Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik
“I am afraid it is only the natural consequence,” Laurence said, “of the unfortunate situation prevailing in our country, which keeps dragons so isolated in their distant coverts as to make them a point of horror.”
“Why, what else is to be done with them?” Lord Seymour said. “Put them in the village square?” He amused himself greatly with this suggestion; he was uncomfortably florid in the face, having performed heroically his host’s duties at the second dinner. He even now was doing justice to another glass of port, over which he coughed his laugh.
“In China, they may be seen in the streets of every town and city,” Laurence said. “They sleep in pavilions no more separated from residences than one town-house from another, in London.”
“Heavens; I should not sleep a wink,” Mrs. Brantham said, with a shudder. “How dreadful these foreign customs.”
“It seems to me a most peculiar arrangement,” Seymour said, his brows drawing together. “Look here, how do the horses stand it? My driver in town must go a mile out of his way when the wind is in the wrong quarter and blowing over the covert, because the beasts get skittish.”
Laurence was in honesty forced to admit they did not; horses were not often to be seen in the Chinese cities, except for the trained cavalry beasts. “But I assure you the lack is not felt; aside from mule-carts, they have also dragons employed as a sort of living stagecoach, and citizens of higher estate are conveyed by courier, at what you can imagine must be a much higher rate of speed. Indeed, Bonaparte has already adopted the system, at least within his encampments.”
“Oh, Bonaparte,” Seymour said. “No; thank goodness we organize things more sensibly here. I have been meaning to congratulate you, rather: ordinarily not a month goes by when my tenants are not complaining of the patrols, going overhead and frightening their cattle to pieces; leaving their—” he waved his hand expressively in concession to the ladies “—everywhere, but this sixmonth not a peep. I suppose you have put in new routes, and none too soon. I had nearly made up my mind to speak on the matter in Parliament.”
This remark, thoroughly aware as he was of the circumstances which had reduced the frequency of the patrols, Laurence could not make himself answer civilly; so he did not answer at all, and instead went to fill his glass again.
He took it away and went to stand by the window farthest from the fire, to keep himself refreshed by the cool draught which came in. Lady Seymour had taken a seat beside it, for the same reason; she had put aside her wineglass and was fanning herself. When he had stood there a moment she made a visible effort and engaged him. “So you had to shift from the Navy to the Aerial Corps—It must have been very hard. I suppose you went to sea when you were older?”
“At the age of twelve, ma’am,” Laurence said.
“Oh!—but then you came home again, from time to time, surely? And twelve is not seven; no one can say there is no difference. I am sure your mother must never have thought of sending you from home at such an age.”
Laurence hesitated, conscious that Lady Catherine and indeed most of the other company, which had not already dozed off, were now listening to their conversation. “I was fortunate to secure a berth more often than not, so I was not much at home myself,” he said, as neutrally as he could. “I am sure it must be hard, for a mother, in either case.”
“Hard! of course it is hard,” Lady Catherine said, interjecting here. “What of it? We ought to have the courage to send our sons, if we expect them to have the courage to go, and not this sort of half-hearted grudging sacrifice, to send them so late they are too old to properly take to the life.”
“I suppose,” Lady Seymour said, with an angry smile, “that we might also starve our children, to accustom them to privation, and send them to sleep in a pigsty, so they might learn to endure filth and cold—if we cared very little for them.”
What little other conversation had gone forward, now was extinguished quite; spots of color stood high in Lady Catherine’s cheeks, and Lord Seymour was snoring prudently by the fire, his eyes shut; poor Lieutenant Ferris had retreated into the opposite corner of the room and was staring fixedly out the window into the pitch-dark grounds, where nothing was to be seen.
Laurence, sorry to have so blundered into an existing quarrel, by way of making peace said, “I hope you will permit me to say, I find the Corps as an occupation has been given a character which it does not deserve, being no more dangerous or distasteful, in daily use, than any other branch; I can at least say from my own experience that our sailors face as much hard duty, and I am sure Captain Ferris and Colonel Prayle will attest to the privations of their own respective services.” He raised his glass to those gentlemen.
