Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik

  “Oh—no, nothing,” Catherine said, so mortally crimson her freckles stood out as pale spots. “Nothing, thank you, sir; and it was nothing, I assure you, nothing which anyone else would not have done; which my fellow-officers did not do,” she added, confusing her refusals of both refreshment and praise.

  Lord Mulgrave did not look entirely satisfied to have his precedence thus usurped. A chair had of course to be offered her, and perforce them all; some shuffling ensued so they were ranged together in a close row along the farther side of the table, with the naval lords facing them along the other, but still it did not quite have the court-martial quality of standing for interrogation.

  They went first through a tedious summation of events, and a reconcilement of the accounts: Chenery had set down ten days, for the flight which had carried them prisoner to the falls; Laurence had made it twelve, Catherine eleven; which difference consumed nearly an hour, and required several maps to be dug out by the secretaries, none of which precisely agreed with one another on the scale of the interior. “Sir, we would do better to apply to the dragons, for our facts,” Laurence said finally, raising his head from the fourth of these, when they had only been able to agree conclusively that there had been a desert somewhere in the middle, and it had not been less than nine-days’ flying. “I will vouch that Temeraire is well able to judge distances, in flight, and while they did not follow directly in our course, I am certain at least he can tell us where the borders of the desert are, which we crossed, and the larger of the rivers.”

  “Hm,” Mulgrave said, not encouragingly, stirring the report before him with a forefinger. “Well, put it aside; let us move to the matter of insubordination. I understand correctly, I believe, that all three beasts disregarded Captain Sutton’s orders, to return to Capetown.”

  “Why, if you like to call it insubordination,” Jane said. “It is a good deal more to the point, that all three of them listened at all; and that they did not go haring off wild into the interior at once, when they knew their captains stolen: remarkable discipline, I assure you, and more than I would have looked for under the circumstances.”

  “Then I should like to know what else it is to be called,” Lord Palmerston said, from his seat further down. “A direct order disobeyed—”

  “Oh—” Jane made half an impatient gesture with her hand, aborted. “A dragon of twenty tons is not to be called to account by any means other than persuasion, that I know of, and if they did not value their captains enough to disobey for them, they would not ever obey at all; so it is no use complaining. We might as well say that a ship is insubordinate, because it will not go forward when there is no wind: you can command the first as easily as the latter.”

  Laurence looked down at the table. He had seen dragons enough in China, who without any captain or handler whatsoever behaved with perfect discipline, to know her defense was flawed. He did not know a better name for it than insubordination, himself, and was not inclined to dismiss it so lightly; it in some wise seemed to him more insulting than otherwise, to suggest that the dragons did not know better. That Temeraire had known where his duty lay, Laurence was quite certain; that Temeraire had disobeyed Sutton’s orders willfully, only because he did not like to follow them, was also certain. He as surely had considered that disobedience justified and natural, not even requiring of explanation, and would have been surprised to find anything else truly expected of him; but he would never have denied the responsibility.

  To draw such a fine point, however, before a hostile audience, perhaps inducing them to demand an irrational punishment, Laurence did not deem prudent; even if he had been inclined to contradict Jane in such a setting. He was silent, while a brief wrestling over the question ensued; finished unresolved, when Jane had said, “I am quite willing to lecture them on the subject, if you should like it, my Lords; or put them to a court-martial, if that seems to you sensible; and the best use of our time at present.”

  “For my part, gentlemen,” Nelson said, “I think it cannot come as a surprise to those here, when I say that victory is the best of all justifications, and to answer it with reproaches looks to me very ill. The success of the expedition proves its merit.”

  “A very fine success,” Admiral Gambier said sourly, “which has left a crucial colony not merely lost but in ruins, and seen the destruction of every port along the coast of Africa; most notably meritorious.”

  “No-one could have expected a company of seven dragons to hold the African continent against a plague of hundreds, under any circumstances,” Jane said, “and we had better be grateful to have, instead, what intelligence we have gained from the successful recovery of our officers.”

