Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik
The lower slopes were thickly forested, a jewel-green tangle of tropical growth reaching some halfway up the walls, where abruptly the vegetation ended and the cliff faces rose sheer and smooth to the plain above, gleaming like polished marble and pockmarked only by the gaping holes of caverns. And then Laurence realized he was not looking at caverns, but at great carved archways, mouths for vaulted halls which penetrated deep within the mountain-side. The cliff walls did not gleam like polished marble; they were polished marble, or as good as: a smooth speckled stone, with quantities of ivory and gold inlaid directly into the rock in fantastical pattern.
Façades were carved and sculpted around the openings, ornamented gorgeously in vivid color and odd abstract patterns, and towering more vast than Westminster or St. Paul’s, the only and inadequate measures of comparison which Laurence possessed. Narrow stairs, their railings carved of stone and smoothed by the water-spray, climbed between the archways to give the perspective: five ordinary town-houses, laid foundation-to-roof atop one another, might have approximated the heights of the largest.
Kefentse was going at a lazy speed now, the better to avoid collision: the gorge was full of dragons. Dragons flew back and forth busily among the halls, some carrying baskets or bundles, some carrying men on their backs; dragons lay sleeping upon the carved ledges, tails drooping downward from the mouths. Upon the stairways and in the halls, men and women stood talking or at labor, dressed in animal-skins or wrapped cloth garments of dazzling-bright colors, indigo and red and yellow ochre against their dark brown skin, many with elaborate chains of gold; and softly running above the sounds of all their mingled speech came the unending voice of the water.
KEFENTSE DEPOSITED THEM rudely within one of the smaller caverns dug into the face of the rock: he could not fit inside himself, but only balanced upon the lip of the cave while the netting was undone. They were shaken out onto the floor in a heap, still tied up, and he flew at once away, taking poor Mrs. Erasmus with him, and abandoning them to work themselves loose. There was no sharp edge to help them; the cavern walls were smoothed. Dyer and Roland and Tooke managed eventually to squirm their smaller hands out of their bindings, and began to help untie the others.
Thirty of them left all together, from four crews. They were not crowded, nor could their circumstances be called cruel; the floor was strewn liberally with dry straw to soften the hard rock, and despite the lingering day’s heat outside, the chamber remained cool and pleasant. A necessary-pit was carved out of the stone at the back of the chamber; it must surely have connected with a drainage channel somewhere beneath, but the opening was small, and drilled through solid rock: there was no way to get to it. There was a small pool also, in the back, refreshed continuously from a trickling channel and waist-deep on a man, large enough to swim across a few strokes: they would by no means die of thirst.
It was a strange prison, with neither guard nor bars upon the door, but as impregnable as any fortress; there were none of the carved steps leading to their cavern, and nothing but the yawning gorge beneath. The scale of the whole, the carved and gothic ceiling vaulting overhead, would have made a comfortable stall for a small dragon; it ought to have seemed an airy and spacious environment, but had the effect of making them feel rather Lilliputian than comfortable, children wandering in a giant’s house, with their numbers so painfully small and dwindled.
Dorset was alive, with a terrible bruising down along the side of his face, and he pressed his hand now and again to his side, as if his ribs or his breathing pained him. “Mr. Pratt is dead, Captain,” he said. “I am very sorry to be sure: he tried to stand before Mrs. Erasmus, and the beast carved him to the hip,” a grievous loss, the smith’s quiet capability no less than his immense strength.
There was no way to be certain of the full extent of their losses: Hobbes killed before their eyes, and Laurence had seen Chenery’s midwingman Hyatt dead; Chenery’s lieutenant Libbley remembered the surgeon Waley fallen also; but another dozen at least had been heaved out after that first night, the rest of them too sick and dazed to recognize in dim lighting, and more had been left dead upon the field; others still, they hoped, had slipped away in the general confusion, to leave at least some faint direction behind. There was no-one who had seen Warren.
