Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik

  Another day’s sailing brought them in range of the second port; Dulcia and Nitidus set off, beating urgently before the wind, and some eight hours later returned again, finding the Allegiance in the dark by the beacons lit in the tops.

  “Burnt to the ground, the whole place,” Chenery said, tipping back the cup of grog which had been given him, thirstily. “Not a soul to be seen, and all the wells full of dragonshit; beg your pardon.”

  The magnitude of the disaster began gradually to dawn upon them all: not only Capetown lost, but two of the largest ports in Africa besides. If the enemy’s purpose had been to seize control of the ports, all the intervening territory must have first been conquered; but if simple destruction were all their desire, no such long, drawn-out labor was required. Without aerial forces to oppose them, the dragons could overfly with ease any defenses or mustered force, and go directly to their target, carrying their light infantry with them; and then expend all their energy upon the hapless town which had incurred their wrath.

  “The guns were all gone,” Warren said quietly. “And the shot; we found the empty caissons where they had been stored. I would imagine they took the powder also; certainly we did not see any left behind.”

  All the long homeward journey along the coast was attended by the clouds of smoke and ruin, and preceded by their harbingers the scorched and tattered ships, full of survivors, making their limping way back to safe harbor. The Allegiance did not attempt again to put in, relying instead on the dragons’ short flights to the coast to bring them fresh water, until two weeks more brought them to Cape Coast: Riley felt it their duty to at least make an accounting of the dead, at the British port, and they hoped that the fortifications, older and more extensive than those in the other ports, might have preserved some survivors.

  The castle which served as headquarters for the port, built in stone, remained largely intact but for the gaping and scorched roof; the guns, which had been useless to defend her, fixed as they were outward to sea, were all gone, as were the heaped piles of round-shot from the courtyard. The Allegiance, being subject to the vicissitudes of the wind and current, could not keep the regular pace of dragons, and had moved more slowly than the wave of attacks; three weeks at least had passed since the assault.

  While Riley organized the ship’s crew in the sad work of exhuming and making a count of the dead from their mass grave, Laurence and his fellow captains divided amongst themselves the richly forested slopes north and surrounding the wreckage of the town, in hopes of ensuring enough game for them all: fresh meat was badly needed, the ship’s supplies of salt pork growing rapidly thin, and the dragons always hungry. Temeraire alone among them was really satisfied with fish, and even he had wistfully expressed the desire for “a few tender antelope, for variety’s sake; or an elephant would be beyond anything: they are so very rich.”

  In the event, he was able to satisfy his own hunger with a couple of smallish, red-furred buffalo, while the riflemen shot another half-a-dozen, as many as he could conveniently carry back to the ship in his foreclaws. “A little gamy, but not at all unpleasant; perhaps Gong Su can try stewing one with a little dried fruit,” Temeraire said thoughtfully, rattling the horns in his mouth in a horrible fashion to pick his teeth, before he fastidiously deposited them upon the ground. Then he pricked up his ruff. “Someone is coming, I think.”

  “For God’s sake are you white men?” the cry came a little faintly, from the forest, and shortly a handful of dirty, exhausted men staggered into their clearing, and received with many pitiful expressions of gratitude their canteens of grog and brandy. “We scarcely dared to hope, when we heard your rifles,” said their chief, a Mr. George Case of Liverpool, who with his partner David Miles, and their handful of assistants, had not been able to escape the disaster in time.

  “We have been hiding in the forest ever since the monsters descended,” Miles said. “They took up all the ships that had not fled quick enough, and broke or burnt them, before they left again; and us out here with scarcely any bullets left. We have been ready to despair: I suppose they would all have starved, in another week.”

  Laurence did not understand, until Miles brought them to the makeshift pen, concealed in the woods, where their last string of some two hundred slaves remained. “Bought and paid for, and in another day we should have had them loaded aboard,” Miles said, and spat with philosophical disgust upon the ground, while one of the gaunt and starving slaves, his lips badly cracked, turned his head inside the enclosure and made a pleading motion with his hand for water.

