragons loaded, and many of the men looked sick and wan; several were being noisily sick into the grass.

  The tents had all gone to make sacks of mushrooms, and there would certainly be no sleeping in the cavern, so they cleared instead the ground before it, chopping through the thornbushes with swords and axes. The remnants they used to build a low encircling break about the edge of the clearing, thorny and obdurate enough to give pause to smaller beasts, and a few parties were set to collecting dry wood for a fire. “Mr. Ferris, let us establish a watch,” Laurence said, “and now that we have all been rested, we will go to work in shifts: I should like to see a more efficient job of it.”

  A quarter-of-an-hour seemed long enough, inside that damp, dark space beneath, with only the narrow crack of white light at one end. Besides the mushrooms themselves, there was a grassy stink very like damp manure throughout, and the sour smell of fresh vomit which they had themselves added to the atmosphere. Where they had already cleared the mushrooms, the earth was strangely springy underfoot, almost matted, not like dirt at all.

  Laurence staggered out again into the fresh air, gratefully, with his arms full. “Captain,” Dorset said, following him out: he was not carrying a mushroom, and when Laurence had deposited his armload before the newly organized sorters, Dorset showed him a torn-edged square of matted grass and muck, the flooring of the cave. Laurence gazed at it uncomprehendingly. “It is elephant dung,” Dorset said, breaking apart the chunk, “and dragon also.”

  “Wing, two points west of north.” Emily Roland’s treble voice rang out high and sharp, before Laurence had fully understood; at once all was a confused hurrying into the shelter of the cave. He looked for Reverend Erasmus, and the children; but before he could be herded inside the cave, Demane with one quick look at the oncoming dragon snatched his brother up bodily from the ground, and ran instead away into the underbrush, the dog dashing off after them; its barking came back twice, at increasing distances, and then cut off into a muzzled whine.

  “Leave the mushrooms, take the guns,” Laurence cupped his hands over his mouth to roar over the commotion; he snatched up his own sword and pistols, put aside to help with the carrying, and gave Mrs. Erasmus his hand to descend into the cavern, past the riflemen already crouched down by the door; shortly the rest of them were crammed in also, all of them jostling involuntarily to keep as near the entrance and its fresh air as they could, until the dragon landed with an earth-trembling heavy thud, and thrust his muzzle directly up against the opening.

  It was the self-same feral: dark red-brown, with the queer ivory tusks in his muzzle. The hot queasy kerosene smell of dragon-breath came in upon them as he roared furiously, and the faint undertaste of rot from old meals. “Hold fast, men,” Riggs was yelling, by the entrance, “hold fast, wait for it—” until the dragon shifted his position, his open jaws before them, and the volley went off into the soft flesh of its mouth.

  The dragon squalled in fury and jerked back. His talons came scrabbling in at the edges of the hole, too large to come all the way inside, and began to pull and claw at the rock. Small pebbles and stones worked loose; dirt rained down upon them from the ceiling. Laurence looked around for Mrs. Erasmus: she was silent, and only bracing herself against the wall of the cavern for steadiness, her shoulders rigid. The riflemen were coughing as they reloaded urgently; but the dragon had already learnt, and did not present them another target. Its claws came curling in on both sides of the fissure, and then it began to throw its weight back, until all the chamber trembled and groaned.

  Laurence drew his sword and leaped forward to hack at the talons, then to stab, the hard scaly flesh resisting the edge but not the point; Warren was beside him, and Ferris, in the dark. The dragon roared again outside and flexed its talons, blindly knocking them down as easily as gnats might be swatted. The hard polished bony curve of one claw slid across Laurence’s coat in a line over the belly, thrusting him hard against the matted cavern floor, and the tip caught and pulled a long green thread from the seam as the talons withdrew again from the fissure.

  Warren caught Laurence by the arm and together they staggered back from the entry. The gunpowder smoke was bitter and acrid, overlaid on the rotting-sweet stink of the mushrooms; already Laurence could scarcely breathe for the slaughterhouse thickness of the place, and he heard to all sides men heaving, like the lower decks of a ship in a roaring gale.

  The feral did not immediately renew the attack. They cautiously crept forward again to peer out: he had settled himself in the clearing outside; by b
ad luck, far back enough to be out of firing-range of their rifles, and his pale yellow-green eyes were fixed malevolently upon the fissure. He was licking at his hacked-about talons, and making grimaces with his mouth, pulling his lips back from his serrated teeth and forward again, spitting occasionally a little bit of blood upon the ground, but plainly he had taken no great harm. As they watched, he raised his head up and roared again thunderously in anger.

