Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik

  “Have you enough of the tongue to explain to him we meant no harm?” Laurence asked. “That we only sought the mushrooms—”

  She made the halting attempt, but the dragon snorted in a disdainful manner before she had even finished. He at once insinuated his great taloned forehand between them, glaring as if Laurence had offered her an insult, and spoke to the men: they at once pulled Laurence to his feet and dragged him back to the line of prisoners.

  “Well,” Chenery said, when Laurence had been tied up with them again, “it sounds a little promising: I dare say when she has had a chance to talk to him, she will be able to bring him round. And in the meantime, at least they do not mean to kill us, or I expect they would have done so already and saved themselves the trouble of our keep.”

  FOR WHAT MOTIVE they had been preserved, however, was quite unclear; there was no attempt made to question them, and Laurence was growing bewildered as their journey extended further and further, past what could ever have been the reasonable extent of the territory of a small tribe, even one in the possession of dragons. He might have thought they were circling about, to lose pursuit, but the sun during the day and the Southern Cross at night gave it the lie: their course was steady and purposeful, always north by north-east, veering only to bring them to a more comfortable situation for the night, or to running water.

  Early the next day they stopped by a wide river, looking almost orange from its muddy bottom, and populated by more of the noisy hippopotami, which darted away through the water with surprising speed from the pouncing dragons, submerging through wide ripples to evade. At last one of them was served out, by the two small dragons cornering it from both sides, and laid down to be butchered in the clearing. Their captors had grown confident enough to untie a few of them to assist with the tedious labor, Dyer and Catherine’s young runner Tooke set to carrying water back and forth in a bowl, fetching it uneasily from the water’s edge: there was a substantial crocodile sleeping on the farther bank, whose green eye was wide open and fixed upon them; its flesh was evidently not a temptation to the dragons, for it showed not the least sign of fear.

  The dragons lay drowsing in the sun, their tails flicking idly at the enormous clouds of flies which gathered round them, their heads pillowed on their forelegs. Mrs. Erasmus was speaking into Kefentse’s ear; mid-sentence, he reared abruptly up and began to make questions of her, demandingly; she flinched back, and only shook her head, refusing. At last he left off, and cast his eyes southward, sitting up on his haunches like a coat of arms: a dragon sejant erect, gules; then slowly he settled himself back down; he spoke to her once more, and pointedly shut his eyes.

  “Well, I don’t suppose we need ask what he thinks of letting you go,” Chenery said, when she had crept around to them.

  “No,” she said, speaking low to keep from rousing the dragons up again, “and matters are only worse: I spoke of my daughters, and now Kefentse wants nothing more than to go back for them also.”

  Laurence was ashamed to feel an eager leap of hope, at a situation which naturally could cause her only the greatest anxiety; but such an attempt would at least reveal to the rest of the formation the identity of their captors. “And I assure you, ma’am,” he said, “that any such demand would be received with the utmost scorn: I am confident that our fellow officers and General Grey will consider your children their own charge.”

  “Captain, you do not understand,” she said. “I think he would be ready to attack all the colony to get at them. He thinks there may be more of their stolen kindred there, too, among the slaves.”

  “I am sure I wish them much luck, if they like to try it,” Chenery said. “Pray don’t be worried for the girls: even if these fellows have another few beauties like this grandfather of yours at home, it would take a little more than that to crack a nut like the castle. There are twenty-four-pounders there; not to speak of pepper guns, and a full formation. I don’t suppose he would like to come back with us, instead; to England, I mean?” he added, with a flash of cheerful optimism. “If he has taken to you so strong, you ought to be able to persuade him.”

  But it was very soon clear that Kefentse, whatever else he meant by calling himself her great-grandfather, certainly considered himself in the light of her elder; even though she thought now, that she vaguely recalled his hatching. “Not well, but I am almost sure of it,” she said. “I was very young, but there were many days of feasting, and presents; and I remember him often in the village, after,” which Laurence supposed answered for her lack of fear of dragons; she had been taken as a girl of some nine-years’ age, old enough to have lost the instinctive terror.