  The smell of filth was dreadful. The slaves had made some attempt, before weakness had overcome them, to dig small necessary-pits within their enclosure, but they were shackled ankle-to-ankle, and unable to move far from one another. There was a running stream which emptied into the sea, some quarter-of-a-mile distant; Case and his men did not look thirsty, or very hungry themselves; there was the remnant of an antelope over a spit, not twenty feet from the enclosure.

  Case added, “If you will take credit for our passage, we will make it good in Madeira; or,” with an air of great generosity, “you are welcome to buy them outright if you prefer: we will give you a good price, you may be sure.”

  Laurence struggled to answer; he would have liked to knock the man down. Temeraire did not suffer any similar pangs; he simply seized the gate in his foreclaws and without a word tore it entirely from its setting, and threw it down on the ground, panting over it in anger.

  “Mr. Blythe,” Laurence said, grimly, “strike these men’s irons, if you please.”

  “Yes, sir,” Blythe said, and fetched his tools; the slavers gaped. “My God, what are you about?” Miles said, and Case cried out that they should sue, they should certainly sue; until Laurence turning on them said low and coldly, “Shall I leave you here, to discuss the matter with these gentlemen?” which shut their mouths at once. It was a long and unhappy process: the men were shackled one to another, with iron fetters, and in groups of four were fastened about the necks with rope; a handful with their ankles cuffed to thick billets of wood, which had rendered it nearly impossible for them to even stand.

  Temeraire tried to speak to the slaves as Blythe freed them, but they spoke a wholly different language, and shrank from his lowered head in fear; they were not men of the Tswana, but of some local tribe, which did not have similar relations with dragons. “Give them the meat,” Laurence said quietly, to Fellowes; this gesture required no translation, and at once the stronger among the former captives began to arrange cooking-fires, and prop up the weaker to gnaw upon the biscuit which Emily and Dyer distributed among them, with the help of Sipho. Many of the slaves preferred to flee at once, despite their obvious weakness; before the meat was on the spit, nearly half of them had vanished into the forest, to make their way home as best they could, Laurence supposed; there was no way of knowing how far they had been brought, or from what direction.

  Temeraire sat stiff with disgust as the slavers were put aboard him; and when they continued to murmur turned his head to snap his teeth towards them, and say in dangerous tones, “Speak of Laurence so again, and I will leave you here myself; you should be ashamed of yourselves, and if you have not enough sense to be, then you may at least be quiet.” The crew also regarded them with great disapproval. “Ungrateful sods” was the muttered opinion of Bell, as he rigged out makeshift straps for them.

  Laurence was glad to unload them again, on deck, and see them disappear among the rest of the Allegiance’s passengers. The other dragons had returned with better luck from their hunting, and Maximus triumphantly deposited on the deck a pair of smallish elephants, of which he had already eaten three; he pronounced them very good eating, and Temeraire sighed a little, but they were earmarked at once for the celebration; which though necessarily muted by their larger circumstances, could not be much longer delayed and yet leave the bride in a state convenient to walking the deck of a rolling ship.

  It was a rather muddled occasion, alt
hough Chenery, with his usual fine disdain of any notion of polite manners, had ensured the sobriety of the officiant, by taking Britten by the ear and dragging him up onto the dragondeck, the night before, and instructing Dulcia not to let him stir an inch. The minister was thoroughly sober and petrified by morning, and Harcourt’s runners brought him his clean shirt and his breakfast on the dragondeck, and brushed his coat for him on the spot, so he could not slip away and fortify himself back into insensibility.

  But Catherine had not thought at all of providing herself with a dress, and Riley had not thought at all that she would not have done so, with the result that she had to be married in her trousers and coat; giving the ceremony a very strange appearance, and putting poor Mrs. Grey to the blush, and several other of the respectable Capetown matrons who had attended. Britten himself looked very confused, without the comforting haze of liquor, and stuttered rather more than less over his phrases. To crown the event, when he invited onlookers to express any objections, Lily, despite Harcourt’s many reassuring conversations on the subject, put her head over the lip of the dragondeck to the alarm of the assembled guests and said, “Mayn’t I?”

