Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik


  He abandoned circumspection and ran, clumsy with the tub and shifting it every moment, until he burst out onto the ledge. Celeritas looked over at him with his dark green eyes perplexed and doubtful; Temeraire said in a sudden rush, “Pray forgive me, it is all a hum, we are taking them to France so all the dragons there do not die, and tell them Laurence did not like to do it, at all, only I insisted upon it,” not a pause for breath or punctuation, and snatching Laurence with the tub up in his talons, he flung himself away into the air.

  They went rushing away bare moments before five men charged out after them; bells were ringing madly, and Temeraire had not settled Laurence back upon his neck before the beacon-fire went alight and dragons came pouring out of the castle grounds like smoke.

  “Are you safe?” Temeraire cried.

  “Go, go at once,” Laurence shouted for an answer, lashing harness-straps around the tub to hold it down before him, and Temeraire whipped himself straight and flew, flew; the pursuit was hot upon them. Not dragons whom Laurence knew: there was one gangly-looking Anglewing, nearly in the lead, and a few Winchesters gaining on them: not to much purpose, but perhaps able to interfere a little with their flight, and delay them for the others. Temeraire said, “Laurence, I must go higher; are you warm enough?”

  He was soaked through, and chilled to the skin already by their flight, despite the overhanging sun. “Yes,” he said, and pulled his coat closer about him. A bank of clouds pressed down upon the crowns of the mountains, and Temeraire pushed into them, the clinging mist springing up in fat droplets on the buckles, the waxed and oiled leather of the harness, Temeraire’s glossy scales. The dragons chasing called to one another, roaring, and plunged in after them, distant obscure shadows in the fog, their voices echoing and muffled at odd alternate turns, so he was scaling upwards through a strange and formless landscape without direction, haunted by their ghostly images.

  He burst clear just short of a towering white mountain-face, stark against the open blue, and Temeraire roared as he came: a hammer-blow against the solid-packed ice and snow; Laurence clung to the harness, shivering involuntarily, as Temeraire pulled up nearly vertical, climbing along the face of the mountain, and the pursuit came chasing out of the clouds only to recoil from the thundering, rolling, steady roar of avalanche, coming down upon them like a week’s snowstorm compressed into a heartbeat: the Winchesters all squalling alarmed, and scattering away from it like a flock of sparrows.

  “South, due south,” Laurence said, calling forward to Temeraire, pointing him the way as they came over the peak and broke away, losing the more distant followers. But Laurence could see the beacons going up already down the long line to the coast: the beacons which ordinarily would have warned of invasion, instead now carrying the warning in the other direction and ahead of them. Every covert, every dragon would be alert, even without knowing what was the matter precisely, and would try to stop them in their flight. They could not fly in any direction which would bring them upon a covert, and see them headed off and caught between two forces; their only hope for an escape lay along the more sparsely guarded North Sea coast, short of Edinburgh. Yet they had also to be near enough to make it across to the Continent; with Temeraire already tired.

  Night would come, soon; three hours more would give them the safety of dark. Three hours; Laurence wiped his face against his sleeve, and huddled down.

  TEMERAIRE CAME AT last exhausted to ground, in darkness, six hours later; his pace had slackened, little by little, the slow measured flap of his wings like a timepiece winding down, until Laurence looking over had seen not a single flickering light; not a shepherd’s bonfire, not a torch, as far as his sight could reach, and said at last, “Down, my dear; you must have some rest.”

  He thought they were in Scotland still, or perhaps Northumberland; he was not certain. They were well south of Edinburgh and Glasgow, somewhere in a shallow valley; he could hear water trickling nearby, but they were too tired to go find it. He ate all his biscuit, ravenous suddenly, and took the last of his grog, huddled up against the curve of Temeraire’s neck: it sprawled out untidily from his body, his draggled wings; he slept as he had landed.