  “Sir, we might put gunpowder in a bottle,” his gunner Calloway said, crawling over to Laurence, “or the flash-powder, maybe, would give him a start; I have the sack here—”

  “We are not going to frighten that beauty away with a little flash and bang, not for long,” Chenery said, craning his head back and forth to study their enemy. “My God. Fifteen tons at least, or I miss my guess: fifteen tons in a feral!”

  “I would call it closer to twenty, and damned unfortunate, too,” Warren said.

  “We had better save what you have, Mr. Calloway,” Laurence said to the gunner. “It will do us no good only to startle him away briefly; we must wait until the dragons return, and reserve our fire to give them support.”

  “Oh, Christ; if Nitidus or Dulcia are the first back,” Warren said, and did not need to continue: the little dragons would certainly be frantic, and wholly overmatched.

  “No; they will all be loaded down, remember?” Harcourt said. “The weight will tell on the light-weights more, and keep them back; but however are they to fight when they get here—”

  “Lord, let us not be borrowing trouble, if you please,” Chenery interrupted. “That big fellow is no trained flyer; a nice thing if four dragons of the Corps couldn’t black his eye in a trice, even if Messoria and Immortalis don’t come along. We have only to keep quiet in here until they come.”

  “Captain,” Dorset said, stumbling back towards them, “I am—I beg to recall your attention—the floor of the cavern—”

  “Yes,” Laurence said, recalling the earlier sample which Dorset had shown him, of the dung upon the floor of the cave, elephant and dragon, where neither animal could have managed entry. “Do you mean there is another way into this cavern somewhere, where it could come in upon us?”

  “No, no,” Dorset said. “The dung has been spread. Deliberately,” he added, seeing their confusion. “These are cultivated.”

  “What, do you mean men, farming the things?” Chenery said. “What the devil would a person want with the nasty stuff?”

  “Did you say there was dragon dung?” Laurence said, and a shadow falling over the mouth of the cave drew their attention outside: two more dragons landing, smaller creatures but sleek, wearing harness made of ropes, and a dozen men armed with assegai, leaping down off their sides.

  THE NEW ARRIVALS all stayed well out of rifle-range, conferring. After a little while, one of them came towards the entry cautiously and shouted something in at them. Laurence looked at Erasmus, who shook his head uncomprehending and turned to his wife; she was staring out the door. She had her handkerchief pressed over her mouth and nostrils to hold out the smell, but she lowered it and edging a little closer called back, haltingly. “They say to come out, I think.”

  “Oh, certainly.” Chenery was rubbing his face against his sleeve; some grit had entered his eyes. “I am sure they would like it of all things; you may tell them to—”

  “Gentlemen,” Laurence said, breaking in hastily, since Chenery had evidently forgotten his audience, “these are no ferals after all, plainly, but under harness; and if we have trespassed upon the cultivated grounds of these men, we are in the wrong: we ought make amends if we can.”

  “What a wretched mischance,” Harcourt said, agreeing. “We should have been perfectly happy to pay for the damned things, after all. Ma’am, will you come out and speak to them with us? We should of course understand if you do not wish it,” she added, to Mrs. Erasmus.

  “A moment,” Warren said, low and cautiously, catching at Harcourt’s sleeve. “Let us remember that we have never heard of anyone coming through the interior; couriers have been lost, and expeditions, and how many settlements have we heard tell of, destroyed, in just this region north of the Cape? If the dragons are not feral, then these men have been responsible, viciously responsible; we are not to rely on their character.”

  Mrs. Erasmus looked at her husband. He said, “If we do not conciliate them, there will surely be battle when your dragons come back, for they will attack in fear for your safety. It is our Christian duty to make peace, if it can be done,” and she nodded and said softly, “I will go.”

  “I believe I am senior, gentlemen,” Warren said, “as our dragons are not here,” a specious claim, as precedence in the Corps went by dragon-rank regardless, with no such qualifier involved, outside flag-rank. Coming from the Navy, with its rigid adherence to seniority, Laurence had often found the system confusing if not outright maddening, but it was a pragmatic concession to reality: dragons had their own native hierarchies, and in nature the twenty-year-old handler of a Regal Copper had more authority, on the battlefield, over the instinctive obedience of other dragons, than did a thirty-year veteran on the back of a Winchester.