  “No, you may not!” Catherine said, and Lily heaved a disgruntled sigh, and turning her lurid orange eye on Riley said, “Very well, then; but if you are unpleasant to Catherine, I will throw you in the ocean.”

  It was perhaps not a very propitious entry to the state of matrimony, but the elephant meat was indeed delicious.

  THE LOOKOUT SAW the light off Lizard Point the tenth of August as they came at last into the Channel, the dark mass of England off their port bow, and he caught sight also of a few lights running past them to the east: not ships of the blockade. Riley ordered their own lights doused, and put her on a south-east heading, with careful attention to his maps, and when morning came, they had the mingled pain and pleasure of bringing up directly behind a convoy of some eight ships bound unmistakably for Le Havre: six merchantmen, and a couple of frigates escorting them, all lawful prizes, any of which would certainly have struck at once if only they had been in range. But they were a good sixty miles away, and catching sight of the Allegiance they hurriedly pressed on more sail and immediately began to run clear away.

  Laurence leaned on the rail beside Riley watching them go, wistfully. The Allegiance had not been scraped properly clean since leaving England, and her bottom was unspeakably foul; in any event, at her best point of sailing she did not make eight knots, and even the frigate at the rear of the convoy was certainly running at eleven. Temeraire’s ruff was quivering as he sat up to watch them. “I am sure we could catch them,” he said. “We could certainly catch them; at least by afternoon.”

  “There are her studdingsails,” Riley said, watching through the glass. The sluggish frigate leapt forward, evidently having only waited until her charges had pulled ahead.

  “Not with this wind,” Laurence said. “Or you might; but not the others, and we have no armor. In any case, we could not take them: the Allegiance would be quite out of sight until after dark, and without prize-crews they would all run away from us in the night.”

  Temeraire sighed and put his head down again on his forelegs. Riley shut up his glass. “Mr. Wells, let us have a heading north-northeast, if you please.”

  “Yes, sir,” Wells said sadly, and turned to make the arrangements; but abruptly, the frigate in the lead checked her way, and bent her course sharply southward, with much frantic activity in the rigging visible through the glass. The convoy all were turning, as if they meant to make now for Granville, past the Jersey Islands; rather a poorer risk, and Laurence could not imagine what they meant by it, unless perhaps they had caught sight of some ship of the blockade. Indeed, Laurence wondered that they should not have seen any such ship before now, unless all the blockade had lately been driven up the Channel by a gale.

  The Allegiance had now the advantage of sailing to head them off, rather than directly in their train. Riley said, “We may as well keep on them a little while longer,” with studied calm, and put the ship after them, much to the unspoken but evident satisfaction of the crew: if only the other ship, which as yet they could not see, were fast enough! Even a single frigate might do, imbued by the near and awful presence of the Allegiance with greater force, and so long as the Allegiance was on the horizon at the climax of the chase, she should have a share in any prize taken.

  They searched the ocean anxiously, sweeping with their glasses, without success; until Nitidus, who had been jumping aloft at intervals, landed and said breathlessly, “It is not a ship; it is dragons.”

  They strained to see, but the oncoming specks were lost among the clouds, nearly all the time. But they were certainly coming fast, and before the hour had closed, the convoy had altered their course yet again: they were now trying only to get under cover of some French gun emplacement along the coast, risking the danger of running for a lee-shore with the wind behind them. The Allegiance had closed the distance to some thirty miles.

  “Now may we go?” Temeraire said, looking around; all the dragons were thoroughly roused, and though crouched to keep from checking the ship’s way, they had their heads craned up on their necks, fixed intently upon the chase.

  Laurence closed up his glass and turning said, “Mr. Ferris, the fighting crew to go aboard, if you please.” Emily held out her hand for the glass, to carry it away; Laurence looked down at her and said, “When you are finished, Roland, I hope you and Dyer may be of use to Lieutenant Ferris, on the lookouts.”

