Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik

  There was no waving, no calling from below; but their ears were stretched, and Turner had the glass still before him: fifteen minutes went, then twenty, and no sound of disaster. Chenery’s first, Libbley, went to the edge and let himself over, in similar array; and after him the ensigns and midwingmen began to go, quicker: two and three at a time; Lily had sprayed the wall thoroughly, and there were hand-holds broadly scattered.

  Chenery went, and a little after him, Catherine with her midwingman Drew. Most of the younger aviators had already gone. “I’ll go below you, sir, and guide your feet,” Martin said very softly, his yellow hair darkened with rubbed-in dirt and water. “Let me have your boots.” Laurence nodded silently, and handed them over, and Martin tied them up with his own.

  Martin’s hand on his ankle guided his foot to one of the narrow holds: a rough shallow scrape in the face of the rock, which just admitted the grip of his toes; another, to the right. Laurence eased himself over the edge, groping for hand-holds beneath the lip; he could not see the face of the cliff beneath him, his own body blocking what little glimmer the stars gave, and could only rely on the sense of touch: the stone cold, beneath his cheek, and his breathing very loud in his own ears, with the strange amplified quality of being underwater; blind, deaf, he pressed his body flat as he could against the rock.

  There was a dreadful moment when Martin touched his ankle again, and waited for him to lift it from the cliff; Laurence thought he would not be able to make himself yield the support. He willed the movement; nothing happened, then he took another breath and at last his foot moved; Martin drawing him gently downward, toes brushing lightly over the rock, to another hold.

  The second foot, then one hand, then the next, mindlessly. It was easier to continue, once he had gone into motion, so long as he did not again allow himself to settle into a fixed position. A slow deep bruising ache began between his shoulders, and in his thighs. The tips of his fingers burned a little, as he went; he did not wonder if it was some trace of the acidic fluids left, or tried not to; he did not trust his grip well enough to wipe them against the rag hanging uselessly from his waistband.

  Bailes, Dulcia’s harness-man, was near beside him, a little way farther down; a heavy-set man, going cautiously; ground crewmen did not ordinarily go into combat, and had less practice of climbing. He gave suddenly a queer, deep grunt, and jerked his hand; Laurence looked down and saw his face pressed open-mouthed into the rock, making a horrible, low, stifled sound, his hand clawing madly at the stone: clawing, and coming to shreds, there was white bone gleaming at the fingertips, and abruptly Bailes flung out his arm and fell away, his bared teeth clenched and visible, for a brief moment.

  Branches cracked, below. Martin’s hand was on his ankle, but not moving, a faint tremor. Laurence did not try to look up, only held to the rock face and breathed, softly, softly; if they were lost, there was nothing to be done: one sweep of a dragon’s foreleg would scrape them off the wall.

  At last they resumed. Down again; and to the side, Laurence caught the gleam of translucent rock at the surface: a vein of quartz, perhaps, on which the venom might have pooled, unabsorbed.

  Some time later, some ages later, a dragon flew by, going quickly through the night. It was well overhead: Laurence felt its passing only as wind and the sound of wings. His hands were numb with cold and raw. There were pockets of grass beneath his seeking fingers; in a few more steps a slope, scarcely less than vertical; then a tree-root beneath his heel, and they were nearly down: their feet were in dirt, and the bushes were catching at them. Martin tapped his ankle, and they turned and slithered down on their rumps, until they could stand up to put back on their boots. The water could be heard somewhere below, rushing; the jungle a tangle of palm leaves and tough-skinned vines hanging across their path. A clean, damp smell of moving water, fresh earth, and dew trembling and thick upon the leaves; their shirts were soon wet through and chill against their skin. A different world entirely than the dusty brown and ochre of the cliffs above.

