Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik

  A crowd had collected at a respectful distance to overhear, placed so that Laurence had to push his way out to the street through them, making apologies muttered as softly as he could; he might have stayed to listen, himself, another time. At present he had to make his way through the streets, a thick dark slurry of half-frozen ice and muck chilling his boots, back to the London covert, where Temeraire was waiting anxiously to receive the unhappy news.

  “But surely there must be some means of reaching him,” Temeraire said. “I cannot bear that our friends should all grow worse, when we have so easy a remedy at hand.”

  “We will have to manage on what we can afford within the current bounds, and stretch that little out,” Laurence said. “But some effect may be produced by the searing of the meat alone, or stewing; let us not despair, my dear, but hope that Gong Su’s ingenuity may yet find some answer.”

  “I do not suppose this Grenville eats raw beef every night, with the hide still on, and no salt; and then goes to sleep on the ground,” Temeraire said resentfully. “I should like to see him try it a week and then refuse us.” His tail was lashing dangerously at the already-denuded tree-tops around the edge of the clearing.

  Laurence did not suppose it, either: and it occurred to him that the First Lord might very likely dine from home. He called to Emily for paper, and wrote quickly several notes; the season was not yet begun, but he had a dozen acquaintances likely to be already in town in advance of the opening of Parliament, besides his family. “There is very little chance I will be able to catch him,” he warned Temeraire, to forestall raising hopes only to be dashed, “and still less that he will listen to me, if I do.”

  He could not wish whole-heartedly for success, either; he did not think he could easily sustain his temper, in his present mood, against still more of the casual and unthinking insult he was likely to meet in his aviator’s coat, and any social occasion promised to be rather a punishment than a pleasure. But an hour before dinner, he received a reply from an old shipmate from the gunroom of the Leander, long since made post and now a member himself, who expected to meet Grenville that night at Lady Wrightley’s ball: that lady being one of his mother’s intimates.

  THERE WAS A sad and absurd crush of carriages outside the great house: a blind obstinacy on the part of two of the coach drivers, neither willing to give way, had locked the narrow lane into an impasse so that no one else could move. Laurence was glad to have resorted to an old-fashioned sedan-chair, even if he had done so for the practical difficulties in getting a horse-drawn carriage anywhere near the covert. He reached the steps un-spattered, and if his coat was green, at least it was new, and properly cut; his linen was beyond reproach, and his knee-breeches and stockings crisply white, so he felt he need not blush for his appearance.

  He gave in his card and was presented to his hostess, a lady he had met in person only once before, at one of his mother’s dinners. “Pray how does your mother; I suppose she has gone to the country?” Lady Wrightley said, perfunctorily giving him her hand. “Lord Wrightley, this is Captain William Laurence, Lord Allendale’s son.”

  A gentleman just lately entered was standing beside Lord Wrightley, still speaking with him; he startled at overhearing the introduction, and turning insisted on being presented to Laurence as a Mr. Broughton, from the Foreign Office.

  Broughton at once seized on Laurence’s hand with great enthusiasm. “Captain Laurence, you must permit me to congratulate you,” he said. “Or Your Highness, as I suppose we must address you now, ha ha!” and Laurence’s hurried, “I beg you will not—” went thoroughly ignored as Lady Wrightley, astonished as she might justly be, demanded an explanation. “Why, you have a prince of China at your party, I will have you know, ma’am. The most complete stroke, Captain, the most complete stroke imaginable. We have had it all from Hammond: his letter has been worn to rags in our offices, and we go about wreathed in delight, and tell one another of it only to have the pleasure of saying it over again. How Bonaparte must be gnashing his teeth!”

  “It was nothing to do with me, sir, I assure you,” Laurence said with despair. “It was all Mr. Hammond’s doing—a mere formality—” too late: Broughton was already regaling Lady Wrightley and half-a-dozen other interested parties with a representation both colorful and highly inaccurate of Laurence’s adoption by the emperor, which had been nothing more in truth than a means of saving face. The Chinese had required the excuse to give their official imprimatur to Laurence serving as companion to a Celestial dragon, a privilege reserved, among them, solely for the Imperial family, and Laurence was quite sure the Chinese had happily forgotten his existence the moment he had departed: he had not entertained the least notion of trading upon the adoption now he was got home.

  As the brangle of carriages outside had stifled the flow of newcomers, there was a lull in the party, still in its early hours, which made everyone very willing to hear the exotic story; if in any case its success would not have been guaranteed by the fairy-tale coloration which it had acquired. Laurence thus found himself the interested subject of much attention, and Lady Wrightley herself was by no means unwilling to claim Laurence’s attendance as a coup rather than a favor done an old friend.