  Gambier did not contradict her directly, but snorted and went on to inquire about another small discrepancy, in the reports; but as the session dragged on, it became gradually clear through his line of questioning, and Lord Palmerston’s, that they meant to suspect that the prisoners had provoked the invasion deliberately, and subsequently had colluded to conceal the act. How they had gone about it, was not to be specified; nor their motives, until at last Gambier added, in an ironical tone, “And of course, it is the slave trade to which they objected so violently; although as everyone knows, the natives of the continent have made a practice of it from time immemorial, long preceding the arrival of Europeans on their shore; or perhaps I should say, of course it is they, who objected to the trade. I believe, Captain Laurence, that you have strong views on the subject; I cannot be speaking out of turn to say so.”

  Laurence said only, “No, sir; you are not.” He offered no further remark; he would not dignify the insinuation with a defense.

  “Have we nothing more pressing,” Jane said, “that we must spend our time on the possibility, that a large company of officers arranged to have themselves abducted, and a dozen good men killed, so they could go and be offensive enough, among a foreign nation where they did not speak a word, to provoke them into assembling a dozen wings for immediate assault? Which, I suppose, should have been accomplished overnight, for Heaven knows there are no difficulties in providing support, to a hundred dragons.”

  The questioning, with its grinding focus on minutiae, was sullenly given up in another hour, when it had not provoked confession. There were no official grounds for court-martial, as no dragon had been lost, and if their Lordships meant to seek a trial for the loss of the Cape, it would have to be General Grey who faced it, and there was certainly no public sympathy for such an inquest. There was nothing left for them but to be deeply dissatisfied; and nothing left for Laurence and his fellow-captains but to sit and listen to their complaints.

  Several measures of recapturing the ports were proposed which had not the least chance of success, Jane forced to recall to their Lordships, with poorly concealed exasperation, the parade of failures which had been occasioned by all the attempts to establish colonies in the face of organized aerial hostilities: by Spain, in the New World; the total destruction of Roanoke; the disasters in Mysore. “You should need enough ships to throw twenty tons of metal, and six formations, to take the Cape long enough to secure the fort again, if they have not ripped it all down,” she said, “and when you were done, you should have to leave two of those formations behind with a first-rate’s worth of guns, and I hardly like to think how many soldiers; and somehow supply them monthly, if the enemy did not have the bright notion of attacking the supply-ships farther north.”

  The proposals subsided. “My Lords, you are already aware, that I see no grounds to quarrel with Admiral Roland’s figures,” Nelson said, “if I am perhaps, not so pessimistic of our chances to succeed, where the attempts of a previous century had failed. But even half such a force cannot be easily mustered, and certainly not unobserved; nor could it be transported from any civilized port, to any province of Africa, without the knowledge of the Navy, and indeed without its complaisance in the matter: I will stand surety for it.

  “If we cannot retake the Cape, therefore, or reestablish a
foothold upon the continent, we may nevertheless satisfy ourselves that no other nation may do so. France, certainly, cannot aspire to it. I will not say that Napoleon may not conquer anyplace in the world from Calais to Peking, so long as he can walk to it; but if he must put to sea, he is at our mercy.

  “Indeed,” he added, “I will go further. Without in any way ceasing to lament the dreadful loss we have suffered, in property and lives, from the savagery of this unprovoked assault, I will as a question of strategy declare myself heartily content to exchange all the convenience of our possession of the Cape, for the lack of any need to defend that position, henceforth. We have spoken before, gentlemen, in these halls, of all the expense and difficulty of improving the fortifications and patrolling the vast coastline against French incursion: an expense and difficulty which will now be borne instead by our erstwhile enemies.”

  Laurence was by no means disposed to argue with him, but he could not comprehend at first, why the Admiralty should have feared such an incursion at all. The French had never shown the least ambition to seize the Cape, which if a valuable port in general was unnecessary to them, holding as they did the Île de France, off the eastern coast of Africa, and certainly a difficult nut to crack; they had enough to do to hold what maritime possessions they already had.