“Hear, hear,” Prayle said, coming to his aid, jovially, “it is not aviators only who have all the hard luck, but we fellows, too, who deserve our fair share of your sympathy; and at least you may be sure they have all the latest news at any moment: you must know better than any of us, Captain Laurence, what is going forward on the Continent now; is Bonaparte setting up for invasion again, now he has packed the Russians off home?”
“Oh, pray do not speak of that monster,” Mrs. Brantham spoke up. “I am sure I have never heard anything half so dreadful as what he has done to the poor Queen of Prussia: taken both her sons away to Paris!”
At this, Lady Seymour, still high-colored, burst out, “I am sure she must be in agony. What mother’s heart could bear it! Mine would break to pieces, I know.”
“I am sorry to hear it,” Laurence said, to Mrs. Brantham, into the awkward silence. “They were very brave children.”
“Henry tells me you have had the honor to meet them, Captain Laurence, and the Queen, during your service,” Lady Catherine said. “I am sure you must agree, that however much her heart should break, she would never ask her sons to be cowards, and hide behind her skirts.”
He could say nothing, but only gave her a bow; Lady Seymour was looking out the window and fanning herself with short jerking strokes. The conversation limped on a very little longer, until he felt he could in politeness excuse himself, on the grounds of the necessity of an early departure.
He was shown to a handsome room, with signs of having been hastily rearranged, and someone’s comb left by the washbasin suggested it had been otherwise occupied until perhaps that evening. Laurence shook his head at this fresh sign of over-solicitousness, and was sorry any of the guests should have been shifted on his account.
Lieutenant Ferris knocked timidly on his door, before a quarter-of-an-hour had passed, and when admitted tried to express his regrets without precisely apologizing, as he could scarcely do. “I only wish she would not feel it so. I did not like to go, at the time, I suppose, and she cannot forget that I wept,” he said, fidgeting the curtain uneasily; he was looking out the window to avoid meeting Laurence’s eyes. “But that was only being afraid at leaving home, as any child would be; I am not sorry for it now, at all, and I would not give up the Corps for anything.”
He soon made his good-nights and escaped again, leaving Laurence to the rueful consideration that the cold and open hostility of his father might yet be preferable to a welcome so anxious and smothering.
ONE OF THE footmen tapped at the door to valet Laurence, directly Ferris had gone: but he had nothing to do; Laurence had grown so used to doing for himself, that his coat was already off, and his boots in the corner, although he was glad enough to send those for blacking.
He had been abed scarcely a quarter-of-an-hour before he was roused again, by a great clamor of barking from the kennels and the horses shrilling madly. He went to the window: lights were coming on in the distant stables, and he heard a thin faint whistling somewhere aloft, carrying clear from a distance. “Bring my boots at once, if you please; and tell the household to remain within doors,” Laurence told the footman, who came hurrying at his ring.
He went down in some disarray, still tying his neckcloth, the flare in his hand. “Clear away, there,” he called strongly,
This intelligence left the courtyard empty. Ferris was already hurrying out, with his own signal-flare and a candle; he knelt down to set off the blue light, which went hissing up into the air and burst high. The night was clear, and the moon only a thin slice; almost at once the whistling came again, louder: Gherni’s high ringing voice, and she came down to them in a rustle of wings.
“Henry, is that your dragon? Where do you all sit?” said Captain Ferris, coming down the stairs cautiously. Gherni, whose head did not come up to the second-story windows, indeed would have been hard-pressed to carry more than four or five men. While no dragon could precisely be called charming, her blue-and-white china complexion was elegant, and the dark softened the edges of her claws and teeth into a less threatening shape. Laurence was heartened that some other few of the party, still dressed more or less, had gathered on the stoop to see her.
She cocked her head at the question and said something inquiringly in the dragon-tongue, quite incomprehensible to them all, then sat up on her hind legs to call out a piercing answer to some cry which only she had heard.
