Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik

  The floor was very comfortably warm, at least, and if the wood-fire was a little smoky, worming up through the square stone slabs of the floor, the open plan blew the fumes away. It was a simple, practical building, not at all elegant or ornate, and Temeraire might have slept in it, but it could not have been called spacious, on his scale. He regarded it with brooding disappointment, and was not disposed to linger; the crew did not even have the opportunity to dismount before he wished to be off again, putting the pavilion at his back, and flying with rather a drooping ruff.

  Laurence tried to console him by remarking on the sick dragons yet sheltering there, even in the summer’s heat. “Jane tells me that they would pile them in ten at a time,” he said, “during the winter, so wet and cold; and the surgeons are quite certain it saved a dozen lives.”

  Temeraire only muttered, “Well, I am glad it has been useful,” ungraciously; such distant triumphs, achieved out of his sight and several months before, were not quite satisfactory. “That is an ugly hill,” he added, “and that one, also; I do not like them,” inclined to be displeased even with the landscape, when ordinarily he was mad for anything out of the common way, and would point out anything of the most meager interest to Laurence’s attention, with delight.

  The hills were odd; irregular and richly covered with grass, they drew the eye queerly as they went overhead. “Oh,” said Emily suddenly, on the forward lookout, craning her head over Temeraire’s shoulder to look down at them, and shut her mouth hurriedly in embarrassment at the solecism of having spoken without a warning to give. Temeraire’s wingbeats slowed. “Oh,” he said.

  The valley was full of them: not hills but barrow-mounds, raised over the dragon-corpses where they had breathed their last. Here and there an outthrust horn or spike came jutting from the sod; or a little fall of dirt had bared the white curve of a jaw-bone. No one spoke; Laurence saw Allen reach down and close his hands around the jingle of his carabiners, where they hooked on to the harness. They flew on silently, above the verdant deserted green, Temeraire’s shadow flowing and rippling over the spines and hollows of the dead.

  THEY WERE STILL quiet when Temeraire came in to the London covert, and the little unpacking necessary carried on subdued: the men carried the bundles to be stacked at the side of the clearing, and went back for others; the harness-men had none of their usual cheerful squabbling over who was to manage the belly-netting, but in silence Winston and Porter went to it together. “Mr. Ferris,” Laurence said, voice deliberately raised, “when we are in reasonable order, you may give a general leave, through tomorrow dinner; barring any pressing duties.”

  “Yes, sir; thank you,” Ferris said, trying to match his tone; it did not quite take, but the work went a little more briskly, and Laurence was confident a night’s revelry would soon finish the work of rousing the men out of the sense of oppression.

  He went and stood at Temeraire’s head, putting his hand comfortingly on his muzzle. “I am glad it was useful,” Temeraire said, low, and slumped more deeply to the ground.

  “Come; I would have you eat something,” Laurence said. “A little dinner; and then I will read to you, if you like.”

  Temeraire did not find much consolation in philosophy, or even mathematics; and he picked at his food until, pricking up his ruff, he raised his head and put a protective forehand over his cow, and Volly came tumbling into the clearing, kicking up a furious hovering cloud of dust behind him.

  “Temrer,” Volly said happily, and butted him in the shoulder, then immediately cast a wistful eye on the cow.

  “Don’t be taken in,” James said, sliding down from his back. “Fed not a quarter-of-an-hour ago, while I was waiting for the mails in Hyde Park, and a perfectly handsome sheep, too. How are you, Laurence? Tolerably brown, I find. Here’s for you, if you please.”

  Laurence gladly accepted the parcel of letters for his crew, with one on top, to his personal direction. “Mr. Ferris,” he said, handing the packet over, to be distributed. “Thank you, James; I hope we find you well?”

  Volly did not look so bad as Meeks’s report might have made Laurence fear, if with a degree of rough scarring around the nostrils, and a slightly raspy voice. It did not inhibit him from rambling happily on to Temeraire, with an enumeration of the sheep and goats which he had lately eaten, and a recounting of his triumph at having sired, early in the recent disaster, an egg, himself. “Why, that is very good,” Temeraire said. “When will it hatch?”