  Mulgrave pulled at his nose a little, without comment. “Admiral Roland,” he said at last reluctantly, as if he did not like to pronounce her title, “what is our present strength at the Channel, if you please?”

  “From Falmouth to Middlesbrough, eighty-three I put at fighting strength,” she said, “and another twenty who could rise to the occasion. Seventeen of those heavy-weight, and three Longwings, besides the Kazilik and the Celestial. At Loch Laggan we have another fourteen, hatchlings, in training but old enough to bring up; and more, of course, along the North Sea coast. We would be hard-put to feed them, for an action of more than a day, but they would make a good relief.”

  “What is your estimation of our chances, should he make another attempt to invade by means of airships, such as he used at the battle of Dover?” Nelson asked.

  “If he don’t mind leaving half of them on the ocean floor, he might be able to land the rest, but I shouldn’t recommend it him,” Jane said. “The militia will set them on fire as quick as they can come in past us. No; I asked for a year, and it has not been so long, but the cure makes up for all that, and having back Lily and Temeraire in fighting trim: the French cannot come by air.”

  “Yes, the cure,” Nelson said. “It is I trust secured? There is no chance it might be stolen? I believe I heard of an incident—”

  “Why, I beg you will not blame the poor fellow,” Jane said. “He is a lad of fourteen, and his Winchester was in a bad way. There were some sorry rumors, I am afraid to say, that there was not enough of the cure to go about, because we began a little slowly, to see how small the dose might be kept before we ran around pouring it down their gullets. There was no harm done, and he confessed it all himself, quite rightly, when I put it to all the captains. We put a guard on the supply, afterwards, to keep anyone else from temptation, and no one has gone poking about.”

  “But if another attempt should be made?” Nelson said. “Might the guard be easily increased, and perhaps some fortification arranged?”

  “After feeding every blessed dragon in Britain and the colonies on the stuff, there is precious little of it left to steal, if anyone should want to,” Jane said, “except what the gentlemen of the Royal Society have managed to persuade to take root up at Loch Laggan; and as for that, if anyone likes to try and take it from the middle of a covert, they are welcome.”

  “Very good; so, gentlemen,” Nelson said, turning to the other commissioners, “you see that as a result of these events, deplorable as they may be in themselves, we may now be quite certain in our control of the cure: at least as certain as our own efforts could have made us.”

  “I beg your pardon,” Laurence said, making sense at last he thought of the preoccupation, and with dismay, “is there reason to believe the disease has been communicated to the Continent? Are the French dragons taken ill?”

  “We hope so,” Nelson said, “although we yet lack confirmation upon the point; but the spy-courier, the Plein-Vite whom we captured, was sent over to them two days ago, and we hope any day to receive word that they have been inoculated with the disease.”

  “The only damned silver lining to the bloody mess,” Gambier said, to a general murmur of agreement. “It will be some reparation to see the Corsican’s face, when his own beasts are all coughing blood.”

  “Sir,” Laurence managed; beside him Catherine was sickly-wan with horror, the back of her hand pressed to her mouth. “Sir, I must protest against—” He felt as though he were choking. He remembered little Sauvignon, who had kept Temeraire company that long dreadful week when they thought all hope was lost; when Laurence had expected to see his dragon coughing blood, at any moment.

  “I should damned well hope so,” Jane said, standing up. “This is why you had her sent to Eastbourne, I suppose, and none of closing the quarantine-grounds at all; a splendid creeping business. Will we be driving a plague-ship into their harbor, next, pray tell me, or poisoning their convoys of grain? Like a parcel of damned scrubs—”

  Musgrave, straightening outraged in his chair, snapped, “Ma’am, you are out of order,” and Admiral Gambier said, “This is what comes of—”

  “Why damn you, Gambier, come around here and say so,” she said, putting her hand to her sword, and the room devolved very quickly to shouting and scorn, so even the Marines outside the door put in their heads timidly.

