Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik

  Jane joined him after a little while, her fine coat discarded and her neckcloth also; there were bloodstains on her shirt. She sat down on the bench and leaned forward mannish with her elbows braced against her knees, her hair still plaited back but the finer strands about the face wisping free.

  “May I beg a day’s leave of you?” Laurence asked, eventually. “I must see my solicitors, in the City. I know it cannot be long.”

  “A day,” she said. She chafed her hands together absently, though it was not cold in the least, even with the sun making its last farewells behind the barracks-house. “Not longer.”

  “Surely they will keep her quarantined?” Laurence said, low. “Her captain saw our own quarantine-grounds; he must have realized she was taken ill, as soon as he saw her. He would never expose the other dragons.”

  “Oh, they thought it out with both hands; never fear,” Jane said. “I have had the account of it, now. He was sent home by boat; she was let to see him off, from a distance, and told that he had been sent to the covert outside of Paris, where the mail-couriers nest. I dare say she flung herself directly into their ranks. O, what a filthy business. By now it has been well-spread, I am sure: the couriers go every quarter-of-an-hour, and new come in, as often.”

  “Jane,” Laurence said, “Napoleon’s couriers go to Vienna. They go to Russia and to Spain, and all through Prussia—the Prussian dragons themselves are penned in French breeding grounds; our allies whom we deserted, in their hour of need—they go even to Istanbul, and from there, where will the disease not be carried?”

  “Yes, it is very clever,” she said, smiling, with a parchment thinness to the corners of her mouth. “The strategy is very sound; no one could argue with it. At a stroke we go from very nearly the weakest aerial force, in Europe, to the strongest.”

  “By murder,” Laurence said. “It can be called nothing else; wholesale murder.” Nor was there any reason why the devastation should end in Europe. All the maps over which he had labored, through their half-year’s journey home from China, unfolded again for him without any need for their physical presence; the wavering course of their journey now made a track for slow creeping death to run along in reverse. Strategy, strategy, would call it a victory to see the Chinese aerial legions decimated: without them, the Chinese infantry and cavalry could hardly stand against British artillery. The distant corners of India brought under control, Japan humbled; perhaps a sick beast might be delivered to the Inca, and the fabled cities of gold flung open at last.

  “I am sure they will find a prettier name for it, in the history books,” Jane said. “It is only dragons, you know; we ought think nothing more of it, than if we were to set fire to a few dozen ships in their harbor, which we would gladly enough do.”

  He bowed his head. “And this is how wars should be fought.”

  “No,” she said tiredly. “This is how they are won.” She put her hands on her knees, and pushed herself standing. “I cannot stay, I must take the courier for Dover at once; I have persuaded Excidium to let me go. I will need you by tomorrow night.” She rested her hand on his shoulder a moment, and left him.

  He did not move, a long while, and when he at last raised his head, Temeraire was awake and watching him, the slit-pupiled eyes a faint gleam in the dark. “What has happened?” Temeraire asked quietly, and quietly Laurence told him.

  TEMERAIRE WAS NOT angry, precisely; he listened, and grew rather intent than savage, crouched low; when Laurence had done, he said, simply, “What are we to do?”

  Laurence wavered uncertainly—he did not understand; he had expected some other response, something more than this—and said at last, “We are to go to Dover—” He stopped.

  Temeraire had drawn back his head. “No,” he said, after a moment’s strange stillness. “No; that is not what I meant, at all.”

  Silence. “There is nothing to—no protest which—She is already sent,” Laurence said, finally; he felt thick-tongued, helpless. “The invasion is to be expected at any moment, we are to stand guard at the Channel—”

  “No,” Temeraire said loudly. There was a terrible resonance in his voice; the trees murmured back with it, shivering. “No,” he repeated. “We must take them the cure. How can we come at it? We can go back to Africa, if we must—”

  “You are speaking treason,” Laurence said, without feeling, oddly calm; the words only a recitation of fact, distant.