“But I hope to God that Sutton will have the sense to turn back straightaway for the Cape,” Harcourt said. “No-one could ever conceive we had been brought so far; they will wear themselves to rags with fretting, and never find a trace: we must find some way to get them word, at least. Those men knew something about guns, did you notice? There must be some trade, some merchants must be tempted to come: more ivory than they know what to do with, when they build their walls out of the stuff.”
They ventured cautiously to the edge of the cavern-mouth to look out again into the gorges. The first impression of immensity and splendor was not to be undone, but the degree perhaps fell off a little here, farther from the falls and near the end of the inhabited portion of the gorges; the façade of their own prison was plain rock, although the native cliff wall had been polished to a smoothness that would have defied a monkey to climb.
Chenery bent down over the ledge and rubbed his hand over the wall, as far down as he could reach, and came up discouraged. “Not a finger-hold to be had: we are not going anywhere, until we manage to sprout wings of our own.”
“Then we had better rest, while we may,” Harcourt said, in practical tones, “and if you gentlemen will be so good as to give me your backs, I am going to bathe.”
THEY WERE ROUSED up early not by any attentions paid to them, for there were none, but by a dreadful noise which could most easily be compared to a swarm of horse-flies in continuous agitation. The sun had not yet penetrated into the twisting canyons, though the sky above was the thorough-going blue of mid-morning, and a faint glaze of mist yet clung to the smooth rock near the cavern mouth.
Across the gorge, a pair of dragons were engaged in a peculiar exercise, flying back and forth hauling alternately upon what looked to be a thick grey hawser coiled about and passed through the end of a tremendous iron shaft, spinning it steadily. The other end of the shaft was plunged into the depths of a cavern only partially hollowed-out, and from here issued the malevolent buzzing. Dust and chalky powder blew out in great gusts, speckling the dragons’ hides so they were coated thickly ochre; occasionally one or the other would turn his head and sneeze powerfully, without ever losing the rhythm.
A great cracking noise heralded a leap forward: loose pebbles and great stones came spilling from the mouth of the hall into a large sack stretched out upon a frame to catch them. The dragons paused in their labor, and withdrew the enormous drill; one clung on to the rough, unpolished cliff, holding the mechanism suspended, while the other perched upon the ledge and scraped out the boulders and loose rock which had shattered. A third dragon, smaller, came winging down the gorge when the operation was complete; he carried away the laden sack, to let the pair resume.
While this work proceeded, almost directly above them another cavern, already sunk deep within the hillside, crawled with human masons finishing the rough work, the distant musical plink-plink of tapping hammers on the rock drifting across the divide; each man bringing his own discards to the cave-mouth as they smoothed down the walls.
They were very industrious all the morning; then mid-day arriving they quitted their work. Their tools were heaped inside the cavern, the vast drill also; and the dragons flying up collected the men, who without any harness leapt with casual fearlessness onto the dragon’s backs, wings, limbs, and clapped on to the handful of woven straps, or merely clung, and were borne away along the gorge, back to the more settled area.
Still no-one had come. They had among their pockets some biscuit, a little dried fruit, which would not have made a meal for even one man; it was pressed on Catherine, who at first disdained it scornfully, until Dorset insisted upon it as a medical matter.
They grew only sorrier when another pair arrived, carrying what looked to be the component parts of three or four elephants among them, butchered and neatly skewered on long iron stakes, to roast over the bonfire. The wind was in their quarter, carrying towards the caves. Laurence had to wipe his mouth with his handkerchief, twice; even the very back of the cavern offered no shelter from the torment of the delicious smell. It was very disheartening to observe the dragons cast away the scorched and cracked bones, when they had done, into the massive thicket of jungle which lined the floor of the gorge below; still more regrettable were the satisfied growls and yelping which presently rose up in reply, lions, perhaps, or wild dogs: a fresh obstacle to any escape.