  “Pray let us have no nonsense—” Harcourt began impatiently, when her first lieutenant Hobbes broke in to say, “It is all a hum; you shan’t go at all, none of you, and you ought know better,” a little reproachfully. “Myself and Lieutenant Ferris shall escort the parson and his lady, with their permission, and if all goes well, we will try and bring one of the fellows back here, to speak with you.”

  Laurence could not like the arrangement in the least, but for its keeping Catherine out of harm’s way, but the other captains looked guilty and did not argue. They cleared back from the entrance, the riflemen covering the open ground from either side. Mrs. Erasmus cupped her hands over her mouth and called a warning, then Hobbes and Ferris stepped out, one after another, cautiously, each with a pistol held muzzle-down and ready, swords loosened on their belts.

  The strangers had stood back again, spears held lightly, the tips pointing towards the ground, but gripped ready to pull back and let fly. They were tall men, all of them, with close-cropped heads and very dark coloring, skin so deep black it had almost a bluish cast in the sunlight. They were dressed very scantily, in loincloths of a remarkable deep purple, decorated in a running fringe with what looked like gold beads, and wore thin laced leather sandals which left the tops of their feet bare, and rose to mid-thigh.

  They did not move to attack, and when Hobbes turned and beckoned, Reverend Erasmus climbed out of the cave, and gave his wife his hand to assist her. They joined the lieutenants, and Mrs. Erasmus began speaking, slowly and clearly: she had taken a mushroom from the cave, and held it out to them to show. The red-brown dragon stooped suddenly, its head bending towards her, and spoke; she looked directly up at him, startled but not visibly afraid, and it jerked its head back with an ugly, squawking cry: not a roar or a growl, wholly unlike any sound Laurence had ever heard from a dragon’s throat.

  One of the men reached out and catching her by the arm drew her towards him. His other hand pressed her forehead backwards, bending her neck in an awkward exposed curve, and his hand pushed her hair away from her face, where the scar and the tattoo marred her forehead.

  Erasmus sprang forward, and Hobbes on his other side, to pull her free. The man let her go, without resistance, and took a step towards Erasmus, speaking low and rapidly, pointing at her. Ferris caught her in his arms as she fell back shaking, supporting her.

  Erasmus spread his hands, placating, continuing to speak even while he carefully sought to interpose himself before her. He was plainly not understood; he shook his head and tried again, in the Khoi language. This was not understood, either; at last he tried another, haltingly, and tapping his own chest said, “Lunda.” The dragon snarled, and with no other warning, the man took up his spear and drove it directly through Erasmus’s body, in one unbroken and terrible motion.

  Hobbes fired; the man fell;
Erasmus also went toppling to his knees. He had an expression of only mild surprise on his face; his hand was on the spear-haft, protruding from just above his breastbone. Mrs. Erasmus gave a single hoarse cry of horror; he turned his head a little in her direction, tried to lift his hand towards her; it fell, limply, and he dropped to the ground.

  Ferris half-carried, half-dragged Mrs. Erasmus back towards the cave, the red-brown dragon lunging after them; Hobbes went down in spraying blood under that raking claw. Then Ferris was pushing Mrs. Erasmus into the cavern, backing her into their waiting arms just as the dragon flung itself at the entrance again: roaring at a wild, shrieking pitch, its talons scrabbling madly at the opening and shaking all the hollow hill.

  Laurence caught Ferris by the arm as he fell stumbling backwards from the impact, blood in a thin streak crossing his shirt and face. Harcourt and Warren had Mrs. Erasmus. “Mr. Riggs,” Laurence shouted, over the rattling din outside, “a little fire; and Mr. Calloway, let us have those flares, if you please.”

  They gave the dragon another volley and a blue light, straight into the face, which at least made it recoil momentarily; the two smaller dragons leapt into the breach and made an effort to herd the larger one back from the cavern, speaking to it in shrill voices, and at last it drew away again, its sides heaving, and dropped back into its crouch at the far end of the clearing.

  “Mr. Turner, do you have the time?” Laurence asked his signal-officer, coughing: the clouds from the flare were not dying away.

  “I’m sorry, sir, I forgot to turn the glass for a while,” the ensign said unhappily “but it is past four in the afternoon watch.”

  Temeraire and Lily had not left until past one: a four-hours’ flight in either direction, and a great deal of labor and packing to be done in Capetown, before they would even begin the return journey. “We must try and get a little sleep by watches,” Laurence said quietly to Harcourt and Warren; Dorset had taken charge of Mrs. Erasmus and guided her deeper into the cave. “We can hold them at the fissure, I think, but we must stay vigilant—”

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