Temeraire’s more resonant voice became audible to them all, answering, and he came down into the wide lawn behind her: the lamps gleaming on his obsidian-glossy scales in their thousands, and his shivering wings kicking up a spray of dust and small pebbles, which rattled against the walls like small-shot. He curved down his head from its great serpentine height, well clear of the roof of the house. “Hurry, Laurence, pray,” he said. “A courier came and dropped a message to tell us there is a Fleur-de-Nuit bothering the ships off Boulogne. I have sent Arkady and the others to chase him away, but I do not trust them to mind without me there.”
“No indeed,” Laurence said, and turned only to shake Captain Ferris’s hand; but there was no sign of him, or of any living soul but Ferris and Gherni: the doors had been shut up tight, and the windows all were close-shuttered before they lifted away.
“WELL, WE ARE in for it, make no mistake,” Jane said, having taken his report in Temeraire’s clearing: the first skirmish off Weymouth and the nuisance of chasing away the Fleur-de-Nuit, and besides those another alarm which had roused them, after a few more hours of snatched sleep; and quite unnecessarily, for they arrived only in time, at the edge of dawn, to catch sight of a single French courier vanishing off over the horizon, chased by the orange gouts of cannon-fire from the fearsome shore battery which had lately been established at Plymouth.
“These were none of them real attacks,” Laurence said. “Even that skirmish, though they provoked it. If they had worsted us, they could not have stayed to take any advantage of it, not such small dragons; not if they wished to get themselves home again before they were forced to collapse on shore.”
He had given his men leave to snatch some sleep on the way back, and his own eyes had closed once or twice during the flight, but that was nothing to seeing Temeraire almost grey with fatigue, his wings tucked limply against his back.
“No; they are probing our defenses, and more aggressively than I had looked for,” Jane said. “I am afraid they have grown suspicious. They chased you into Scotland without hide nor wing of another dragon to be seen: the French are not fools to overlook something like that, however badly it ended for them. If any one of those beasts gets into the countryside and flies over the quarantine-coverts, the game will be up: they will know they have free rein.”
“How have you kept them from growing suspicious before?” Laurence said. “Surely they must have noted the absence of our patrols.”
“We have managed to disguise the situation, so far, by sending out the sick for short patrols, on clear days when they can be seen for a good distance,” Jane said. “A good many of them can still fly, and even fight for a while, although none of them can stand up to a long journey: they tire too easily, and they feel the cold more than they should; they complain of their bones aching, and the winter has only made matters worse.”
“Oh! If they are laying upon the ground, I am not surprised they do not feel well,” Temeraire said, rousing, and lifting up his head. “Of course they feel the cold; I feel it myself, when the ground is so hard and frozen, and I am not sick at all.”
“Dear fellow,” Jane said, “I would make it summer again if I could; but there is nowhere else for them to sleep.”
“They must have pavilions,” Temeraire said.
“Pavilions?” Jane said, and Laurence went into his small sea-chest and brought out to her the thick packet which had come with them all the way from China, wrapped many times over with oilcloth and twine, the outer layers stained nearly black, the inner still pale, until he came to the thin fine rice paper inside, with the plans for the dragon pavilion laid out upon them.
“Just see if the Admiralty will pay for such a thing,” Jane said dryly, but she looked the designs over with a thoughtful more than a critical eye. “It is a clever arrangement, and I dare say it would make them a damned sight more comfortable than lying on damp ground; I do hear the ones at Loch Laggan do better, where they have the heat from the baths underground, and the Longwings who are quartered in the sand-pits have held up better, though they do not like it in the least.”
“I am sure that if only they had the pavilions, and some more appetizing food to eat, they would soon get better; I did not like to eat at all, when I had my cold, until the Chinese cooked for me,” Temeraire said.
“I will second that,” Laurence said. “He scarcely ate at all before; Keynes was of the opinion the strength of spices compensated, to some part, for the inability to smell or taste.”
