Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik


  Temeraire admired the results, very much, when in the morning they were reunited to be transferred to Paris; and barring an inclination to complain that Laurence was not permitted to ride upon him, for the journey, was perfectly satisfied with their change of venue. He did glare ferociously at the small and quailing Pou-de-Ciel who would serve as transport, as if he suspected her of planning to carry Laurence off for some nefarious ends. But the precaution would have been wise even if Laurence had given their parole, as without it he would have set a pace impossible for his escort to match; even as it was, they were hard-pressed. Temeraire outdistanced them, except in fits and starts, when he doubled back to come alongside the Pou-de-Ciel and call out remarks to Laurence; so the other dragons, most of them showing early signs of the illness, were rather exhausted when they came in sight of the Seine.

  Laurence had not been to Paris since the year one, in the last peace, and had never before seen it from the dragon-heights; but even with so little familiarity, he could scarcely have failed to notice transformation on such a scale. A broad avenue, still more than half raw dirt, had been driven straight through the heart of the city, smashing through all the old medieval alley-ways. Extending from the Tuileries towards the Bastille, it continued the line of the Champs-Élysées, but dwarfed that into a pleasant country lane: the new avenue perhaps half as wide as that massive square of Peking, which stood before the Forbidden City, and much longer; with dragons hovering over and lowering great stacks of paving-stones into the street.

  A triumphal arch of monumental scale was going up, in the Place de l’Étoile, half still presently mocked up in wood, and new embankments upon the Seine; more prosaically, in other places the ground had been opened up to a great depth, and new sewers were being laid in mortared cobblestones. On the city’s border an enormous bank of slaughterhouses stood behind a newly raised wall, with a plaza open beside them, and a handful of cows on spits roasting; a dragon was sitting there eating one, holding it on the spit like an ear of corn.

  Below them directly, the gardens of the Tuileries had been widened, out from the banks of the Seine nearly an additional quarter-of-a-mile in the opposite direction, swallowing up the Place Vendôme into their boundaries; and overlooking the riverbank, at right corners to the palace, a great pavilion in stone and marble was going up: an edifice in the Roman style, but on a different scale. In the grassy courtyard already laid down beside it, Lien lay drowsily coiled in the shade, a thin white garden-snake seen from so far aloft, easy to make out among the other dragons who were scattered at decorous distance around her.

  They were brought down in those gardens: not where Lien slept, but in another plaza before the palace, with a makeshift pavilion of wood and sailcloth hastily erected in their honor. Laurence had scarcely time to see Temeraire established, before De Guignes took his arm and smiling invited him inside; smiling, but with a firm grip, and the guards gripped their muskets tightly: still honored guest and prisoner both.

  The apartments where they conducted him would have befitted a prince; he might have wandered blindfold through the room for five minutes together without knocking into a wall. Used as he was to cramped quarters, Laurence found their scale irritating rather than luxurious: the walk from the chamberpot to the dressing-table a nuisance, and the bed too soft and overburdened with hangings for the hot weather; standing alone under the high and muraled ceiling, he felt an actor in a bad play, with eyes and mockery upon him.

  He sat down at the writing-table in the corner, to have somewhere to put himself, and pushed up the cover: paper aplenty, and good pens, and ink, fresh and liquid when he opened the jar; he closed it slowly again. He owed six letters; they would never be written.

  Outside it grew dark; from his window he could see the pavilion on the riverbank, illuminated with many colorful lanterns. The workers had gone away; Lien was now lying across the top of the stairway, her wings folded to her back, watching the light on the water: a silhouette more than a shape. She turned her head, and Laurence saw a man come walking down the broad path towards her, and ascend into the pavilion: lanterns shone red on the uniforms of his guard, which he had left at the foot of the stair.

  DE GUIGNES CAME THE next morning after breakfast, all renewals of kindness and generous sentiments, and took him walking down to see Temeraire, with only a moderate guard. Temeraire was awake and by the lashing of his tail in a state of near-agitation; “She has sent me an invitation,” he said plaintively, as soon as Laurence had sat down. “I do not know what she means by it; I am not going to go and talk to her, at all.”