  Laurence stripped to the skin, and laid his wet things out on Temeraire’s side, to let the native heat of the dragon’s body do what it might to dry them; then rolled himself in his coat to sleep. The wind was cool enough, among the mountains, to keep the chill upon his skin. Temeraire gave a low rumbling murmur, somewhere in his belly, and twitched; there was distantly a hurried rustling, a clatter of frightened small hooves; but Temeraire did not wake.

  The next he knew it was morning, and Temeraire was feasting red-mouthed upon a deer, with another lying dead beside it; he swallowed down his meal and looked at Laurence anxiously. “It is quite nice raw, too, and I can tear it up for you small; or perhaps you can use your sword?” he suggested.

  “No; I pray you eat it all. I have not been at hard labor as have you: I can stand to be parted from my dinner a little longer,” Laurence said, getting up to scrub his face in the small trickling creek, some ten paces only from where they had collapsed, and to put back on his clothes. Temeraire had attempted to spread them out upon a warm sunny rock, with his claws: they were not very damp anymore, but a little mauled about; at least the tears did not show much, under the long coat.

  After Temeraire had finished his breakfast, Laurence sketched out the line of the North Sea coastline, and the Continent. “We cannot risk going much south of York,” Laurence said. “Once past the mountains the country is too settled; we will be seen at once by day and perhaps by night also. We must make for the mountains on the coast near Scarborough, pass there the night, and make Holland our final mark across the sea: the country there is unsettled enough I hope we need not fear immediate challenge. Then along the coastline to France; and we shall hope they do not shoot us down without a word.”

  HE PUT HIS tattered shirt upon a stick, in the end, to make a ragged flag of parley; and waved it mightily against the side of Temeraire’s neck, while they came in over Dunkirk. Beneath them in the harbor, nevertheless, a frantic alarum set up aboard the French ships, when they saw Temeraire coming, to show that the fame of his sinking of the Valérie had spread this far, and many useless attempts were made, at firing cannon at him, although he was considerably too high aloft to be in range.

  The French dragons came charging in a determined cloud: already some of them were coughing, and they were none of them in a mood to converse, until Temeraire roared out like thunder in their faces, and took them all aback, then loudly said, “rret! Je ne vous ai pas attaqué il faut que vous m’écouter: nous sommes venus pour vous apporter du médicament.”

  As the first handful were mulling this over, flying circles around them, another party came flying fresh from the covert roaring their own defiance; the two groups grew rapidly more confused, captains shouting at one another over their speaking-trumpets, until at last signals were issued, and they were escorted to the ground by a wary honor-guard, six dragons on either side and more preceding them and behind. When they had been brought down, in a wide and pleasant meadow, there was a good deal of shuffling and edging back, not frightened but wary, and anxious murmurs from the dragons as their officers descended.

  Laurence unstrapped the tub, and unlatched his own carabiners: men were already swarming up the sides of Temeraire’s harness, and there were pistols leveled at him before he stood. “You will surrender,” a young lieutenant said, narrow-eyed and thickly accented.

  “We already have,” Laurence said tiredly, and held out to him the wooden tub; the young man looked at it, perplexed, wincing away from the stench. “They are to cure the cough,” Laurence said, “la grippe, des dragonnes,” and pointed to one of the coughing dragons.

  It was taken from him with much suspicion, but passed down, if not as the priceless treasure it was, at least with some degree of care. The tub vanished from his sight, at any rate, and so beyond his concern; a great sinking wea
riness was spreading through him, and he fumbled with more awkwardness even than usual at the harness-straps, climbing down, until he slipped and fell the last five feet to the ground.

  “Laurence,” Temeraire cried urgently, leaning towards him; another French officer sprang forward and seizing Laurence by the arm dragged him up and put the muzzle of a pistol, cold and gritty with powder-grains, to his neck.

  “I am well,” Laurence said, restraining with an effort a cough; he did not wish to jar the pistol. “I am well, Temeraire, you do not need to—”

  He was permitted to say no more; there were many hands upon him, and the officers gathering tight around him like a knot; he was half-carried across the meadow towards the tense and waiting line of French dragons, a prisoner, and Temeraire made a low wordless cry of protest as he was dragged away.