“Well, for that, any rate, I can squeeze out a few guineas here and there and manage a trial; we have certainly not been spending half of what we ordinarily would in powder,” Jane said. “It will not do for very long, not if we are to feed two hundred dragons spiced meals, and where I am to get cooks to manage it I have no idea, but if we see some improvement, we may have some better luck in persuading their Lordships to carry the project forward.”
GONG SU WAS ENLISTED in the cause, and all but emptied his spice cabinets, making especially vigorous use of his sharpest peppers; much to the intense disapproval of the herdsmen, who were rousted from a post usually requiring little more than dragging cows from pen to slaughter, and set to stirring pungent cauldrons. The effect was a marked one, the dragons’ appetites more startled awake than coaxed, and many of the nearly somnolent beasts began clamoring with fresh hunger. The spices were not easily replaced, however, and Gong Su shook his head with dissatisfaction over what the Dover merchants could provide; the cost even of this astronomical.
“Laurence,” Jane said, having called him to her quarters for dinner, “I hope you will forgive me for serving you a shabby trick: I mean to send you to plead our case.
I do not like to leave Excidium for long now, and I cannot take him over London sneezing as he does. We can manage a couple of patrols here, while you are gone, and make it a rest for Temeraire: he needs one in any case. What? No, thank Heaven, that fellow Barham who gave you so much difficulty is out. Grenville has the place now; not a bad fellow, so far as I can tell; if he does not understand the least thing about dragons, that hardly makes him unique.”
“And I will say, privately, in your ear,” she added, later that evening, reaching over for the glass of wine by the bed and settling back against his arm; Laurence lying back thoroughly breathless with his eyes half-closed, the sweat still standing on his shoulders, “that I would not hazard two pins for my chances of persuading him to anything. He yielded to Powys in the end, over my appointment, but he can scarcely bear to address a note to me; and the truth is I have made use of his mortification to squeak through half-a-dozen orders I have not quite the authority for, which I am sure he would have liked to object to, if he could do so without summoning me. Our chances are precious small to begin
IT DID NOT prove the case, however; because Jane, at least, could scarcely have been refused admittance by one of the secretaries of the Navy: a tall, thin, officious fellow, who said impatiently, “Yes, yes, I have your numbers written in front of me; and in any case you may be sure we have taken note of the higher requisitions of cattle. But have any of them recovered? You say nothing of it. How many can fly now that could not before, and how long?”—as if, Laurence felt resentfully, he were inquiring about the improved performance of a ship, given changes in her cordage or sailcloth.
“The surgeons are of the opinion, that with these measures we can hope to greatly retard the further progress of the illness,” Laurence said; he could not claim that any had recovered. “Which alone must be of material benefit, and perhaps with these pavilions also—”
The secretary was shaking his head. “If they will do no better than now, I cannot give you any encouragement: we must still build these shore batteries all along the coastline, and if you imagine dragons are expensive, you have not seen the cost of guns.”
“All the more reason to care for the dragons we have, and spend a little more to safeguard their remaining strength,” Laurence said. His frustration added, “And especially so, sir, that it is no more than their just deserts from us, for their service; these are thinking creatures, not cavalry-horses.”
“Oh; romantical notions,” the secretary said, dismissive. “Very well, Captain; I regret to inform you his Lordship is occupied to-day. We have your report; you may be sure he will reply to it, when he has time. I can give you an appointment next week, perhaps.”
Laurence with difficulty restrained himself from replying to this incivility as he felt it deserved; and went out feeling he had been a far worse messenger than Jane herself would have been. His spirits were not to be recovered even by the treat of catching a glimpse of the lately created Duke of Nelson in the courtyard: that gentleman splendid in his dress uniform and his peculiar row of misshapen medals. They had been half-melted to the skin at Trafalgar, when a pass by the Spanish fire-breather there had caught his flagship, and his life nearly despaired of from the dreadful burns. Laurence was glad to see him so recovered: a line of pink scarred skin was visible upon his jaw, running down his throat into the high collar of his coat, but this did not deter him from talking energetically with, or rather to, a small group of attentive officers, his one arm gesturing.
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