  He would have liked to go, at once; but Grenville had not yet come, and so he clenched his teeth and bore the embarrassment of being presented around the room. “No, I am by no means in the line of succession,” he said, over and over, privately thinking he would like to see the reaction of the Chinese to the suggestion; he had been made to feel an unlettered savage more than once, among them.

  He had not expected to dance; society was perennially uncertain whether aviators were entirely respectable, and he did not mean to blight some girl’s chances, nor open himself to the unpleasant experience of being fended off by a chaperone. But before the first dance, his hostess presented him deliberately to one of her guests, as an eligible partner; so even though much surprised he of course had to ask. Miss Lucas was perhaps in her second season, or her third; a plump attractive girl, still very ready to be delighted with a ball, and full of easy, cheerful conversation.

  “How well you dance!” she said, after they had gone down the line together, with rather more surprise than would have made the remark perfectly complimentary, and asked a great many questions about the Chinese court which he could not answer: the ladies had been kept thoroughly sequestered from their view. He entertained her a little instead with the description of a theatrical performance, but as he had been stabbed at the end of it, his memory was imperfect; and in any case it had been carried on in Chinese.

  She in turn told him a great deal of her family in Hertfordshire, and her tribulations with the harp, so he might express the hope of one day hearing her play, and mentioned her next younger sister coming out next season. So she was nineteen, he surmised; and was struck abruptly to realize that Catherine Harcourt at this age had been already Lily’s captain, and had flown that year in the battle of Dover. He looked at the smiling muslin-clad girl with a strange hollow feeling of astonishment, as if she were not entirely real; and then looked away. He had written already two letters each to Harcourt and to Berkley, on Temeraire’s behalf and his own; but no answer had come. He knew nothing of how they did, or their dragons.

  He said something polite afterwards, returning her to her mother, and, having displayed himself in public a satisfactory partner, was forced to submit with rigid good manners to filling out one set after another; until at last near eleven o’clock Grenville came in, with a small party of gentlemen.

  “I am expected in Dover tomorrow, sir, or would not trouble you here,” Laurence said grimly, having approached him; he loathed the necessity of anything like encroachment, and if he had not been introduced to Grenville at least the once, many years before, did not know he could have steeled himself to it.

  “Laurence, yes,” Grenville said vaguely, looking as though he would have liked to move away. He was no great politician: his brother was Prime Minister
, and he had been made First Lord for loyalty, not for brilliance or ambition. He listened without enthusiasm to the carefully couched proposals, which Laurence was forced to make general for the benefit of the interested audience, who were not to know of the epidemic: there would be no concealing such information from the enemy, once the general public was in possession of it.

  “There is provision made,” Laurence said, “for the relics of the slain, and for the sick and wounded; not least because that care may preserve them or their offspring for future service, and give encouragement to the healthy. The plan which has been advanced is for nothing more than such practical attentions, sir, which have been proven beneficial by the example of the Chinese, whom all the world acknowledge as first in the world, so far as an understanding of dragonkind.”

  “Of course, of course,” Grenville said. “The comfort and welfare of our brave sailors or aviators, and even our good beasts, is always foremost in the considerations of the admiralty,” a meaningless platitude, to one who had ever visited in a hospital; or had, as Laurence, been forced to subsist from time to time upon such provisions as were considered suitable for the consumption of those brave sailors: rotting meat, biscuit-and-weevil, the vinegar-water beverage which passed for wine. He had been applied to for support by veterans of his own crews or their widows, denied their pensions on scurrilous grounds, on too many occasions to find such a claim other than absurd.

  “May I hope, then, sir,” Laurence said, “that you approve our proceeding in this course?” An open avowal, which could not be easily retracted without embarrassment, was what he hoped for; but Grenville was too slippery, and without openly refusing, evaded any commitment.

  “We must consider the particulars of these proposals, Captain, more extensively; before anything can be done,” he said. “The opinions of our best medical men must be consulted,” and so on and so forth, continuing without a pause in this vein until he was able to turn to another gentleman of his acquaintance, who had come up, and address him on another subject: a clear dismissal, and Laurence knew very well that nothing would be done.

  HE LIMPED BACK into the covert in the early hours of the morning, a faint lightness just beginning to show. Temeraire lay fast asleep and dreaming with his slit-pupiled eyes half-lidded, his tail twitching idly back and forth, while the crew had disposed of themselves in the barracks or tucked against his sides: likely the warmer sleeping place, if less dignified. Laurence went into the small cottage provided for his use and gladly sank upon the bed to work off, wincing, the tight buckled shoes, still new and stiff, which had cut sadly into his feet.