  Remembering her only as a child, Kefentse, far from being inclined to obey, had instead concluded from her efforts to secure their freedom that she was their dupe, either frightened or tricked into lying for their sake, and he was grown all the angrier for it. “I beg you do not risk any further attempts at persuasion,” Laurence said. “We must be grateful for his protection of you; I would have you make no more fruitless attempts, which might cause him to reconsider his sentiments.”

  “He would do nothing to hurt me,” she said, a strange certainty; perhaps the restoration of some childhood confidence.

  Having breakfasted on roasted hippo, they flew on some hours more and landed again only a little while before dark, beside what seemed to be a small farming village. The clearing where they descended was full of children at play, who shrieked with delight at their arrival, and ran eagerly around the dragons, chattering away at them without the slightest evidence of fear; although they peered very nervously at the prisoners. A broad spreading mimosa tree stood at the far end of the clearing, giving pleasant shade, and beneath it stood an odd little shed with no front, raised several feet from the ground and housing within it a dragon egg of substantial size. Around it a circle of women sat with mortar and pestle, pounding grain; they put aside their tools and patted the dragon egg, as if speaking to it, and rose to greet the visitors as they leapt down from the smaller dragons’ backs, and to stare with curiosity.

  Several men came in from the village, to clasp arms with the handlers and greet the dragons. An elaborately carved elephant’s tooth hung from a tree, the narrow end cut open to make a horn, and one of the villagers took this down and blew on it, several long hollow ringing blasts. Shortly another dragon landed in the clearing, a middle-weight of perhaps ten tons, a delicate dusty shade of green with yellow markings and sprays of red spots upon his breast and shoulders, and two sets of long foreteeth which protruded over his jaw above and below. The children were even less shy of this newcomer, clustering close about his forelegs, even climbing upon his tail and pulling on his wings, a treatment which he bore with perfect patience while he talked with the visiting dragons.

  The four of them settled around the enshrined dragon egg, in company with their handlers and the men of the village; and one older woman also sat with them, her dress marking her apart: a skirt of animal-skins and strings of long beads like reed-joints, and many heaped necklaces of animal claws and colored beads also. The rest of the women brought a large steaming pot of porridge, the grain boiled up in milk rather than broth, for their dinner; with fresh greens cooked with garlic, and dried meat preserved in salt: a little tough, but flavorful, vinegary and spiced.

  Bowls were brought for the prisoners, and their hands were untied to allow them to eat for themselves for once, their captors less wary with so large a company around them; and in the celebratory bustle, Mrs. Erasmus was able to slip away from Kefentse to join them once again: he had been given pride of place beside the dragon egg, and presented a large cow to eat; and they seemed to hold the evening’s entertainment until he had finished. At least when the remnants of the carcass on which he feasted had been carried away, and fresh dirt scattered over the ground before him to soak up the blood, only then did the old woman stand up, the one oddly dressed, and coming to stand before the dragon egg began to sing and clap.

  The audien
ce took up the rhythm, with clapping and with drums, and their voices joined with her on the refrains; each verse was different, without rhyme or pattern that Laurence could see. “She is saying, she is telling the egg,” Mrs. Erasmus said, staring at the ground, unseeing; intent upon following the words. “She is telling him of his life. She is saying, he was a founder of the village; he brought them to a good safe country, past the desert, where the kidnappers do not come. He was a great hunter, and killed the lion with his own hands, when it would have raided among the cattle; they miss his wisdom, in the council, and he must hurry up and come back to them: it is his duty—”

  Laurence stared, entirely baffled. The old priestess had finished her own verses, and began to lead one after another some of the men of the village to stand in front of the egg and recite, with a little prompting assistance from her. “They say they are his sons,” Mrs. Erasmus said, “telling him they long to hear his voice again; that is his grandson, born since his death,” when one of them carried an infant in swaddling to the egg, to pat its small hand against the shell. “It is only some heathen superstition, of course,” Mrs. Erasmus added, but uneasily.