  The invitation was a handsomely calligraphed scroll, in Chinese characters, tied with a tassel of red and gold; it was not long, and merely requested the pleasure of the company of Lung Tien Xiang at the Pavilion of the Seven Pillars for drinking tea and restful repose, in the heat of the day. “There is nothing evidently insincere in it; perhaps she means it as a gesture of reconciliation,” Laurence said, though he did not think much of the chances.

  “No, she does not,” Temeraire said darkly. “I am sure if I go, the tea will be very unpleasant, at least my tea will be, and I will have to drink it or look ill-mannered; or she will make remarks which do not seem offensive, until I have gone away and thought them over; or she will try and have you murdered while I am not there: you are not to go anywhere without a guard, and if anyone tries to murder you, you must call for me very loud,” he added. “I am sure I could knock down a wall of that palace, if I had to, to reach you,” a remark which left De Guignes with a peculiar rigid expression; he could not forbear a glance at the substantial stone wall of the Tuileries, overlooking the pavilion.

  “I assure you from my heart,” he said, recovering his aplomb, “that no one could be more sensible of the generosity which you have shown to France; Madame Lien has been among the first, to receive the cure which you have delivered us—”

  “Oh,” Temeraire said, disgruntled.

  “—and, as all of the nation, welcomes you with open arms,” De Guignes carried on manfully.

  “Stuff,” Temeraire said. “I do not believe it at all; and I do not like her anyway, even if she does mean it, so she may keep her invitations and her tea; and her pavilion, too,” he added, low, with an envious twitch of his tail.

  De Guignes coughed, and did not attempt further to persuade him; instead he said, “I will make your regrets, then; in any event, you may be occupied with preparations, as tomorrow morning His Majesty wishes to meet you, and to convey to you all the thanks of the nation. He wishes you to know it grieves him very much that the formalities of war should attend such a meeting; and that for his part, he welcomes you as brothers, and not as prisoners at all,” he added, with a look at once tactful and significant: a delicate hinting that they need not be prisoners for their part, either, if they chose.

  The whole speech, his earnest manner, had a vaguely mercenary quality, which, to do justice to the man’s humanity, he gave with a very faint, dismissive air; so to accept would have needed only a nod. Laurence looked away instead; to hide his expression of distaste; but Temeraire said, “If he does not like us to be prisoners, it seems to me he is the Emperor, and can let us go if he likes. We are not going to fight for you against our own friends back in England, if that is what you mean.”

  De Guignes smiled without any sign of offense. “His Majesty would never invite you to any dishonorable act.” A pretty sentiment, and one which Laurence was inclined to trust from Bonaparte as much as from the Lords of the Admiralty: less. De Guignes rose gracefully and said, “I hope you will excuse me now to my other duties: Sergeant Lasalle and his men will escort you to your quarters for dinner, Captain, when you have finished your conversation,” and so quitted them strategically, to let them contemplate his vague suggestions alone.

  They did not say anything a while; Temeraire scratched at the ground. “I suppose we cannot stay,” he muttered, half-ashamedly, “even if we did not fight? I thought we would go back to China, but then we h
ave still left everything in Europe as it is. I am sure I can protect you from Lien, and perhaps I might help work upon that road; or I might write books. It seems very nice here,” he added. “One could go walking, here in the gardens, or in the road, and meet people.”

  Laurence looked down at his hands, which held no answer. He did not mean to grieve Temeraire, or to distress him, but he had known his own fate since first they had embarked upon this adventure; and at last he said quietly, “My dear, I hope you will stay, and have whatever profession you desire; or that Bonaparte will give you passage back to China if you prefer it. But I must go home to England.”

  Temeraire paused, and then he said uncertainly, “But they will hang you—”

  “Yes,” Laurence said.