  “Novembrer,” Volly said delightedly.

  “He will say so,” James said, “although the surgeons have no notion; it hasn’t hardened a tick yet, and it would be early. But the blessed creatures do seem to know, sometimes, so they are looking out a likely boy for the thing.”

  They were bound for India, “Tomorrow, or the day after, maybe; if the weather keeps fair,” James said airily.

  Temeraire cocked his head. “Captain James, do you suppose that you might carry a letter for me? To China,” he added.

  James scratched his head to receive such a request; Temeraire was unique among British dragons, so far as Laurence knew, in writing letters; indeed, not many aviators managed the habit themselves. “I can take it to Bombay,” he said, “and I suppose some merchantman is bound to be going on; but they’ll only go to Canton.”

  “I am sure if they give it to the Chinese governor there, he will see it delivered,” Temeraire said with justifiable confidence; the governor was likely to consider it an Imperial charge.

  “But surely we ought not delay you, for personal correspondence,” Laurence said a little guiltily; if James did seem a little careless of his schedule.

  “Oh, don’t trouble yourself,” James said. “I don’t quite like the sound of his chest yet, and the surgeons don’t, either; as their Lordships ain’t disposed to worry about it, so neither am I, about being quite on time. I’m happy enough to linger in port a few days, and let him fatten himself up and sleep a while.” He slapped Volly on his flank, and led him away to another clearing, the small Greyling following on his heels almost like an eager hound, if a hound were imagined the size of a moderate elephant.

  The letter was from his mother, but it had been franked: a small but valuable sign of his father’s approval, of its having been sent, with replies to his last letter:

  We are very shocked by the News you send us from Africa, which in many respects exceeds that appearing in the Papers, and pray for the Solace of those Christian souls caught in the Wrack, but we do not repudiate some Sentiment, which the Abhorrence of such dreadful Violence cannot wholly silence, that the Wages of Sin are not always held in Arrears to be paid off on the Day of Reckoning, but Malefactors by God’s Will may be held to account even in this earthly life; Lord Allendale considers it a Judgment upon the failure of the Vote. He is much satisfied by your Account, that the Tswana (if I have it correctly) might perhaps have been appeased, by the Ban; and we have hopes that this necessary Period, to that evil trade, may soon lead to a better and more humane Condition for those poor Wretches who yet suffer under the Yoke.

  She concluded more unfortunately by saying,

  …and I have taken the Liberty of enclosing a small Trinket, which amused me to buy, but for which I have no Use, as your Father has mentioned to me that you have taken an Interest in the Education of a Young Lady, who I hope may find it suitable.

  It was a fine string of garnets, set in gold; his mother had only one granddaughter, a child of five, out of three sons and now five grandsons, and there was a wistful note to be read between the closely written lines. “That is very nice,” Temeraire said, peering over at it with an appraising and covetous eye, although it would not have gone once around one of his talons.

  “Yes,” Laurence said sadly, and called Emily over to deliver the necklace to her. “My mother sends it you.”

  “That is very kind of her,” Emily said, pleased, and if a little perplexed, quite happy to forgo that sentiment in favor of enjoyment of her present. She admire
d it, over her hands, and then thought a moment, and a little tentatively inquired, “Ought I write to her?”

  “Perhaps I will just express your thanks, in my reply,” Laurence said; his mother might not dislike receiving the letter, but it would only have encouraged the misunderstanding, and his father would certainly look with disfavor on any such gesture as suggesting expectations of a formal acknowledgment, no part of his sense of the responsibilities towards an illegitimate child; and there was no easy way to explain to him the perfect lack of foundation for such a concern.

