Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik

  “No,” Moshueshue said. “There is nothing I can do with this, not now. The ancestors are too roused up; it is not Kefentse only who has been bereft, and even those who have not lost children of their own are angry. My father’s temper was not long when he was a man, and it is shorter since his change of life. Perhaps after.” He did not say, after what, but issued orders to the attending dragons: without a chance to speak, Laurence was snatched up, and carried out at once.

  The dragon did not turn back for the prison-cave, however, but turned instead for the falls, rising up out of the gorge and to the level of the plateau across which the great river flowed. Laurence clung to the basketing talons as they flew along its banks and over another of the great elephant-herds, too quickly for him to recognize if any of his compatriots were among the followers tending the ground; and to a distance at which the sound of the falls was muted, although the fine cloud of smoke yet remained visible, hovering perpetual in place to mark their location. There were no roads below at all, but at regular intervals Laurence began to notice cairns of stones, in circles of cleared ground, which might have served as signposts; and they had flown ten minutes when there came rearing up before them a vast amphitheater.

  It was near to nothing, in his own experience, but the Colosseum in Rome; built entirely of blocks of stone fitted so snugly that no mortar, visibly, held them together, the outer enclosure was built in an oval shape, with no entrances but a few, at the base, formed with great overlapping slabs of stone laid one against another like the old stone circles in England. It stood in the middle of a grassy field, undisturbed, as he would have expected from some ancient unused ruin; only a few faintly worn tracks showed where men had come into the entries on foot, mostly from the river, where stakes had been driven in the ground, and a few simple boats were tied up.

  But they flew in directly over the walls, and there were no signs of disuse within. The same drymortar method of construction had raised a series of terraces, topped and leveled out with more stone slabs, laid flat, and irregularly arranged; instead of even tiers, narrow stairways divided the theater into sections, each a haphazard arrangement of boxes intended for human use and filled with wooden benches and stools, some beautifully carved, and large stalls surrounding them for dragons. The higher levels simplified further, into wide-open stands with sections marked off only with rope; at the center of it all, a large grassy oval stood bare, broken up with three large stone platforms, and on the last of these, a prisoner with drooping head, was Temeraire.

  Laurence was set down a few lengths away, with the usual carelessness, jarring his back sorely; at his repressed gasp, Temeraire growled, a deep and queerly stifled noise. He had been muzzled, with a piece of dreadful iron basketry, secured upon his head with many thick leather straps, which allowed his jaws a scant range of motion: not enough to roar. A thick iron collar around his throat, at the top of his neck, was leashed with three of the massive grey hawsers, which Laurence could now see were made of braided wire, rather than rope; these were fixed to iron rings set in the ground, equidistant from one another, and preventing Temeraire from throwing his weight against any one of them more than the others.

  “Laurence, Laurence,” Temeraire said, straining his head towards him with all the inches the cables would yield; Laurence would have gone to him at once, but the dragon which had brought him set its foreleg down between them: he was not permitted.

  “Pray do not hurt yourself, my dear; I am perfectly well,” Laurence called, forcing himself to straighten; he was anxious lest Temeraire should have done himself some mischief, flinging himself against the collar: it looked to be digging into the flesh. “You are not very uncomfortable, I hope?”

  “Oh, it is nothing,” Temeraire said, panting with a distress which belied his words, “nothing, now I see you again; only I could not move very much, and no-one comes to talk to me, so I did not know anything: if you were well or hurt; and you were so strange, when I saw you last.”

  He backed slowly and cautiously one pace and let himself down again, still breathing heavily, and gave his head a little shake, as much as the chains would allow, so they rang around him; like a horse in traces. “And it makes eating a little difficult,” he added bravely, “and water taste of rust, but it does not signify: are you sure you are well? You do not look well.”

  “I am, and very glad to see you,” Laurence said, business-like, though in truth he was at some pains to keep his feet, “if beyond words with surprise; we were mortally certain we should never be found.”