  “Yes, sir,” she said, in almost a breathless squeak, and dashed to stow the glass; Calloway gave her and Dyer each a pistol, and Fellowes their harnesses a tug, before the two of them scrambled aboard.

  “I do not see why I must go last,” Maximus said petulantly, while Temeraire and Lily’s crews scrambled aboard; Dulcia and Nitidus already aloft, Messoria and Immortalis to make ready next.

  “Because you are a great mumping lummox and there is no damned room to rig you out until the deck is cleared away,” Berkley said. “Sit quiet and they will be off all the sooner.”

  “Pray do not finish all the fighting until I am there,” Maximus called after them, his deep bellow receding and growing faint with the thunder of their passage; Temeraire was stretching himself, outdistancing the others, and for once Laurence did not mean to check him. With support so near at hand, there was every reason to take advantage of his speed; they needed only to harry and delay the convoy a little while in order to bring up all the pursuit, which should certainly make the enemy shipping strike.

  But Temeraire had only just reached the convoy when the clouds above the leading frigate went abruptly boiling away in a sudden blazing eruption like cannon-fire, and through the unearthly ochre glow, Iskierka came diving down, her spikes dragging ragged shreds of mist and smoke along behind her, and shot a flamboyant billowing arc of flame directly across the ship’s bows. Arkady and the ferals came pouring after her, yowling fit for a nuisance of cats, and went streaking up and down the length of the convoy, hooting and shrilling, quite in range of the ships’ guns; but what looked like recklessness was not so, for they were going by so swiftly that only the very merest chance could have allowed a hit, and the force of their wings set all the sails to shivering.

  “Oh,” Temeraire said doubtfully, as they went dashing crazily past him, and paused to hover. Iskierka meanwhile was flying in coiled circles over the frigate, yelling down at them to strike, to strike, or she would burn them all up to a tinder, only see if she would not; and she jetted off another burst of flame for emphasis, directly into the water, which set up a monstrous hissing pillar of steam.

  The colors came promptly down, and meekly the rest of the convoy followed suit. Where Laurence would have expected the lack of prize-crews to pose many difficulties, there were none: the ferals at once busily and in a practiced manner set about herding the prizes as skillfully as sheepdogs tending their flock, snapping at the wheelmen, and nudging them by the bows to enc
ourage them to turn their heads for England. The littlest of the ferals, like Gherni and Lester, landed on the ships directly, terrifying the poor sailors almost mortally.

  “Oh, it is all her own notion,” Granby said ruefully, shaking Laurence’s hand, on the bow of the Allegiance; when that vessel had met them halfway and traveling now in company they had resumed their course for Dover. “She refused to see why the Navy ought to get all the prizes; and I am afraid she has suborned those damned ferals. I am sure she has them secretly flying the Channel at night looking for prizes, without reporting them, and when they tell her of one, she pretends she has just taken it into her head to go in such and such a direction. They are as good as any prize-crew ever was; the sailors are all as meek as maids, with one of them aboard.”

  The remainder of the ferals were aloft, singing lustily together in their foreign tongue, and larking about with satisfaction. Iskierka however had crammed herself in among the formation, and in particular had seized the place along the starboard rail where Temeraire preferred to nap. She was no small addition: having gained her full growth in the intervening months since they had seen her, she was now enormously long and sprawling, the heavy coils of her serpentine body at least as long as Temeraire, and draped over anything which happened to be in her way, most inconveniently.

  “There is not enough room for you,” Temeraire said ungraciously, nosing away the coil which she had deposited upon his back, and picking up his foot out of the other which was slithering around it. “I do not see why you cannot fly back to Dover.”

  “You may fly to Dover if you like,” Iskierka said, flicking the tip of her tail dismissively. “I have flown all morning, and anyway I am going to stay with my prizes. Look how many of them there are,” she added, exultant.

  “They are all our prizes,” Temeraire said.

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