  Laurence was sadly puzzled how to write, even in his own letter, to avoid adding to the confusion, as he could not in civility omit the barest facts: that he had delivered the gift, seen it received, and heard thanks; all of which alone revealed that he had seen Emily very lately and, by the speed of his reply, it would seem regularly. He wondered how he might explain the situation to Jane: he had the vague and slightly lowering thought that she would find it highly amusing, nothing to be taken seriously; that she would not at all mind being taken for—and here his pen stuttered and halted, with his thoughts, because of course, she was the mother of a child, out of wedlock; she was not a respectable woman, and it was not only the secret of the Corps which would have prevented him ever making her known to his mother.

  Chapter 15

  JANE,” LAURENCE SAID, “will you marry me?”

  “Why, no, dear fellow,” she said, looking up in surprise from the chair where she was drawing on her boots. “It would be a puzzle to give you orders, you know, if I had vowed to obey; it could hardly be comfortable. But it is very handsome of you to have offered,” she added, and standing up kissed him heartily, before she put on her coat.

  A timid knock at the door prevented anything more he might have said: one of Jane’s runners, come to tell her the carriage was ready at the gates of the covert, and they had perforce to go. “I will be glad when we are back in Dover; what a miserable swamp,” Jane said, already blotting her forehead on her sleeve as she left the small barracks-house: the London setting added, to the attractions of stifling heat and the heavy moisture-laden air, all the city’s unrivaled stench, and the mingling of barnyard scents with the acrid stink of the small covert’s presently overburdened dragon-middens.

  Laurence said something or other about the heat, and offered her his handkerchief mechanically. He did not know how to feel. The offer had come from some deeper impulse than conscious decision; he had not meant to speak, and certainly not yet, not in such a manner. An absurd moment to raise the question, almost as if he wished to be refused; but he was not relieved, he was by no means relieved.

  “I suppose they will keep us past dinner-time,” Jane said, meaning their Lordships, an opinion which seemed to Laurence rather optimistic; he thought it very likely they should be kept for days, if Bonaparte were not so obliging as to invade, with no warning. “So I must look in on Excidium before we go: he ate nothing at all, last night; nothing, and I must try and rouse him up to do better today.”

  “I do not need to be scolded,” Excidium murmured, without opening his eyes, “I am very hungry,” but he was scarcely able to rouse himself from his somnolence even to nudge briefly at her hand. Though naturally one of those earliest dosed with the supply of mushroom sent on by frigate from Capetown, he was by no means yet fully recovered from his ordeal; the disease had been well advanced in his case by the time the cure had arrived, and only in the last few weeks had it been judged safe for him to leave the uncomfortable sand-pits which had made his home for more than a year. Nevertheless he had insisted on managing the flight to London, instead of letting Temeraire carry Jane with Laurence, and was now paying for his pride with near-prostration; he had done nothing but sleep since their arrival, the afternoon before.

  “Then try and take a little while I am here, for my comfort,” Jane said, and stepped back to the clearing’s edge to keep her best coat and trousers from being spattered by the fresh-butchered sheep carried hurriedly over by the covert herdsmen, and hacked apart directly in front of Excidium’s jaws, which ground methodically away at the joints of meat as they were put in his mouth.

  Laurence took the opportunity of escaping her company for a moment, and went to the neighboring clearing where Temeraire was busily engaged, despite the early hour, with his two sand-tables, upon the letter. He was working upon an account of the disease, and its treatment, which he meant to send to his mother in China, with Mr. Hammond as his proxy, against the danger that a similar outbreak might one day there occur. “You have made that Lung look more like Chi,” he said severely, casting an eye over the work of his coterie of secretaries: Emily and Dyer, who had been disgruntled to learn that their promotion to the exalted rank of ensign had not relieved them of all responsibility of schoolwork, and with them Demane and Sipho, who were at least at no greater disadvantage learning Chinese script than anyone else would have been.