  “Sutton said we would never find you, by roaming wild about the continent,” Temeraire said, low and angry, “and that we ought to go back to Capetown. But I told him that was a very great piece of nonsense, for however unlikely we should find you looking in the interior, it was very much less likely we should find you back at the Cape. So we asked directions—”

  “Directions?” Laurence said, baffled.

  He had consulted with some of the local dragons, who, living farther to the south, had not been subject yet to the slave-raiding, and were not so disposed to be hostile. “At least, not once we had made them a few presents of some particularly nice cows—which, I am sorry, Laurence, we took quite without permission, from some of the settlers, so I suppose we must pay them when we have got back to Capetown,” Temeraire added, as confidently as if nothing stood in the way of their return. “It was a little difficult to make them understand what we wanted, at first, but some of them understood the Xhosa language, which I had got a little of from Demane and Sipho, and I have learnt a little of theirs as we came closer: it is not very difficult, and there are many bits which are like Durzagh.”

  “But, forgive me; I do not mean to be ungrateful,” Laurence said, “—the mushrooms? What of the cure? Were there any left?”

  “We had already given all those we collected to the Fiona,” Temeraire said, “and if those were not enough, then Messoria and Immortalis could do very well taking back the rest, without us,” he finished defiantly, “so Sutton had no right to complain, if we liked to go; and hang orders anyway.”

  Laurence did not argue with him; he had no wish of giving any further distress, and in any case, Temeraire’s insubordination having been answered by a success so improbable, he would certainly not be inclined to listen to any criticism on the subject: the sort of break-neck reckless venture crowned inevitably, Laurence supposed, by either triumph or disaster; speed and impudence having their own virtue. “Where are Lily and Dulcia, then?”

  “They are hiding, out upon the plains,” Temeraire said. “We agreed that first I should try, as I am big enough to carry you all; and then if anything should go wrong, they would still be loose.” He switched his tail with something halfway between irritation and unease. “It made very good sense at the time, but I did not quite realize, that anything would go wrong, and then I would not be able to help them plan,” he added plaintively, “and now I do not know what they mean to do; although I am sure they will think of something”—but he sounded a little dubious.

  As well he might; while they had been speaking, dragons had been coming in a steady stream, carrying in large woven baskets or upon their backs men and women and even children, and settling all down within the stands: a vast company, larger than Laurence had yet suspected. The people arranged themselves in a hierarchy of wealth, those sitting on the lowest levels dressed in the most elaborate finery, panoply of furs and jewellery in a splendid vulgar display. There was a great variety among the beasts, in size and shape, and no sign of recognizable breeds, save perhaps a tendency towards similar coloring, in those who sat near-by one another, or in their pattern of markings. There was one constant, or nearly, however: the hostile looks which were bent upon Laurence and Temeraire, from all sides. Temeraire flared his ruff, as best he could with the constricting straps, and muttered, “They needn’t all stare so; and I think they are great cowards for keeping me chained.”

  Soldiers were being brought in, now, by drago
ns more armored than ornamented, and many of them in bloodstained gear: no mark of slovenly habits but deliberate, worn proudly; many of the stains were fresh as though they had come straight from the recent battle which Mrs. Erasmus had mentioned. These took up places around the floor of the great stadium, in even ranks, while servants began to cover the large central stage with furs, lion-skins and leopard, and similarly draped a wooden throne; drums had been carried in, and Laurence was thankful when they set up a great thunder, and drew all eyes away: the king and the prince had arrived.

  The soldiers beat their short-hafted spears against the shields, and the dragons roaring their own salute set up a wave of rattling noise, on and on, while the royalty seated themselves upon the central dais. When they were settled, a small dragon, wearing an odd sort of necklace of fur tails around his neck, leapt up on his haunches, beside the dais, and clearing his throat hushed the crowd with startling speed; his next deep breath was audible in the sudden silence. And then he launched himself into something between story and song: chanted, and without rhyme, to the beat of only one soft drum which kept time for him.