Two hours more passed, or nearly, by the cracked glass which Turner had managed to salvage from the wreck of their capture; it began to grow dark. Dragons came flying to many of the plain cave-mouths near-by, carrying netting full of men, whom they let down inside the caves just as the aviators had been deposited: the dragons had a sort of trick of setting their hind legs upon the lip of each cavern, and setting their foreclaws into some ridges carved above the mouth, while their riders unhooked the netting, so they did not have to squeeze into some of these smaller caverns. It bore some resemblance to the passenger-dragons, which Laurence had seen in China, save for the perfect disregard for the comfort of the passengers in the nets.
When these deliveries had finished, a small dragon flew down the gorge towards them, with many baskets slung over its shoulders. It halted in sequence at the cave-mouths, leaving behind a few of the bundles every time, until at last it reached their own. There was a single man upon its back, who looked their number over with a critical eye, then untied some three of the baskets before taking wing again.
Each held a cold and thickened mass of sorghum-porridge cooked in milk: filling if not savory, and the portions not quite so large as desirable. “One basket for every ten men,” Harcourt said, counting cave-mouths, “so as many as fifty men, in that large one: they must have near a thousand prisoners here, spread out.”
“A regular Newgate,” Chenery said, “but less damp, for which be thanked; do you suppose they mean to sell us? A charming solution, if we could get ourselves shipped to Cape Coast and not a French port; and if they were not unpleasant about it.”
“Maybe they will eat us,” Dyer said thoughtfully, his piping voice quite clear; all the other men were engaged deeply with their dinners.
There was a general pause. “A thoroughly morbid suggestion, Mr. Dyer; let me hear no more of this sort of speculation,” Laurence said, taken aback.
“Oh, yes, sir,” Dyer said, surprised, and went directly back to his dinner, with no particular sign of dismay; some of the younger ensigns looked greenly, and it required perhaps a full minute before hunger once again overcame their temporary qualms.
THE LINE OF sunlight crept up the far wall and slid away over the edge; dusk came early into the narrow gorge. For lack of anything else to do, they slept, while the sky above was still a daylit blue, and the next morning roused from an uneasy night into darkness, with the dreadful buzzing of the drill suddenly muffled; Dyer’s breathless, “Sir, sir—” in Laurence’s ear.
Kefentse was there; he had thrust as much of his head as would fit into the opening of their cavern, blocking both light and noise from outside. Mrs. Erasmus was with him, difficult to recognize in the native dress which she had been given, and weighted down as if she were in danger of floating away: earrings, armbands like coiled snakes on upper arms and lower, a great neck-collar of gold pieces strung on wire, interspersed with pieces of ivory, dark green jade, and ruby, certainly worth fifty thousand pounds at least, and a great emerald like an egg, set in gold, pinning a turban of silk upon her head.
Most of the native women which they had seen, from their vantage point, had been carrying water, or hanging washing to dry upon the steps, and wore only a kind of leather skirt, reaching to the knees but leaving their breasts quite bare: much to the covert interest of the younger officers. Perhaps formal garments were of different style, or she had prevailed upon them to give her others; she wore instead a long skirt of plain white cotton, and over it another length of cotton cloth woven of bright colors, wrapped and folded elaborately about her shoulders.
She required the assistance of a hand on her elbow to climb down from Kefentse’s back. “They would have me wear more if it would not make it impossible for me to walk: it is the tribal property,” she said. It was evasion; her expression was uneasy, and after a moment’s pause she said, low, “I am sorry: Kefentse is here to take our leader, to go and speak with the king.”
Harcourt was pale but composed. “I am senior, ma’am; he may take me.”
“He may sooner go to the Devil,” Chenery said. “Laurence, shall we have lots for it?” Taking up a small twig from the rushes he snapped it in two and held them out with the top ends even, the lower concealed.
It was at least a good deal more comfortable to be carried in Kefentse’s talons, than in the former netting; and Laurence did not feel his appearance wholly disgraceful: the idleness and heat of the day had left them nothing but time, and thanks to the convenience of the water-pool, he had sponged his coat as best he could, and thoroughly washed his breeches and his linen. He had not shaved, but that could not be helped.