  They had all agreed none should wait for long, but go on ahead in small parties, hoping if they were discovered at this stage, at least some might yet escape. Winston, one of his harness-men, was waiting a little way on, squatting and rising to stretch out his legs; also young Allen, nervous and gnawing on the side of his thumb, and his fellow ensign Harley. The five of them went on together, following the course of the cliff wall: the earth was soft, and the vegetation full of juice, compliant; easier by far to work through than the dry underbrush, if the vines reached up to trip them from time to time. Allen stumbling almost continuously, his latest growth making him gangly and awkward, all long coltish limbs. They could not avoid some degree of noise; they could not cut their way through, but from time to time were forced to haul upon the vines to make enough slack to get through them, with corresponding groans of protest from the branches on which they hung.

  “Oh,” Harley breathed out very softly, frozen; they looked, and eyes looked back: cat-pupiled, bright green. They regarded the leopard; it regarded them; no one moved. Then it turned its head and melted away, solitary and unconcerned.

  They went on a little faster, still following the channel of the gorge, until at last the jungle thinned out and dredged up to a point where the river’s course had divided, and two channels followed separate paths: and he could see through the last stretch of jungle Lily and Temeraire waiting there anxiously, astride the narrow banks, and squabbling a little.

  “But what if you had missed?” Temeraire was muttering, a little disconsolate and critical, while he stretched his neck to try and peer into the jungle. “You might have hit the cave-mouth, or some of our crew.”

  Lily mantled at this suggestion, her eyes very orange. “I hope I do not need to be near-by to hit a wall,” she replied quellingly, and then leaned eagerly forward, as Harcourt came stumbling down the wet slope towards her. “Catherine, Catherine; oh, are you well? Is the egg all right?”

  “Hang the egg,” Catherine said, putting her head against Lily’s muzzle. “No, there, dearest; it has only been a nuisance, but I am so very glad to see you. How clever you were!”

  “Yes,” Lily said complacently, “and indeed it was much easier than I thought it would be; there was no-one about to pay any mind, except that fellow on the hill, and he was asleep.”

  Temeraire nuzzled Laurence gratefully, too, all his quibbling silenced: he still wore the thick iron collar, much to his disgust, and a few clubbed lengths of cable dangling off it, blackened and brittle at the ends where Lily’s acid had weakened the metal enough for the two of them to break it. “But we cannot leave without Mrs. Erasmus,” Laurence said to him, low; but Dulcia was landing among them, and Mrs. Erasmus was clutching to the harness on her back.

  THEY FLED CAUTIOUSLY but quickly homeward, the rich husbanded countryside providing: Temeraire savage and quick, cutting out elephants from a herd, while the smaller herd-dragons yelled angry imprecations but did not dare give pursuit when he had roared them down; Lily doubling back sharp on herself, when a heavy-weight roused up in a village on their course and bellowed challenge, to spit with unerring precision at a branch of the great sprawling bao-bab tree beside him. Her acid sent it crashing down upon his shoulders: he jumped and thought better of giving chase; looking back he might be seen gingerly nosing the thick branch, large as an entire tree, away from the clearing.

  The aviators wove grasses into makeshift cords, to tie themselves on with, and pinned their limbs under straps of harness so that whenever they paused for water, they all went down in staggering heaps, pounding on their thighs to drown out the prickling of returning blood. The desert they flew across almost without a pause, pale rock and yellow dust, the curious heads of small animals popping up from holes in the ground in hopes of rain as the dragon-shadows passed by like racing clouds. Temeraire had taken all of Dulcia’s crew but Chenery himself; and also some of Lily’s; the three of them made all the haste which could be imagined, and they broke over
the mountains into the narrow coastal province of the settlements in the hour before dawn on the sixth day of flight, and saw the tongues of flame, where the cannon at the Cape were speaking.

  Narrow pillars of smoke were lying back against the face of Table Mountain as they came across the bay driving into the city, drifting before a hard wind blowing into the bay, and fires all through the city: ships beating desperately out of the harbor into the wind, close-hauled as they could go. The cannon of the castle were speaking without cease, thunder-roll of broadsides from the Allegiance in the harbor also, her deck swathed deeply in grey powder-gusts spilling down her sides and rolling away on the water.

