Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik

  Demane saw, let go the cow and lunged; Sipho went down beneath his protective weight; the bayonet flashed down towards them. There was not even time to call out a protest: the tide of the battle drew the soldiers away in another moment, and left the two small bodies huddled on the ground, bloody. The cow stumbled away over the rubble, picking her way out of the courtyard through the open gap in the walls, the calf trotting after her.

  “Mr. Martin,” Laurence said, very low. Martin nodded, and tapped Harley on the shoulder; they let themselves down the harness and dashed out across the field. They carried the boys back to be lifted into the netting; Demane limp, Sipho weeping softly against Harley’s shoulder, sticky with his brother’s blood.

  A handful of the spearmen had got in among the settlers congregated in the barracks, and a terrible confused slaughter was under way: the women and children were pushed aside, the attackers sometimes bodily setting them against the walls to put them out of the way, but with no compunction went on laying the men out at their feet, while the settlers fired their muskets and rifles wildly, striking friend and foe alike. The emptied boats were coming back for more passengers, but the sailors at the oars hesitated to pull in, despite the furious swearing of the coxs’n, his profanities carrying across the water.

  “Mr. Ferris,” Laurence shouted, “Mr. Riggs, clear them some space there, if you please,” and himself slid down, to take charge of the loading of the retreating soldiers in Ferris’s place. Someone handed him a pistol and a cartridge box, still sticky with the blood of the corpse from which they had come; Laurence slung it quickly over his shoulder, and tore open the paper cartridge with his teeth. He had the pistol loaded, and drew out his sword; a spearman came running at him, but he had no opportunity to shoot. Temeraire, catching sight of the threat, cried out his name and lunged to slash the man violently down, dislodging as he did so three of the wavering soldiers trying to get into his netting.

  Laurence clenched his jaw, and permitted himself to be concealed behind the closed ranks of his ground crew; he handed the pistol forward to Mr. Fellowes, and instead went to speed aboard the now-desperate men, harried on all sides, into the stretching leather of the netting.

  Lily, who could not take as many, had been loaded already; she lifted away and spat at the flood of men coming in through the ruined wall, filling the empty space with smoking, hideously twisted corpses. But she had to go towards the ship, and the survivors behind at once began to knock down more of the rubble from the walls to bury the remnants of acid.

  “Sir,” Ferris said, panting as he came back; his hand was tucked into his belt, and a gash brilliant cerise through his shirt, running the length of his arm, “we have embarked them all, I think; the settlers, I mean, those left.”

  They had cleared the courtyard, and Temeraire with more savage work had killed those manning the guns; although only a few gun-crews still labored, their irregular fire all that still kept off the dragons. The ship’s boats were dashing away over the sea, the sailors pulling on the oars with frantic back-straining haste; the barracks were awash with blood, bodies of black men and white rising and lowering together in the pink-stained froth where the waves were coming in upon the strand.

  “Get the general aboard,” Laurence said, “and signal all retreat, if you please, Mr. Turner.” Turning he offered Mrs. Erasmus his hand to climb aboard; Ferris had escorted her back, and her daughters in their pinafores, dirty and marked with soot, were clinging to her skirts.

  “No, Captain, thank you,” she said. He did not understand, at first, and wondered if she were injured; if she did not realize the boats had left. She shook her head. “Kefentse is coming. I told him that I would find my daughters, and wait for him here in the castle: that is why he let me go.”

  He stared, bewildered. “Ma’am,” he said, “he cannot pursue us, not long, not from shore; if you fear his capturing you again—”

  “No,” she said again, simply. “We are staying. Do not be afraid for us,” she added. “The men will not hurt us. It is dishonor to stain their spears with a woman’s blood, and anyway I am sure Kefentse will be here soon.”

  The Allegiance was already weighing anchor, her guns roaring in fresh vigor to clear her skies to make sail. On the battlements, the last working gun-crews had abandoned their posts, and were running madly for escape: to Temeraire, to the last boats waiting.