  “You cannot mean to do this,” Laurence said. “Your Grace, you have met Temeraire, spoken to him; you cannot imagine they are not thinking creatures, beasts to be put to the slaughter—”

  Palmerston said, “Tenderhearted womanish folly—” seconded by Gambier, and Ward; “—the enemy,” Nelson said, over the noise, trying to reply, “and we must seize the opportunity which has been offered us, to level the distinction between our aerial forces and theirs—”

  The sly, underhanded way it had all been managed, proved well enough that the commissioners had expected opposition, and chosen to avoid it; they were not more ready to be harangued after the fact, and when Jane had shortly grown a little louder, they had reached the limits of their tolerance. “—and this,” Jane was shouting, “is how I am told, days past the event; when the stupidest scuttling crab might conceive that, as soon as Bonaparte knows what has happened, as soon as he sees his beasts growing sick, he will come across at once; at once, if he is not a gawping fool—and you drag me here to Dover, with two Longwings and our Celestial, and the damned Channel hanging open like Rotten Row—” when Musgrave rising beckoned to the guards, to stand open the door.

  “Then we must not keep you,” he said, rather icily, and added, when Jane would have gone on, “You are dismissed, madam,” holding out the formal orders for the defense of the Channel, the papers crumpling savagely in Jane’s fist as she stormed out from the room.

  Catherine leaned heavily on Chenery’s arm as they left, pale with her lip bitten to dark red. Nelson, following, stopped Laurence in the hall before he could go far after them, with a hand to his arm; and spoke to him at length: about what, Laurence did not entirely follow; a cutting-out expedition which he proposed to make, to Copenhagen, the Danish fleet to be seized there. “I would be glad to have you, Captain,” he finished, “and Temeraire, if you can be spared from the defense of the Channel, at least for a week’s time.”

  Laurence stared at him, feeling heavy and stupid, baffled at Nelson’s easy manner: he had met Temeraire, had spoken with him; he could not plead ignorance. He might not have been the prime mover of this experiment; but he was no opponent of it, whose opposition might have been everything, would have been everything, surely.

  The silence grew strained, then oppressive. Nelson paused, said, with a little more hauteur, “You are fresh
from a long voyage, and I am sure tired from all this questioning; I have considered it an unnecessary waste, from the first. We will speak again tomorrow; I will come to the covert in the morning, before you must return.”

  Laurence touched his hat; there was nothing he could say.

  Out of the building and into the street, sick to his heart and wretched, seeing nothing; the touch on his elbow made him startle, and he stared at the small, shabby man standing next to him. The expression Laurence wore must have shown some sign of what he felt; the small man bared a mouthful of wooden teeth in an attempt at a placating smile, thrust into Laurence’s hand a packet of papers, and touching his own forelock dashed away, without a word spoken.

  Mechanically Laurence unfolded it: a suit for damages in the amount of ten thousand three hundred pounds, two hundred six slaves valued at fifty pounds a head.

  TEMERAIRE WAS ASLEEP in the lingering, slanted light; dappled. Laurence did not wake him, but sat down on the rough-hewn log bench beneath the shelter of the pine-trees, facing him, and silently bent his head: in his hands he turned over the neat roll of crisp rice paper, the seal in red ink already affixed, which Dyer had handed him. The letter could not be allowed to go, he supposed; too much chance of interception, or that the intelligence might find its way back somehow to Lien, if she yet retained any allies in the Chinese court.

  The clearing was empty: the men still out on their leave. From the small forge, past the trees, Blythe’s hammer steadily rang on the harness-buckles, a thin metallic sound exactly like the odd voice of the African bird, calling along the river, and Laurence found the dust of the clearing suddenly thick in his nostrils, the new-copper smell of blood and dirt vividly recalled, of sour vomit. He had the strong sensation of rope, pressing into the skin of his face, and he rubbed his hand uneasily over his cheek as if he might find a mark there, though they had all faded; there was nothing more than a little roughness, perhaps, an impression of the corded rope left upon the skin.

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