  “Very well,” Temeraire said, “if I am an animal, and may be poisoned off like an inconvenient rat, I cannot be expected to care; and I do not. You cannot tell me I should obey; you cannot tell me I should stand idle—”

  “It is treason!” Laurence said.

  Temeraire stopped, and looked at him only. Laurence said, low and exhausted, “It is treason. Not disobedience, not insubordination; it cannot—there is no other name which it can bear. This Government is not of my party; my King is ill and mad; but still I am his subject. You have sworn no oath, but I have.” He paused. “I have given my word.”

  They were silent again. There was a clamor back in the trees; some of the ground-crew men returning from their day’s leave, noisy with liquor; a snatch of raised song—that saucy little trim-rigged doxy—and roar of laughter, as they went into the barracks-house, their lanterns vanishing.

  “Then I must go alone,” Temeraire said wretchedly, so softly that for once there was real difficulty in making out the words. “I will go alone.”

  Laurence breathed once more; hearing it, said aloud, made everything quite clear. He was grateful, it occurred to him, that Jane had refused; that he had not that pain to give. “No,” he said, and stepped forward, to put his hand on Temeraire’s side.

  Chapter 16

  LAURENCE WROTE TO Jane, the merest word; no apology could suffice, and he would not insult her, by asking her to sympathize, adding only:

  …and I wish to make clear, that I have in no wise made my thoughts known to, nor received Aid of, my officers, my crew, or any man; and, neither deserving nor soliciting any excuse for my own Part, do heartily entreat that all blame attaching to these my actions should be laid at my door alone, and not upon those who cannot even be charged, as might on similar occasions be merited, with culpable blindness, my Resolve having been formed bare minutes before setting ink to this Page, and will upon its enclosure be immediately carried out.

  I will not trespass further upon the Patience which I fear I have already tried past all hope of endurance, and beg you only to believe me, in despite of the present Circumstances,

  Yr obdt Svt, &c.

  He folded it over twice, sealed it with especial care, and laid it flat upon his neatly made cot, the address faced upwards; and left his small quarters, walking between the narrow rows of snoring men to go outside again. “You may be dismissed, Mr. Portis,” he said to the officer of the watch, who was nodding at the edge of the clearing. “I will take Temeraire up for a turn; we will not have a quiet flight again in some time.”

  “Very good, sir,” Portis said, barely concealing a bloodshot yawn, and did not stay to be persuaded further: not quite drunk, but his gait a little shambling as he went back to the barracks-house.

  It was not nine. In an hour, at most two, Laurence supposed, they should be missed; he relied on scruple to forbid Ferris’s opening the letter, addressed to Jane, until he began to suffer a greater degree of anxiety, which might save another hour; but then the pursuit would be furious. There were some five couriers in the covert sleeping now; more by Parliament; some of the fastest flyers in all Britain. They had not only to outrun them to Loch Laggan, but after to the coast: every covert, every shore battery from Dover to Edinburgh would be roused to bar their passage.

  Temeraire was waiting, ruff pricked, agitated and crouched small to conceal it. He put Laurence upon his neck, and launched quickly; London falling away, a collection of lamps and lanterns and the bitter smoke of ten thousand chimneys, ships’ lights moving gently down the Thames, and only the rushing hollow sound of
wind. Laurence shut his eyes, until they had grown accustomed, then looked at his compass to give Temeraire the direction: four hundred miles, north by north-west, into the dark.

  It was strange to be all alone on Temeraire’s back again, not merely for a pleasure-flight; the ordinary round of duty did not often allow it. Unburdened but by the triviality of Laurence’s weight and the barest harness, Temeraire stretched himself and drove high aloft, to the margins where the air grew thin; pale clouds passing beneath them over the dark ground, fellow sailors in the air. His ruff was flattened down, and the wind came whistling hard over his back, cold at these heights even in the midst of August; Laurence drew his leather coat more snugly close, and put his hands beneath his arms. Temeraire was going very fast; his wings beating a full, cupped stroke, and the world beneath blurred when Laurence looked over his shoulder.