  Temeraire tilted his head, to try and make it out; but when he looked at Laurence, and would have spoken, the dragon guarding them gave him a shocked glare even before a word had issued, which quelled him in embarrassment; until with sunset, the chant finished, and the raucous applause burst out again as torches were lit all around the dais. It had evidently been, from what Temeraire could gather, a kind of history of the deeds of the king and his ancestors, and more generally of the many assembled tribes, delivered entirely from memory, and covering some seven generations.

  Laurence could not help but feel the liveliest anxiety for the purpose of the convocation; the opening ceremonies thus completed, it proceeded swiftly to angry speeches, greeted with roaring approval and again that thunder of spears against shields. “That is not true at all,” Temeraire said indignantly, during one of these, having picked out a few of the words. One highly decorated dragon, a grey-black fellow of middle-weight size, wearing a thick neck-collar of tiger furs banded with gold, had come and ranged himself opposite Temeraire, and was gesturing at him pointedly. “I would not want your crew anyway; I have my own.” He and Laurence were evidently figuring, in most of these exhortations, as material evidence, to prove the existence of the threat and of its magnitude.

  Another dragon, very old, whose wing-spurs dragged upon the ground, and whose eyes were milky with cataracts, was led out into the field by a small escort of hard-faced men whose box, upon the lowest level, was left empty by their departure: they had no family with them. No-one spoke as the dragon crept to the dais, and heaved himself upon it; he raised his trembling head, his speech a thin and fragile lament which silenced all the crowd, and made the women draw to them their children, the dragons curl anxious tails around the clustered knots of their nearest tribesmen; one of the escort wept silently, with his hand over his face, his fellows giving him the courtesy of pretending they did not see.

  When he had done, and returned slowly to his place, several of the soldiers began to stand forward to make their remarks: one general, a heavy barrel-chested gentleman, discarded his leopard-skin drape impatiently as he paced, with so much energy his skin gleamed in the torchlight with sweat, arguing vehemently in a voice projected to reach the highest tiers, gesturing at them at regular intervals, striking his fist into his hand, and pointing occasionally at Temeraire. His speech roused them all not only to cheering, but to agreement, grim nodding; he was warning them, that many more such dragons would come, if they did not take action now.

  The night dragged on, grim and long; when the children had all fallen into exhausted sleep, some of the dragons and the women carried them away; those left kept speaking, climbing lower down in the stands as room opened, and voices grew more hoarse. Fatigue at last freed Laurence from dread; they had not been stoned yet, nor offered any other violence but words, and his back throbbed and itched and burned, sapping the energy even to be afraid. It was still not easy to stand and be pilloried, even if Laurence thankfully could escape the understanding of the better part of the accusations leveled against them; he solaced himself by keeping as straight as he could make himself, and fixing his gaze beyond the top ranks of the audience. But he was looking not to see, unfocused, so he did not immediately notice, until a vigorous waving made him realize, with a start, that Dulcia was perched on the top rank of seats, now empty.

  She was small enough, and her green-and-mottled coloring sufficiently common, to pass for one of the company, whose attention was in any case fixed upon the speakers; when she saw she had Laurence’s eyes, she sat up and held up in her forehands a ragged grey sheet. Laurence had no notion what it was, at first; and then realized it was an elephant-hide, with three holes painstakingly sawed out of it, in the shape of signal-flags: tomorrow, was all the message, and when he had seen it, and nodded to her, she as quickly vanished away again into the dark.

  “Oh; I hope they will come and let me loose, first,” Temeraire murmured, fretful at the prospect of a rescue in which he had no say. “There are so many dragons; I hope they will not do anything rash.”

  “OH! I DO too,” Harcourt said anxiously, when Laurence had been returned to them, well-roasted and spat-upon, after the conclusion of the ceremonies; she went to the mouth of the cave at once to peer up at their sentinel. The dragon was slumped rather unhappily upon his ledge, with his head drooping down; in the distance the drums were still going, in a celebration which bid fair to continue deep into the night.