  “Laurence, we must go,” Temeraire said, very low and resonant, his head craning from side to side: his ruff was stretched to its full extent, and even on the ground he was instinctively breathing in long, deep draughts, his chest expanding. “Lily cannot hold so many of them, all alone; I must go help her.” She was all their shelter from the enemy beasts, who were cautious of her acid having seen its effects now at close range, but they would encircle her and have her down in a moment; or draw her too far aloft, so that some of their number could plunge down upon Temeraire while he remained vulnerable upon the ground.

  More of the men had come pouring into the courtyard through the yielded ground; they were keeping beyond Temeraire’s reach, but spreading out along the far wall in a half-circle. Individually they could do no great harm, but by rushing together with their spears might drive Temeraire aloft; and above Laurence could see some of the dragons skillfully maneuvering around Lily and into lower positions, ready to receive him onto their claws. There was no time to persuade her; in any case Laurence did not think, looking at her face, that she would be easily persuaded. “Ma’am,” he said, “your husband—”

  “My husband is dead,” she said, with finality, “and my daughters will be raised proud children of the Tswana here, not as beggars in England.”

  He could not answer: she was a widow, and beholden to no one but herself; he had not the right to compel her. He looked at the children holding on to her, their faces gaunt and hollow, too exhausted by extremity even to be afraid any longer. “Sir, that’s everyone,” Ferris said at his shoulder, looking anxiously between them.

  She nodded her farewell to Laurence’s silence, and then bending lifted up the little girl onto her hip; with a hand on the older girl’s shoulder, she guided them towards the shelter of the raised covered porch of the governor’s residence, oddly decorous where it rose out of the bloody wreckage of the battle scattered all around it, and picked her way over the corpses sprawled upon the curving steps.

  Laurence said, “Very well,” and turning pulled himself aboard; there was no more time. Temeraire reared up onto his haunches, and roaring sprang aloft: the dragons scattered in alarm before the divine wind, the nearest crying out shrilly in pain as they fell away, and Lily and Dulcia fell in with him as together they bent away towards the Allegiance, a broad spread of sail white against the ocean, already carrying out of the harbor into the Atlantic.

  In the courtyard, the dragons began to land in the ruins to pillage among the cattle running free; Mrs. Erasmus was standing straight-backed at the top of the steps, the little girl clasped in her arms, their faces turned up, and Kefentse was arrowing already across the water towards them, calling loud in a joyful voice.

  Book III

  Chapter 13

  PRAY AM I disturbing you?” Riley said awkwardly; he could not knock, because there was no door. There were a great many women aboard, refugee, to the service of whose meager comfort nearly all the cabins and bulkheads had gone, and a little ragged sailcloth was all which presently divided Laurence’s berth from Chenery’s, on one side, and from Berkley’s on the other. “May I ask you to take a turn with me, on the dragondeck?”

  They had already spoken, of course, from necessity, in those first distracted hours, all the officers united in the effort to make some sense of seven dragons, wailing children, wounded men, several hundred inconvenient passengers, and all the confusion which might be expected on a ship three times the size of a first-rate, launched with no preparation directly into a brutal headwind, with a lee-shore ready to receive her at any time, and her deck still littered with the large
metal-shod stones which had served the enemy for missiles.

  In the melee Laurence had nevertheless seen Riley looking anxiously over the newly arrived company; an anxiety visibly relieved by the sight of Harcourt calling orders to her crew. But another few chances of observation altered his looks of relief to puzzlement, and then to suspicion. Riley had at last come up to the dragondeck, on the excuse of requesting the dragons to shift their places to bring the ship a little more by the stern, and so obtained a better view of Catherine’s condition. It was just as well that Laurence had understood what he meant to achieve, for the request as Riley conveyed it to them became a confused scheme of putting Maximus at the head of the deck, with Lily apparently on his back, and Temeraire stretched along the port rail, which would likely have ended with half the dragons in the water, and the ship turning in stately circles.