  Close towards dawn, Laurence saw to the distant west faintly an eerie glow which illuminated the curve of the earth, as if the sun meant to rise the wrong way round; a color broken, now and again, by belching smoke: Manchester, and its mills, he guessed, so they had gone some hundred and sixty miles, in less than seven hours. Twenty knots, twenty-five.

  A little after dawn, Temeraire stooped, without a word, and came to ground at the shores of a small lake to drink deeply, his head thrust partway beneath the water, with the gulps traveling convulsively down his throat; he stopped, and panted, and drank some more. “Oh, no; I am not tired; not very tired, only I was so thirsty,” he said a little thickly, turning his head back: despite his brave words he shook himself all over, and blinked away a dazed expression before he asked, in a more normal tone, “Shall I set you down a moment?”

  “No; I am very well,” Laurence said; he had his grog-flask with him, and in his pocket a little biscuit, which he had not touched. He wanted nothing; his stomach was closed. “You are making a good time, my dear.”

  “Yes, I know,” Temeraire said complacently. “Oh! It is more pleasant than anything, to go so quickly, in pleasant weather, only the two of us; I should like it above all, if only,” he added, looking round sorrowfully, “I did not fear that you were unhappy, dear Laurence.”

  Laurence would have liked to reassure him; he could not. They had passed over Nottinghamshire during the night; they might have passed over his home, his father’s house. He rubbed his hand upon the neck-scales, and said quietly, “We had better be off; we are more visible, in the day.”

  Temeraire drooped, and did not answer, but launched himself aloft again.

  THEY CAME IN over Loch Laggan after seven hours more, at the dinner-hour; Temeraire without even the pretense of courtesy or warning dived directly into the feeding grounds, and not waiting for the herdsmen seized two surprised cows out of the pen: his descent too swift even for them to bellow. Alighting with them on the ledge which overlooked the training flights, he crammed them one after another down his throat, not pausing even to swallow all the first before he began upon the second. He gave a relieved sigh, afterwards, and belched replete; then daintily began to lick clean his talons before he made a guilty start: they were observed.

  Celeritas was lying in the waning sun, upon the ledge, his eyes half-lidded. He looked aged, as he had not during their training, so long ago and yet scarcely three years gone; the luster of his pale jade-colored markings had faded, as cloth washed in too-hot water, and the yellow darkened to a bronzey tone. He coughed a little hoarsely. “You have put on some length, I see.”

  “Yes, I am as long as Maximus,” Temeraire said, “or anyway, not much shorter; and also I am a Celestial,” he added smugly: they had left off their training under the pressure of the last threat of invasion, in the year four, at the time unaware of Temeraire’s real breed or his particular curious ability of the divine wind and thinking him instead an Imperial: still a most valuable breed, but not as vanishingly rare.

  “So I had heard,” Celeritas said. “Why are you here?”

  “Oh,” Temeraire said. “Well—”

  Laurence let himself down and stepped forward. “I beg your pardon, sir; we are here from London, for some of the mushrooms: may I ask where they are kept?” They had resolved on this brazen frontal assault, as offering the best chance of success; even if Temeraire might look daunted now.

  Celeritas snorted. “They are nursing the things like eggs: downstairs, in the baths,” he said. “You will find Captain Wexler at table, I believe; he is commander of the fort now,” and turned to Temeraire inquisitively, while Temeraire went hunching steadily down. Laurence did not like to leave him alone, to face all the pain of lying in the face of the friendly, unwary curiosity of his old training master, but there was no time: Celeritas would soon begin to wonder, at the absence of their crew, and the most hardened liar could scarcely have concealed this treachery for long.

  It was strange to walk the corridors again, now familiar instead of alien; the cheerful roar of the communal dining-tables, which he could hear around the corners, like the blurred continuous noise of a distant cataract: welcoming, and yet closed to him utterly; he felt himself already set apart. There were no servants in the halls, likely all of them busy with the dinner service, but for one small lad running by with a stack of clean napkins, who did not give him a second glance.