  Maximus was fighting in mid-air, above the ship: his sides still gaunt, but the enemy dragons gave him still a wide and respectful berth, and fled from his charges; Messoria and Immortalis flanked him, and Nitidus was darting beneath their cover to harry the enemy in their retreat. So far they had preserved the ship, but the position was untenable; they were only trying to hold long enough to carry away those who could be saved: the harbor full of boats, crammed and wallowing boats, trying to get to her shelter.

  Berkley signaled, from Maximus’s back, as they came on: holding well, retrieve company; so they flashed on past and towards the shore, where the castle lay under full siege: a vast body of spearmen, crouched beneath great shields of oxhide and iron. Many of their fellows lay dead in the fields just before the walls, cut dreadfully apart by canister shot, and musketry; other corpses floated in the moat. They had failed to carry the walls by climbing, but the survivors had withdrawn past the substantial rubble that had been made of the nearby houses by the cannon-fire, and now sheltered there from the guns, waiting with terrible patience for a breach in the walls.

  Another corpse lay dreadfully stretched, upon the parade grounds: a yellow-and-brown dragon, its eyes cloudy and its body half-burst upon the ground by impact, a gaping hole torn into its side by the round-shot which had brought it down; scraps of bloody hide stood on the grass even a hundred yards distant. Some thirty dragons more were in the air, now making their passes from very high, dropping not bombs but sacks of narrow iron blades, flat and triangular and sharpened along every edge, which drove even into stone: as Temeraire dropped into the courtyard, Laurence could see them bristling from the earth as if it had been sowed with teeth; there were many dead soldiers upon the heights.

  King Mokhachane was standing on the lower slopes of Table Mountain clear of cannon-shot, observing grimly, and occasionally mantling her wings in yearning when one of the men or dragons were struck; of course she was a dragon of no great age, and all instinct would have driven her to the battlefield. There were men hovering around her flanks, and others running back and forth to the company gathered before the fortress walls, with orders. Laurence could not see if the prince was by her side.

  The city itself had been left untouched: the castle alone bore the attack, although the streets had nevertheless been deserted. Some large boulders lay also strewn in the corners, bloodstained, and others trailing behind them a line of smashed bricks, red under their yellow paint. The soldiers were mostly on the walls, sweating as they worked the guns, and a great crowd of settlers, men and women and children together, huddled in the shelter of the barracks waiting for the boats to return.

  Mrs. Erasmus sprang almost at once from Temeraire’s back when they had landed, scarcely a hand to the harness; General Grey, hurrying to greet them, looked with astonishment as she went past him without a word.

  “She has gone for her children,” Laurence said, sliding down himself. “Sir, we must bring you off, at once; the Allegiance cannot hold the harbor long.”

  “But who the devil is she?” Grey said, and Laurence realized she must have been quite unrecognizable to him, still in her native dress. “And damn the bloody savages, yes; we cannot hit a one of those beasts, as high as they are keeping, even with pepper-shot; they will have the walls down soon if the place does not catch, first. This has not been built to hold against three companies of dragons. Where have they all come from?”

  He was already turning, giving orders, his aides running to organize the withdrawal: an orderly, formal retreat, the men spiking their own guns before abandoning them, only a few gun-crews at a time, and hurling into the moat the barrels of powder. Mr. Fellowes had already gone, with the ground crew, for the dragons’ battle-gear: still where it had been stowed, fortunately, in the smithy. They came running with the belly-netting, and all the spare carabiner straps which they had. “The armor, sir, we can’t manage, without he come and lift it himself,” he said, panting, as they began in haste to rig Temeraire’s belly-netting again, and Lily’s; Dulcia had gone aloft again, her riflemen armed now with pepper-shot, to keep the enemy off their heads at least a little while.

  “Leave it,” Laurence said; this would be no prolonged struggle, but a quick dash for safety, and back again for more of the men; they needed speed more than the protection of the armor, when the enemy had no guns.