  The dragons joined their own voices to the ceremony: the local beast addressing the egg as his old friend, whose return was eagerly awaited; the smaller dragons of the distant border spoke of the general pleasures of the hunt, of taking wing, of seeing their descendants prosper. Kefentse was silent, until the priestess chided him, and coaxed; then at last in his deep voice he gave warning rather than encouragement, and spoke of grief at failing in his duty: of coming back to the deserted village, the smoke of dying fires, all the houses empty; his children lying in the dust, still and not answering his calls, and the hyena slinking through the herds. “He searched, and searched, until he came to the shore, and at the ocean he knew—he knew he would not find us,” Mrs. Erasmus said, and Kefentse put his head down and moaned, very low; abruptly she rose and crossed the clearing to him, and put her hands upon his lowered muzzle.

  THERE WAS A certain sluggishness to the next morning’s preparations for departure, the dragons and men both having indulged in some brewed liquor, late in the evening’s festivities, which now rendered them all dragging; the small green dragon yawned and yawned, as if he would unhinge his jaw.

  Woven baskets were being brought out to the clearing, so large they required two men each to carry, and full of foodstuffs: small pale yellow kidney beans spotted black, hard and dried; red-brown grains of sorghum; small onions of yellow and purple-red; more strips of the pungent dried meat. The men of their party nodded over the tribute, and the baskets were covered with woven lids, tied securely on with strips of tough thin rope braided of bark. The baskets in pairs were slung over the necks of the smaller dragons, who bent their heads to receive them.

  There was at all times a watchful guard upon them, however; and also upon the perimeters of the village: younger boys, with a large cow-bell sort of contraption, which they could have rung out in an instant. It was a shameful consequence of the rapacity of the slave trade, that having exhausted the natural supply of prisoners of war among the kingdoms of the coast, the native suppliers of the trade had turned to kidnapping and raiding, without even the thin excuse of a quarrel over territory, solely to acquire more human chattel. These efforts were extending further into the interior with every year, and had evidently made the villagers begin to be wary.

  It was not a condition of long standing, for the village was not designed upon defensible lines, being only a collection of handsome but small, low houses made of clay and stones and roofed in straw. These were circular, with nearly a quarter of the circumference open to the elements to let the smoke of their cooking-fires out, and would have offered little shelter against a marauding band intent on capture or slaughter. Indeed there was no great wealth here, which they should have studied to protect: only a small herd of cattle and goats, browsing idly beyond the village boundaries under the attention of a few older children; respectable fields, adequate for subsistence and a little more; a few of the women and older men wore handsome trinkets of ivory and gold and brightly woven cloth. But nothing which would have tempted the rapacity of an ordinary robber, save the inhabitants themselves, for their being peaceful, healthy, and well-fleshed; and the caution sat new and uneasily upon their shoulders.

  “They have had no-one stolen here, yet,” Mrs. Erasmus said. “But three children were snatched from a village a day’s flight from here. One was hiding near-by, and slipped away to give the warning; so the ancestors—the dragons—caught them.” She paused and said, oddly calm, “That is why the slave-takers killed all my family, I think; the ones too old or too young to sell. So they could not tell Kefentse where we had gone.”

  She stood up and went to go stand watching the village, while the packing went forward: the smallest children at play before their grandmothers, the other women working together, pounding flour out of sorghum, and singing. Her dark, high-collared dress was dusty and torn, incongruous among their bright if immodest garments, and Kefentse lifted his head to watch her with anxious, jealous attention.

  “He must have gone half-mad,” Chenery said to Laurence in an undertone, “as though his captain and all his crew were gone in an instant.” He shook his head. “This is a kettle and no mistake: he will never let her go.”