  Chapter 17

  LAURENCE SPENT THE night in a solitary uncomfortable cell, in the bowels of the covert headquarters: clammy and hot, without a breath of air; the narrow barred window at the top of wall looked out on a barren parade-ground, and let in only dust. They gave him a little thin porridge and a little water; a little straw on the floor for a bed; but there was none of that humane self-interest which would have let him buy greater comfort, though he had a little money in his pockets.

  They did not rob him, but his hints were ignored: a cold resentful suspicion in their looks, and some muttered colloquial remarks that he thought he was meant to understand better than his limited French would allow. He supposed the news had spread, by now, amongst them: the nature of the disease, the virulence; and he would have been as little forgiving as they were. The guards were all old aviators, former ground crewmen with wooden legs, or missing arms: a sinecure, like the post of cook aboard a ship; although no cook he had ever known would have refused a neat bribe for a cup of his slush, not from the Devil himself.

  It did not touch him in a personal way, however; there was no room for that. He only gave up the attempt, and threw himself down on the dirty pallet with his coat wrapped around him, and slept dreamless and long; when he roused with the gaol-keepers’ clanging delivery of the morning’s porridge, he looked down at the floor, where the window square of sunlight lay divided neatly into its barred sections, and shut his eyes again, without bothering to rise and eat.

  He had to be woken in the afternoon by rough shaking, and he was brought afterwards to another room with a handful of grim-faced senior officers arranged before him, along the long side of a table. They interrogated him with some harshness as to the nature of the mushrooms, the disease, his purpose in bringing the cure, if a cure it was. He was forced to repeat himself, and exhorted to speak more quickly when he went slowly in his stumbling French; when he tried for a little more speed, and misspoke, the errors were seized upon, and shaken like a rat-killing dog might, to squeeze all the life there was out of them.

  Having been served such a black turn to begin with, they had some right to suspect him the instrument of some further underhanded trick, instead of one acting to prevent it; nevertheless he found it hard to bear up; and when they began to ask him other questions, of the position of ships in the Channel, the strength in the Dover covert, he nearly answered at first, only from fatigue and the habit of replying, before he caught himself up.

  “You do know we may hang you as a spy,” one of the officers said coldly, when Laurence had flatly refused to speak. “You came in without colors, without uniform—”

  “If you wish to object, because I had made my shirt a parley-flag, it would be kind of you at least to arrange for me to have another,” Laurence said, wondering with black humor if next they would offer to flog him. “As for the rest, I had rather hang for a British spy, than be a French.”

  He ate the cold waiting porridge when they had put him back into his cell, mechanically, and went to look out of the window at what nothing there was to see. He was not afraid, only still very tired.

  The interrogations went on a week, but eased gradually from suspicion to a wary and bewildered sort of gratitude, in step with the progress of the trial they had made, of one of the mushrooms. Even when they had been convinced the cure was as real as the disease, the officers did not know what to make of Laurence’s actions; they came at him with the question in one way and then another, and when he repeated that he had only come to bring the cure, to save the dragons’ lives, they said, “Yes, but why?”

  As he could give them no better answer, they settled for thinking him quixotic, with which he could not argue, and his keepers grew sufficiently mellow to let him buy some bread and the occasional stewed fowl. At the end of the week, they put a fetter on his leg, and took him out to see Temeraire, established in respectful state in the covert, and under guard only by one unhappy Petit Chevalier, not much smaller than he, whose nose dripped continuously upon the ground. One small tub of course would not do, to cure all those infected, and although it had evidently been delivered successfully to the charge of several expert Brêton mushroom-farmers, many of the sick dragons would have to suffer for several months more before there was enough of the cure to go around. Where the disease might spread further, Laurence could only hope that with the cure established in England and France, the quarrel of the two powers must deliver it to their respective allies also, and cupidity amongst such a widened number of keepers lead to its eventual dispersal.