  “I will not, I will never let them,” Temeraire said. “Laurence—”

  “I have committed treason,” Laurence said. “I will not now add cowardice to that crime, nor let you shield me from its consequences.” He looked away; Temeraire was silent and trembling, and it was painful to look at him. “I do not regret what we have done,” he said quietly. “I would not have undertaken the act, if I were not willing to die for it; but I do not mean to live a traitor.”

  Temeraire shuddered, and drew himself back onto his haunches, staring blindly out into the gardens; motionless. “And if we stay,” he said, eventually, “they will say it was all self-interest—that we brought the cure for a reward, so that we should have a pleasant life, here or in China; or perhaps that we were cowards, and thought Napoleon would win the war, and we did not want to fight. They will never admit that they were in the wrong; and that we have sacrificed our own happiness, to repair what never ought have been done, in the first place.”

  Laurence had not so articulated his instinctive decision; he did not need to, to know what he must do. For his own part, he did not care what should be thought of it, and said so. “What will be thought of it, I already know, and I do not suppose anything now will alter those sentiments; if that were of any importance, we should not have gone. I am not returning to make a political gesture, but because it must be done; if there is any honor to be preserved after such an act.”

  “Well, I would not give a button for honor,” Temeraire said. “But I do care about the lives of our friends, and that those lords should learn to be ashamed of what they have done; which I suppose they will never do, but others might, if they were not given so convenient an excuse to dismiss the whole matter.” He bowed his head. “Very well; we will tell him no, and if he will not set us free, we can escape and return, on our own.”

  “No,” Laurence said, recoiling. “My dear, there is no sense in it; you had much better go back to China. They will only throw you in the breeding grounds.”

  “Oh! certainly! that I should run away, but not you, when you have done it for me, you never thought of it but for me?” Temeraire heaped scorn upon the notion. “No; if they mean to put you to death, they will have to put me to death also; I am as guilty or more, and I will certainly not let you be killed while I am alive. And if they do not like to execute me, I will go lie down in front of Parliament, until they have changed their minds.”

  THEY WERE ESCORTED across the gardens to the great pavilion, together; Laurence marched in a company of Imperial Guards, splendid and sweating in their tall black shakos and blue coats. Lien was lying upon the riverbank, observing benevolently the traffic which went up and down the Seine before her, and turned her head when they came, inclining it politely; Temeraire went very stiff, and rumbled, deep in his throat.

  She shook her head disapprovingly at his manners. “You needn’t shake your head at me,” Temeraire retorted, “because I do not care to pretend that we are friendly; it is only that I am not deceitful: so there.”

  “How is it deceitful, when you know we are not friendly, and so do I,” Lien pointed out, “and all who are in our confidence? There is no-one deceived, who has any right to know, but those who prefer to take no notice of it; except with your boorish behavior, no one about can avoid knowing, and being made to feel awkward.”

  Temeraire subsided muttering, and crowded up as close as he could to the nervous guards, trying to hover protectively near Laurence; a dish of tea was brought him, which he sniffed suspiciously and then disdained, and a glass of cold sillery, which Laurence did not; a slight cooling breeze came off the water and the greenery of the park, and the vast marbled space was pleasant, with somewhere hidden a running gurgle of water over stone, but the day was still very hot, even with the morning not yet far advanced.

  The soldiers went to attention; and then Bonaparte was coming down the walk, trailing guards and secretaries, one of whom was writing desperately even as they came: taking down a letter. The valedictions were added as they came up the steps, then Bonaparte turned away, came through the two files of guards hastily shuffling out of his way, and seizing Laurence by the shoulders kissed him on both cheeks.

  “Your Majesty,” Laurence said, rather faintly. He had seen the emperor once before, briefly and from concealment, while Bonaparte had been overlooking the field of Jena; and had been impressed at that time with the intensity and the nearly cruel anticipation in his expression, the remote eye, the hawk about to stoop. There was no less intensity now, but perhaps some softening; the emperor looked stouter, his face a little more rounded, than on that peak.