  They could not prepare, save in the most general way, by drinking as much as they could hold, and washing up; but they all applied themselves to these tasks with more energy than they deserved. “Bother; it is moving again,” Harcourt said, as she squeezed out her wet hair, and she put her hand to the small of her back and rubbed. Inconveniently she had just begun to show; her breeches were now obliged to be left open, and the sides held together over her middle with a bit of bark-string left from their bindings; her shirt was loose, to cover the arrangement. “Oh, if only it is a girl! I will never, never be so careless again.”

  By grace they slept well: the masons did not return to their work, perhaps given holiday, and so for once they were not woken with the dawn. No dragon came to carry any of them to the fields; although for an unpleasant balance, no dragon came to bring them any porridge, either, so they would have to make their attempt empty-stomached. There were still a good many dragons flying back and forth through the gorges, all day, but as evening fell their activity reduced, and the women went back early to their cavern-halls, singing, with the baskets full of washing balanced upon their heads.

  Of course they had all expected the rescue to be made at night, rationally; but without certain knowledge, the day was full of tension and constant anxiety, and the urge to be always looking out of the cavern-mouth, in a way which could only have roused suspicion. Sunset roused them all to feverish attention; no-one spoke, all of them straining, until a little while after dark the heavy sailcloth-flapping of Lily’s enormous wings could be heard, distantly, on the quiet air.

  They all waited for the sound to approach more closely, to see her head in the cavern-entrance; but it did not come. There was only a sneeze, and then another, and a third; concluded shortly with a sort of grumbling cough, and then the retreat of her wings. Laurence looked at Catherine, perplexed, but she was edging towards the cave-mouth, beckoning him and Chenery over; a faint sizzling noise, like bacon on a too-hot frying-pan, a pinched sharp vinegared stink: there were a few pockmarks bubbling on the floor near the cavern-mouth.

  “Look,” Catherine said softly, “she has made us handholds,” and she pointed where thin smoky trails rose, barely visible, from the cliff face.

  “Well, I dare say we can manage the climb, but what do we do when we are down?” Chenery said, with more optimism than Laurence felt. He had been made to go rock-climbing at Loch Laggan, by the training master Celeritas, some
twenty years past the time most aviators began the habit, and had learned thereby to manage upon a dragon’s back without too much discredit to himself; but he remembered the experience, cramped beetle-like creeping one hand or foot at a time, without anything like pleasure, and there he had been wearing carabiners.

  “If we walk along the line of the gorge, away from the falls, we are sure to get past the borders of their territory,” Catherine said. “The dragons will have to find us, from there, I suppose.”

  The waiting now graduated into sheer agony: they could not begin to climb down, until the acid had eaten itself away into the rock. The salvaged quarter-glass alone kept them on any real sense of time, and the wheeling Southern Cross in the sky above. Twice Laurence looked, to be sure Turner had not missed the glass running out, only to find it nearly full; then by an exercise of will he forced himself not to watch, but rather to close his eyes, and press his hands against his sides, beneath his arms, for warmth. It was the first week of June, and the night was grown sharply and unexpectedly chill.

  “Sir, that’s nine,” Turner said softly, at last, and the hissing of the acid had faded. They poked a twig into one of the pitted depressions by the entrance: a good two inches deep, and the stick came out unmarked, except for the very end, which smoked a little.

  “And his tail hasn’t moved, sir,” Dyer reported in a whisper, meaning the guard-dragon, up above, after he had put his head out to peer quickly.

  “Well, I think it may do,” Catherine said, when she had cautiously felt around with a rag. “Mr. Ferris, you may begin. Gentlemen: no more conversation; no calls, no whispers.”

  Ferris had tied his boots together by their laces and slung them backwards around his neck, to keep them out of his way. He tucked a few twists of straw from the floor of the cavern into his waist, then put his head over the side, first, and reached down to feel cautiously around. He looked up and nodded, then swung his leg over; in a moment he vanished, and when Laurence risked a quick look over the edge, he was already only a darker blot on the surface of the wall, fifteen feet down, moving with the limber quickness of youth.

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