  “Very willing,” Laurence now pronounced himself, and they went above in silence: necessary silence, to some extent, as Laurence had to follow Riley single-file through the narrow lanes that were all that was left of navigable space inside, and up the ladders. The crammed-in passengers having been given the liberty of the quarterdeck, for light and exercise, the dragondeck afforded more privacy than was to be had anywhere else on the ship; so long as one did not mind an interested audience of dragons.

  These were in any case for the moment mostly inanimate; Temeraire and Lily and Dulcia worn-out, by their long and desperate flight as well as the excitement at its end, and Maximus making the forestay hum with the resonance of his deep, sonorous snores. It was just as well they were tired enough to sleep without eating, as there was little to be had, nor would be again until the ship could put in at some port for resupply; when they woke they would have to fish for their supper.

  “I am afraid,” Riley said diffidently, breaking their silence as they walked along the railing, “that we may have to water at Benguela; I regret it very much, if it should give you any pain. I am considering whether we ought not to try for St. Helena instead.”

  St. Helena was not a slave port, and out of their way. Laurence was deeply sensible of the degree of apology embodied in this offer, and immediately said, “I do not think it can be recommended. We could easily find ourselves blown to Rio on the easterlies, and even though both the cure and word of the loss of the Cape must precede us home, our formation must still be needed urgently back in England.”

  Riley as gratefully received this gesture in return, and they walked several passes up and down the deck much more comfortably together. “Of course we cannot lose a moment,” Riley said, “and for my own part I have reason enough to wish us home again, as quickly as we might go, or thought I did, until I realized she meant to be obstinate; but, Laurence, I beg you will forgive me for speaking freely: I would be grateful for a headwind all the way, if it meant we should not arrive before she has married me.”

  The other aviators had already begun referring, in uncharitable terms, to what they viewed as Riley’s quixotic behavior, Chenery going so far as to say, “If he will not leave off harassing poor Harcourt, one will have to do something; but how is he to be worked on?”

  Laurence had rather more sympathy for Riley’s plight; he was a little shocked by Catherine’s refusal to marry rather than burn, when the plain choice was put before her, and he was forcibly reminded to regret Reverend Erasmus, for the lack of what he was sure would have been that gentleman’s warm and forceful counsel in favor of the marriage. Mr. Britten, Riley’s official chaplain, assigned by the Admiralty, could not have brought a moral argument to bear on anyone, even if he were made sober long enough to do so.

  “But at least he is ordained,” Riley said, “so there would be no difficulty about the thing whatsoever; everything would be quite legal. But she will not hear of it. And she cannot say, in fairness,” he added half-defiantly, “that it is because I am some sort of scoundrel, because I did not try to speak before; it was not as though—I was not the one who—” then cutting himself off hastily, instead ended more plaintively by saying, “and, I did not know how to begin. Laurence, has she no family, who might prevail on her?”

  “No; quite alone in the world,” Laurence said. “And, Tom, you must know that she cannot leave the service: Lily cannot be spared.”

  “Well,” Riley said reluctantly, “if no one else can be found to take the beast on,” a notion of which Laurence did not bother to try and disabuse him, “but it does not matter: I am not such an outrageous scrub as to abandon her. And the governor was kind enough to tell me that Mrs. Grey is perfectly willing to receive her: generous beyond what anyone might expect, and it would surely make everything easy for her in England; they have a large acquaintance, in the best circles; but of course not until we are married, and she will not listen to reason.”

  “Perhaps she fears the disapproval of your family,” Laurence said, more from a motive of consolation than conviction; he was sure Catherine had not given a thought to the feelings of Riley’s family, nor would have, if she had determined on the marriage.

  “I have already promised her that they would do all that is proper, and so they would,” Riley said. “I do not mean to say it is the sort of match they would have looked out for me; but I have my capital, and can marry to please myself without any accusation of imprudence, at least. I dare say that my father at least will not care two pins, if only it is a boy; my brother’s wife has not managed anything but girls, the last four years ago, and everything entailed,” he finished, very nearly flinging up his hands.