The roar of the falls increased steadily, and the tangle of jungle below, until they were brought at last to a curve of the gorge very near the falls; here a great hall stood open, three times the width of the other archways, the entryway pillared for support. Kefentse dived low and swiftly within, and coming to a stop rolled him unceremoniously out of his talons onto the damp floor, before more carefully setting Mrs. Erasmus onto her feet.
Laurence had already come to expect these indignities, and picked himself up without more than irritation, an emotion promptly vanquished in favor of concern. A makeshift workshop had been established recently, it seemed, along the right side of the chamber, and besides the rifles which the aviators themselves had lost, some sixty or seventy muskets more were laid out upon the floor on woven mats, in various states of disassembly and repair; and worse, far worse: a six-pound gun, its housing cracked but not gone, and a barrel of gunpowder besides. A small group of men were working upon the collection, taking apart a musket and pressing low harsh questions on a man sitting dejectedly on a stool before them; his back, turned to Laurence, was marked with half-a-dozen bloody weals, and flies crawled upon it.
A young man was overseeing their work with great attention; he left off, as Kefentse landed, and came over towards them: tall, with a long face infused with a certain quality of sorrow, not by emotion but only the angle of his cheekbones, like a hound; the nose sculpted and a narrow black beard around the full mouth. He had a small escort of warriors, all of them bare-chested and armed with short spears, leather-skirted; he was distinguished from the rest of them by a thick neck-collar of gold with a fringe of what looked to be the claws of some great cat, and a leopard-skin cape draped over the shoulders: physically powerful, and his eyes were shrewd.
Laurence bowed; the young man ignored him, looking to the other side of the great hall, and from a chamber within came a great creature of golden-bronze hide, the underside of her wings lined in purple like royalty. She was in battle-array formidable as a Crusader, great heavy plates of iron slung across the vulnerable expanse of her breast, with a fine mesh of chain beneath to protect the belly, and the spikes bristling down her spine were sheathed in caps of iron, as were her talons, and these were yet discolored a little with blood; Mrs. Erasmus gave him to understa
She—or he?—Laurence was at a loss; he was standing scarcely half-a-length away, and the king was quite certainly, quite visibly a female dragon—seated herself sphinx-like on the floor, her tail curling along her flanks, and regarded Laurence with a cold and amber eye. The young man, Moshueshue, seated himself on a wooden throne, which was brought to him and set by her side, and several older women trailing after settled themselves on wooden stools behind him: these identified as the king’s wives.
Kefentse lowered his head respectfully, and began to speak, evidently giving his account of their capture and journey, which Mrs. Erasmus with great courage dared to dispute, at several points, on their behalf; while trying to help Laurence understand the accusations which had been made. That they had stolen medicines, cultivated for the use of the king’s own subjects, was only the least offense; the foremost, that they had offered a territorial challenge, by invading in the company of their own ancestors, as Kefentse considered the dragons of the formation to be; and in league with enemy tribes had been stealing their children, for which he offered as one portion of evidence that they had been traveling with a man of the Lunda, notorious kidnappers—
Mrs. Erasmus paused and said unevenly, “—he means my husband.”
She did not continue her translation at once, but pressed a fold of her gown briefly to her face, while Kefentse bent low and anxiously over her, crooning, and snapping at Laurence with a hiss, when he would have offered his arm for her support.
“The medicine we took only for necessity, because our own dragons were ill; and without knowing the mushroom cultivated,” Laurence said, but he did not know how else to defend himself. He could not very well deny they had brought dragons; they had, and in any case, this seemed rather to stand in for making a territorial claim, which he could certainly not as a serving-officer deny. The British and the Dutch would alike have been surprised to know their colony had been thought unworthy of notice, and casually to be violated, until the arrival of the formation.
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