  “Perhaps she may find an opportunity to slip away,” Laurence said grimly; he reproached himself bitterly that they had ever involved her and Erasmus at all.

  FOR ANOTHER DAY and night they did not stop again, except very briefly for water, and Laurence’s heart sank at the vast expanse of hard, dry desert which rolled away below them, a succession of red-brown sands and arid scrubland, and great white salt pans barren of all life. Their course continued north-east, bearing them still farther inland and away from the coast; their thin hopes of escape or rescue wasting away entirely.

  At last they left behind the wastelands, and the desert yielded to milder scenery of green trees and yellow ground overgrown with thick grasses; late in the morning, the belly of the dragon rumbled loud above them with his roar of greeting: answered momentarily with several voices from up ahead, and they came abruptly into view of an astonishing prospect: a vast moving herd of elephants, creeping slowly across the savannah as they tore at the shrubs and low-hanging branches in their path, and enduring with perfect docility the supervision of two dragons and some thirty men, who ambled along comfortably behind, only a few lengths short of the rear of the herd.

  The herdsmen carried long sticks with dangling rattles, by which means they kept the herd from turning back; a little farther along, perhaps a quarter-of-a-mile into the wreckage the herd had left behind, women worked busily, spreading great bushels of red-stained manure and planting young shrubs: they sang as they worked, rhythmically.

  The prisoners were let down. Laurence almost was distracted from the water-bag for staring at the fat, sluggish creatures, larger than any he had ever heard bragged of. He had visited India twice, as a naval officer, and once seen an impressive old creature carrying a native potentate and his retinue upon its head, some six tons in weight. The most impressive here would have he guessed outweighed that one by half again, and rivaled Nitidus or Dulcia in size, with great ivory tusks jutting out like spears some three feet beyond its head. Another of the behemoths put its head down against a young tree, of no mean size, and with a groaning implacable push brought it crashing to the ground; pleased with its success, the elephant ambled lazily down its length, to devour at leisure the tender shoots from the crown.

  After some little conversation with their captors, the herd-dragons went aloft and chivvied away a few of the beasts from the main body of the herd: older animals, by the length of their tusks, without young. These having been coaxed downwind and behind the line of herdsmen, Kefentse and the two other dragons fell upon them skillfully: a single piercing of talons slew the creatures, before they could make any outcry which might have distressed the rest. The dragons
made their repast greedily, murmuring with satisfaction, as might a contented gentleman over his pleasing dinner; when they were done, the hyenas crept out of the grass to deal with the bloody remains, and cackled all through the night.

  Throughout the next two days, they were scarcely an hour aloft without sight of some other dragons, calling greetings from afar; more villages flashed past beneath them, and occasionally some small fortification with walls of clay and rock, until in the distance they glimpsed a tremendous plume of smoke rising, like a great grass-fire, and a thin silvery line winding away over the earth.

  “Mosi oa Tunya,” Mrs. Erasmus had told them, was the name of their destination, meaning smoke that thunders; and a low and continuous roaring built higher around them as Kefentse angled directly towards the plume.

  The narrow shining line upon the earth resolved itself swiftly into a river of great immensity: slow and very broad, fractured into many smaller streams, all winding together past rocks and small grassy islets towards a narrow crack in the earth like an eggshell broken down the middle, where the river suddenly boiled up and plunged into the thunder of a waterfall more vast than anything Laurence might have conceived, the gorges of its descent so full of white-plumed spray that its base could not be seen.

  Into these narrow gorges, which seemed barely wide enough for him to go abreast, Kefentse dived at speed, pocket rainbows gleaming in puddles collected upon his hide through the first clouds of steam. Pressed hard up against the netting, Laurence wiped water from his face and one-week’s beard, and palmed it away from the hollows of his eyes, squinting as they broke through into a widening canyon.

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