  “I am very well,” Temeraire said. “I like their beef here, and they have been obliging enough to cook it for me, do you know? The dragons here at least are perfectly willing to try cooked food, and Validius here,” he nodded to the Petit Chevalier, who sneezed to acknowledge it, “had a notion, that they might stew it for us with wine; I have never understood what was so nice about it, that you were always drinking it, but now I do; it has a very nice flavor.”

  Laurence wondered how many bottles had been sacrificed, to sate the hunger of two very large dragons; perhaps not a very good year, he thought, and hoped they had not yet formed the notion of drinking spirits unadulterated by cooking. “I am glad you are so comfortably situated,” he said, and made no complaint of his own accommodations.

  “Yes, and,” Temeraire added, with not a little smugness, “they would like me to give them five eggs, all to very large dragons, and one of them a fire-breather; although I have told them I cannot,” he finished wistfully, “because of course they would teach the eggs French, and make them attack our friends, in England; they were surprised that I should mind.”

  This was of a piece with the questions Laurence had faced: all the worse grief, that he could so naturally be taken for a wholehearted turncoat, judged by his own acts; it was the greater curiosity to all when he did not offer to be a traitor. He was glad to see Temeraire contented, and sincerely so; but he returned to his cell lower in his spirits, conscious that Temeraire would be as happy here, as he was in England; happier, perhaps.

  “I WOULD BE grateful for a shirt, and trousers,” Laurence said, “if my purse can stand it; I want for nothing else.”

  “The clothing I insist you will permit me to arrange from my own part,” De Guignes said, “and we will see you at once in better accommodations; I am ashamed,” he added, with a cold look over his shoulder that made the gaolers edge away from where they were listening and peeping in at the door, “that you should have met with such indignity, monsieur.”

  Laurence bowed his head. “You are very kind, sir; I have no complaint to make of my treatment, and I am very sensible of the honor which you do in coming so far to see me,” he said quietly.

  They had last met under very different circumstances: at a banquet in China, De Guignes there at the head of Napoleon’s envoy, and Laurence with the King’s. Although their political enemy, he had been impossible to dislike; and Laurence without knowing it had already endeared himself to the gentleman, some time before, by taking some pains to preserve the life of his nephew, taken prisoner in a failed boarding attempt; so the encounter had been, so far as personal matters went, a friendly
one.

  That he had come all this way was, however, a marked kindness; Laurence knew himself a prisoner of no great importance or rank, except as surety for Temeraire’s good behavior, and De Guignes must have been thoroughly occupied. While his embassy had failed in its original designs, De Guignes had succeeded in one marked particular: seducing Lien to Napoleon’s cause, and bringing her back with him to France. He had been promoted for it, Laurence vaguely thought, to some higher office in the foreign service; he had heard something of it, interested more in the name than in the rank; certainly De Guignes now showed all the signs of prosperity and position, in his handsome rings and in the elegance of his silk-and-linen coat.

  “It is little enough amends for what you have suffered,” De Guignes said, “and I am here not only in my own person, but to bear you all the assurances of His Majesty that you will soon better feel the gratitude of France, which you have so richly earned.”

  Laurence said nothing; he would have preferred to remain in his cell, starved, stripped naked, and fettered with iron, than be rewarded for his actions. But Temeraire’s fate stopped his mouth: there was one at least in France, who far from feeling any sentiments of gratitude had all cause in the world to hate and wish them ill: Lien herself, who at least in rumor had Napoleon’s confidence, and would gladly have seen Temeraire suffering the torments of the damned. Laurence would not disdain what protection from her malice the public avowals of imperial gratitude might provide.

  It had certainly a more immediate effect: De Guignes had scarcely left the room before Laurence was shifted to a handsome chamber upstairs, appointed plainly but with some eye to comfort; a pleasant view of the open harbor, gaily stocked with sails, outside his window. The shirt and trousers materialized by morning: of very fine linen and wool, with silk thread, and with them clean stockings and linen; in the afternoon arrived a notable coat to replace his own much-battered and-stained article: cut of black leather, with skirts lower than the tops of his boots, and buttons in gold so pure they were already no longer quite circular.

 
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