  Laurence did not go to Captain Wexler: his excuse could not withstand the absence of orders, of any real explanation; instead he went directly to the narrow, humid stairway which led down to the baths, and in the dressing room put off swiftly his boots, his coat, flung down upon the shelves with his sword laid down beside them; his trousers and shirt he left on, and taking with him a towel went into the great tiled steam room. He could see dimly a few somnolent forms drowsing, but in the clouds no faces could be easily made out, and he moved on with quick purpose; no one spoke to him, until he had nearly reached the far door, then a fellow lying with a towel over his face lifted it off. Laurence did not know him: an older lieutenant perhaps, or a younger captain, with a thick bristling mustache dripping water off its corners. “Beg pardon,” he said.

  “Yes?” Laurence said, stiffening.

  “Be a good fellow and shut the door quick, if you mean to go through,” the man said, and putting himself down covered his face again.

  Laurence did not understand, until he had opened the door to the large bathing-room beyond and the thick miasmic stench of the mushrooms assaulted him, mingled with the pungent smell of a dragon-midden. He pulled the door to behind him quickly, and put his hand over his face, breathing deep through his mouth. The room was deserted, nearly; the dragon eggs sat gleaming wetly in their niches, safe behind the wrought-iron fence along the back of the room, and beneath them on the floor great tubs of black fertile soil, speckled reddish brown with dragon waste for fertilizer, and mushrooms like round buttons poking from the dirt.

  There were two young Marines, undoubtedly without much seniority, standing guard: very unhappy, and nearly red enough in the face to match their coats from the room’s intense heat; their white trousers were stained with lines of running dye. They looked at Laurence rather hopefully as, if nothing else, a distraction; he nodded to them and said, “I am come from Dover, for more of the mushrooms; pray bring out one of those tubs.”

  They looked dubious, and hesitated; the older ventured, “Sir, we aren’t supposed to, unless the commander says so, himself.”

  “Then I beg your pardon for the irregularity; my orders said nothing of the sort,” Laurence said. “Be so kind as to send and confirm them, with him, if you please; I will wait here,” he said to the younger soldier, who did not stay to be invited again, much to the poorly stifled outrage of the older man: but he had the key, hanging from the chain on his belt, so he could not be allowed to go.

  Laurence waited as the metal door swung to again; waited; the ship turning slowly through the wind, her broadside coming to bear, the enemy’s stern in sight; the clang sounded, as a bell, and he struck the Marine a heavy blow, just below the ear, as the man gazed scowling afte
r his fellow.

  The man fell staggering to one knee, his face turning up in surprise, his mouth opening; Laurence struck him again, hard, his knuckles bursting and leaving smears of blood along the Marine’s cheekbone and jaw; the soldier fell heavily and was still. Laurence found that he was breathing raggedly. He had to steady his hands before he could unlatch the key.

  The tubs were of varied sizes, half-barrels of wood filled with dirt, most of them large and unwieldy; Laurence seized the smallest, and threw over it the towel he had brought, hot and damp already only from the moist air of the baths. He went out by the far door, walking quickly through the rest of the circuit, back to the dressing rooms: still deserted, but dinner would by now be far advanced, and men left the tables as they pleased. He could expect interruption at any moment; sooner if the Marine were more inclined to be dutiful than dawdling, and reached the commander. Laurence flung on his boots and coat haphazardly over his wet things, and went up the stairs with the tub balanced on his shoulder, his other hand gripping tight to the rail: not recklessly; he did not mean to do this much, and fail. He burst out into the hall, and went hurriedly around a corner to straighten his clothes: if he were not so plainly disordered, he would not make a spectacle enough to draw conscious attention, he hoped, despite the odd burden of the tub. The stench was not wholly muffled by the covering linen, but it wafted behind him rather than before.

  The noise of the dining hall was indeed already less; he heard voices, nearer, in the corridors; and passed a pair of servants laden down with dirty dishes. Looking down another corridor which crossed his own, he saw a couple of young midwingmen go racing across from one door to the next, shouting like boys, gleefully; in another moment he heard more running footsteps, boots falling heavily, fresh shouting: but the tone was very different.

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