  “But it is all nonsense, Laurence,” Catherine said, equally exasperated, when he approached her. “He expects me to resign the service.”

  “I believe,” Laurence said, “that I have conveyed to him the impossibility of such a thing, and he is reconciled to the necessity, if not pleased by it; and you must see,” he added, “the very material importance of the circumstance of the entailment.”

  “I do not see, at all,” she said. “It is something to do with his father’s estate? What has it to do with me, or the child? He has an older brother, has he not, with children?”

  Laurence, who had not so much been instructed in the legal structures of inheritance and entailment as absorbed them through the skin, stared; and then he hastily made her understand that the estate would descend in the male line, and her child, if a boy, stood to inherit after his uncle. “If you refuse, you deny him his patrimony,” Laurence said, “which I believe likely to be substantial, and entailed in default on a distant relation who would care nothing for the interest of Riley’s nieces.”

  “It is a stupid way of going on,” she said, “but I do see; and I suppose it would be hard luck on the poor creature, if he grew up knowing what might have been. But all I am hoping for is not a boy at all, but a girl; and then what use is she to him, or I?” She sighed, and rubbed the back of her hand across her brow, and finally said, “Oh, bother; I suppose he can always divorce me. Very well: but if it is a girl, she will be a Harcourt,” she added with decision.

  THE MARRIAGE WAS briefly postponed for want of anything suitable to make a wedding-feast, until they had managed some resupply. Already extremity had driven them to shore on several occasions: there was no safe harbor on their charts, along the southern coastline, where the Allegiance might have safely put in; so instead the empty water-casks were roped together and draped upon the dragons, who daily flew in the twenty miles of open water which Riley’s caution left between them and the coast, and tried to find some nameless river emptying into the sea.

  Drawing near Benguela, they passed a pair of tattered ships on the fifteenth of June, with blackened sides and makeshift slovenly sails a pirate would have been ashamed to rig, which they took for fellow refugees from the Cape, choosing to make east for St. Helena. The Allegiance did not offer to heave-to; they had no water or food to spare of their own, and in any case the smaller ships ran away from them, likely fearing to be pressed either for supplies or men, not without cause. “I would give a good deal
for ten able seamen,” Riley said soberly, watching them go hull-up over the horizon; he did not speak of what he would give for a proper dole of clean water. The dragons were already licking the sails in the morning, for the dew, all the company having been put on half-rations.

  They saw the smoke first, still rising, from a long way off: a steady ongoing smoulder of damp wood piled into massive bonfires, which as they drew nearer the harbor resolved themselves into the overturned hulks of ships, which had been dragged from the ocean onto the beach. Little more than the stout keels and futtocks remained, like the rib cages of beached leviathans who had flung themselves onto the sands to die. The fortifications of the Dutch factory had been reduced to rubble.

  There was no sign of life. With all the gunports open, and the dragons roused and alive to the least warning of danger, the ship’s boats went to the shore full of empty water-casks. They came back again, pulling more quickly despite their heavier load; in Riley’s cabin, Lieutenant Wells reported uneasily. “More than a week, sir, I should say,” he said. “There was food rotting, in some of the houses, and all that is left of the fort is perfectly cold. We found a large grave dug in the field behind the port; there must have been at least a hundred dead.”

  “It cannot have been the same band who came on us in Capetown,” Riley said, when he had done. “It cannot; could dragons have flown here, so quickly?”

  “Fourteen hundred miles, in less than a week’s time? Not if they meant to fight at the end of it, and very likely not at all,” Catherine said, measuring upon the map with her fingers; she had the chair, as Riley had managed to carry the point of giving her the large stern-cabin for the journey home. “They needn’t have, at any rate; there were dragons enough at the falls to make another raiding party of the same size, or another ten, for that matter.”

  “Well, and I am sorry to sound like a damned ill-wishing crow,” Chenery said, “but I don’t see a blessed reason why they shouldn’t have gone for Louanda, while they were at it.”

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