  Laurence thought, abruptly, he might have asked her the other day, after they had disposed of the fate of the boys. They had been closeted alone together, without interruption, nearly an hour; that, at any rate, would have been a more opportune moment to speak, barring any scruple at introducing a subject so intimate in the precincts of her office. Or he might have spoken yesterday night, when they had left the dragons sleeping and retired together to the barracks-house; or, better still, he ought to have waited some weeks, until the settling of this first furious bustle of activity after their arrival: hindsight serving powerfully to show him how he might better have forwarded the suit he had not wholly intended to make.

  Her rejection had been too practical, too quick, to give him much encouragement to renew his addresses, under any future circumstances. In the ordinary way, he should have considered it as forming a necessary end to their relations, but the mode of her refusal made it seem mere petulance to be wounded, or to insist on some sort of moralizing line. Yet he was conscious of a lowering unhappiness; perhaps in turning Catherine’s advocate towards the state of matrimony, he had become his own, and without quite knowing had set his heart upon it, or at any rate his convictions.

  Temeraire finished his present line upon the sand-table, and lifting his foreleg away to let Emily carefully exchange it with the second, caught sight of Laurence. “Are you going?” he inquired. “Will you be very late?”

  “Yes,” he said, and Temeraire lowered his head and peered at him searchingly. “Never mind,” Laurence said, putting his hand on Temeraire’s muzzle. “It is nothing; I will tell you later.”

  “Perhaps you had better not go,” Temeraire suggested.

  “There can be no question of that,” Laurence said. “Mr. Roland, perhaps you will go and sit with Excidium this afternoon, and see if you can convince him to take a little more food, if you please.”

  “Yes, sir. May I take the children?” Emily said, from the advanced age of twelve, meaning Demane and Sipho, the older of whom lifted his head indignantly at the name. “I have been teaching them how to read and write in English, in the afternoons,” she added importantly, which filled Laurence with anticipatory horror at the results of this endeavor, as Emily’s penmanship most often resembled nothing more than snarled thread.

  “Very good,” he said, consigning them to their fate, “if Temeraire does not need them.”

  “No; we are almost finished, and then Dyer may read to me,” Temeraire said. “Laurence, do you suppose we have enough mushroom to spare, that we may send a sample with my letter?”

  “I hope so; Dorset tells me that they have managed to find a way to cultivate the thing, in some caves in Scotland, so what remains need not all be preserved against future need,” Laurence said.

  THE CARRIAGE WAS old and not very comfortable, close and hot and rattling horribly over the streets, which were in any case none to the good this close to the covert. Chenery, so ordinarily irrepressible, was sweating and silent; Harcourt very pale, although this had a more prosaic cause than anxiety, and halfway along she was obliged in
a choked voice to request they stop, so she might vomit into the street.

  “There, I feel better,” she said, leaning back in, and looked only a little shaky when she stepped down from the carriage and refused Laurence’s arm for the short walk through the courtyard into the offices.

  “A glass of wine, perhaps, before we go in?” Laurence said to her softly, but she shook her head. “No; I will just take a touch of brandy,” she said, and moistened her lips from the flask which she carried.

  They were received in the boardroom, by the new First Lord and the other commissioners: the Government had changed again in their absence, over the question of Catholic emancipation, Laurence gathered; and the Tories were in once more: Lord Mulgrave sat now at the head of the table, a little heavy by the jowls, with a serious expression and pulling a little at the end of his nose; the Tories did not think much of the Corps, under any circumstances.

  But Nelson was there, also; and quite in defiance of the general atmosphere he rose as soon as they had entered, and remained standing, until in some embarrassment the other gentlemen at the table struggled to their feet; then coming forward he shook Laurence’s hand, in the handsomest manner, and asked to be presented.

  “I am filled with admiration,” he declared, on being named to Catherine, and making her a noble leg, “and indeed humbled, Captain Harcourt, on having read your account; I have been accustomed,” he added, smiling, “to think a little well of myself, and to like a little praise: I will be the first to admit it! but your courage stands above any example which I can easily recollect, in a lifetime of service. Now, we are keeping you standing; and you must have something to drink.”

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