  “Come, walk with me,” Bonaparte said, and drew him by the arm down to the water, where Laurence was not himself required to walk, but rather to stand and let the emperor pace before him, gesturing, with a restless energy. “What do you think of what I have done with Paris?” he asked, waving his hand towards the sparrow-cloud of dragons visible, working on the new road. “Few men have had the opportunity to see my designs, as you have, from the air.”

  “An extraordinary work, Your Majesty,” Laurence said, sorry to be so sincere; it was the kind of work which only tyranny, he supposed unhappily, could achieve, and characteristic of all Napoleon’s works, smashing through tradition with a kind of heedless forward motion; he would have preferred to find it ugly, and ill-reasoned. “It will expand all the character of the city.”

  Bonaparte nodded, satisfied with this remark, and said, “It is only a mirror held up to the expansion of the national character, however, that I am going to achieve. I will not allow men to fear dragons: if cowardice, it is dishonorable; if superstition, distasteful; and there are no rational objections. It is only habit, and habit which can and must be broken. Why should Peking be superior to Paris? I will have this the most beautiful city of the world, of men and dragons both.”

  “It is a noble ambition,” Laurence said, low.

  “But you do not agree with it,” Bonaparte said, pouncing; Laurence twitched before the sudden assault, very nearly of palpable force. “But you will not stay, and see it done, though you have already been given proof of the perfidy, the dishonorable measures to which a government of oligarchs will stoop: it can never be otherwise,” he added; more declaration than an attempt to convince, “when money becomes the driving force of the state: there must be some moral power beneath, some ambition, that is not only for wealth and safety.”

  Laurence did not think very much of Bonaparte’s method, which substituted an insatiable hunger for glory and power, at the cost of men’s lives and liberty; but he did not try to argue. It would have been hard indeed, he thought, to marshal any argument in the face of the monologue, which Bonaparte did not mind continuing in the absence of opposition or even response; he ranged widely across philosophy and economics, the useless folly of government by clerks, the differences, which he detailed minutely on philosophical grounds quite beyond Laurence’s comprehension, between the despotism of the Bourbons and his own imperial state: they had been tyrants, parasites, holding power through superstition and for their own personal pleasure, lacking in merit; he was the defender of the Republic, and the servant of the nation.

  Laurence only withstood, as a small rock in a deluge; an
d the gale past said simply, “Your Majesty, I am a soldier, not a statesman; and I have no great philosophy but that I love my country. I came because it was my duty as a Christian and a man; now it is my duty to return.”

  Bonaparte regarded him, frowning, displeased, a tyrant’s lowering look; but it flitted quickly away, then he stepped closer, and gripped Laurence by the arm, persuasive. “You mistake your duty. You would throw away your life: all right, you might say, but it is not yours alone. You have a young dragon, who has devoted himself to your interest, and who has given you all his love and confidence. What can a man not accomplish, with such a friend, such a councilor, free from any trace of envy or self-interest? It has made you who you are. Think where would you now be, without the stroke of fortune that put his heart into your keeping?”

  At sea, like as not, or at home: a small estate in England perhaps, married, by now his first child here; Edith Woolvey, née Galman, had been delivered of her first four months before. Marching steadily up the post-list towards flag-rank; he would probably have been sitting presently on blockade, beating up and down off Brest or Calais, a tedious but necessary routine. A prosperous and an honest life, and if no great chance of glory, as far from treason as from the moon; he had never asked for anything else, or expected it.

  The vision stood at a distance almost bewildering, now; mythical, softened by a comfortable blind innocence. He might have regretted it; he did regret it, now, except there was no room in the gardens of that house for a dragon to be sleeping in the sun.

  Bonaparte said, “You do not suffer from the disease of ambition—so much the better. Let me give you an honorable retirement. I won’t insult you by offering you a fortune, only his keep and yours. A house in the country, a cattle-herd. Nothing will be asked of you that you do not want to give.” His hand tightened, when Laurence would have drawn away. “Will your conscience be more clear when you have delivered him into captivity? Into a long captivity,” he added sharply. “—they will not tell him when they put you to death.”

 
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