  Temeraire crouched for the first group of soldiers to climb into the netting: the men stumbling, some pale and sweating with fear, driven by their officers, and others dazed with the noise and smoke. Laurence now bitterly regretted he had not asked Fellowes, back in England, to rig up some of the Chinese silk carrying-harnesses which would now have allowed them to take many more than the normally allotted number for retreat; thirty for a heavy-weight, when by weight Temeraire could have managed two hundred or more at a run.

  They crammed some fifty men in, regardless, and hoped the netting would hold for the short flight. “We will—” Laurence began, meaning to say they would return; he was cut short by a shrieked warning from Dulcia, and Temeraire sprang aloft only in time: three of the enemy, using a netting made of the metal hawsers, had brought overhead an enormous boulder roughly the size of an elephant and let fly. It smashed the delicate cup of the bell-tower with a sour, ringing clang, and came down through the short passage of the entryway, brick and mortared stone crumbling everywhere, and the portcullis moaned and sagged open to the ground.

  Temeraire sped to the Allegiance, to let the men down onto the dragondeck, and as quick hastened back to the shore. The spearmen were coming in through the rubble of the narrow passageway, charging with yells into the teeth of the musket-fire Grey had mustered, flooding by and up towards the guns. In parties they were encircling the emplacements yet manned and stabbing the gun-crews to death with quick, short, jerking motions, their spearheads wet and red with blood; one after another the cannon-roars silenced, and the dragons overhead began circling like ominous crows, waiting for the last to be stifled so they might descend.

  Temeraire reared up onto the roof and knocked flat a dozen of the attackers with a swipe of his foreleg, snarling. “Temeraire, the guns,” Laurence called. “Smash the guns they have taken—”

  The attackers had seized now three cannon not yet spiked, and were trying to turn the first to bring it to bear on the courtyard, where they could fire at Temeraire and Lily. Temeraire simply put his forehand on the housing and thrust the cannon and the six men clinging onto it through the notched brick battlements; it plunged down and into the moat with a terrific splash, the men undaunted letting go and swimming up through the water.

  Lily, landing behind them to take on more of the retreat, spat: the second cannon began to hiss and smoke, the barrel thumping to the ground as the wooden housing dissolved quicker than the metal, and went rolling free like a deadly ninepin, knocking men down and spreading the acid everywhere, so splatters hissed upon the brick and dirt.

  The earth beneath them shook so violently Temeraire stumbled and dropped back to all four legs in the courtyard: another massive boulder had dropped, and smashed a section of the outer walls, at the far and undefended end of the courtyard. A fresh wave of men came surging through, quicker than Grey’s men could turn to meet them, and charged those still defending the ruined entryway of the castle. The riflemen ranged across Temeraire’s back set up a
quick irregular fire into the onrushing mass; then the spearmen were in and grappling furiously with the soldiers and their bayonets, and a strange quiet descended. The guns were scarcely firing anymore, and only a scattering of occasional musket-and pistol-shot broke the soft grunting noise of panting, struggling men, the groans of the wounded and the dying.

  All the yard was a great confusion; with no clear avenue of retreat or line of battle, men ran in all directions, now trying to evade, now trying to seek combat, crowded by frightened and bellowing livestock, horses and cows and sheep. These had been brought into the castle, against a siege expected to last longer, and penned in the smaller second courtyard: maddened by the noise of battle and the dragons wild overhead, they had got loose and now went careening indiscriminately through the grounds, a flock of hens crying around their feet, until they broke their legs or necks in flight, or found their way by chance outside the castle grounds.

  In the crowd, Laurence caught sight to his surprise of Demane, clinging with grim desperation to the collar of the heifer he had been promised, which plunged and bellowed madly against his slight weight; she was dragging him out into the melee, while the calf tried to follow moaning. Sipho hung back in the archway which allowed communication between the two courtyards of the castle, gnawing upon his small bunched fist, his face wrenched with terror, and then with sudden decision dashed out after his brother, his hand reaching for the lead-rope which straggled out behind the cow.

  A pair of soldiers were bayoneting one of the enemy to death savagely, as the cow went dragging by; one straightened and wiped blood across his mouth, panting, and shouted, “Fucking little thief, couldn’t wait till we’re cold—”

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