  The morning was a silent one; besides the failure of the attempt, which had somehow been communicated generally throughout the covert, although Laurence had told no one directly but Temeraire, he had given a general furlough the previous night. Judging by the evidence of their bloodshot eyes and wan faces, the crew had made good use of their leave. There was a certain degree of clumsiness and fatigue apparent, and Laurence watched anxiously as the large pots of oat-porridge were maneuvered off the fire, to break their fast.

  Temeraire meanwhile finished picking his teeth with a large leg bone, the remnant of his own breakfast of tender veal stewed with onions, and set it down. “Laurence, do you still mean to build the one pavilion, even if the Admiralty will give us no funds?”

  “I do,” Laurence answered. Most aviators acquired only a little prize-money, as the Admiralty paid but little for the capture of a dragon compared to that of a ship, the former being less easily put to use than the latter, and requiring substantial expense in the upkeep, but Laurence had established a handsome capital while still a naval officer, upon which he had little charge, his pay being ordinarily sufficient to his needs. “I must consult with the tradesmen, but I hope that by economizing upon the materials and reducing the pavilion in size, I may afford to construct one for you.”

  “Then,” Temeraire said, with a determined and heroic air, “I have been thinking: pray let us build in the quarantine-grounds instead. I do not much mind my clearing at Dover, and I had rather Maximus and Lily were more comfortable.”

  Laurence was surprised; generosity was not a trait common amongst dragons, who were rather jealous of anything which they considered their own property, and a mark of status. “If you are quite certain, my dear; it is a noble thought.”

  Temeraire toyed with the leg-bone and did not look entirely certain, but eventually made his assent final. “And in any case,” he added, “once we have built it, perhaps the Admiralty will see the benefit, and then I may have a handsomer one: it would not be very pleasant to have a small poky one, when everyone else has a nicer.” This thought cheered him considerably, and he crunched up the bone with satisfaction.

  Revived with strong tea and breakfast, the crew began to get Temeraire under harness for the return to Dover, only a little slowly; Ferris taking especial pains to see that the buckles were all secure after Laurence dropped a quiet word in his ear. “Sir,” Dyer said, as he and Emily came in from the covert gates with the post for Dover, which they would carry with them, “there are some gentlemen coming,” and Temeraire raised his head from the ground as Lord Allendale came into the covert with a small, slight, and plainly dressed gentleman at his side.

  Their progress was arrested at once, while they stared up at the great inquisitive head peering back at them, Laurence very glad for the delay in which he could gather his own wits: he would scarcely have been more shocked to receive a visit from the King, and a good deal better pleased. He could imagine only one cause for it: more than one person of his parents’ acquaintance had been at the ball, and the news of the foreign adoption must have traveled to his father’s ears. Laurence knew very well he had given his father just cause to reproach him by having submitted to the adoption, whatever its political expedience; but he was by no means satisfied to endure those reproaches in front of his officers and his crew, aside from any practical consideration of what Temeraire’s reaction might be to seeing him abused.

  He handed away his cup to Emily and gave his clothing a surreptitious look, devoutly grateful the morning was cold enough he had not been tempted to forgo coat or neckcloth. “I am honored to see you, sir; will you take tea?” he asked, crossing the clearing to shake his father’s hand.

  “No, we have breakfasted,” Lord Allendale said abruptly, his eyes still fixed on Temeraire, and only with a jerk of effort turned away to present to Laurence his companion, Mr. Wilberforce: one of the great movers of the cause of abolition.

  Laurence had only met the gentleman once, long before. Wilberforce’s face had settled into graver lines in the intervening decades, and now he looked anxiously up at Temeraire; but there was still something warm and good-humored about the mouth, a gentleness to his eyes, confirming that early generous impression which Laurence had carried away, if indeed his public works had not been testament enough. Twenty years of city air and incessant fighting had ruined his health, but not his character; parliamentary intrigue and the West Indies interests had undermined his work, but he had persevered; and besides his tireless labor against slavery, he had stood a resolute reformer all the while.

  There was scarcely a man whose advice Laurence would more have desired, in furthering Temeraire’s cause; and if the circumstances had been other, and he had reached that rapprochement with his father, which he had hoped for, he would certainly have sought an introduction. The reverse, however, he could not understand; there was no reason his father should bring Wilberforce hence, unless perhaps he had some curiosity to encounter a dragon.

  But the gentleman’s expression, looking on Temeraire, did not seem enthusiastic. “I myself would be very happy for a cup of tea, in quiet, perhaps?” he said, and after a certain hesitation yielded to the further question, “Is the beast quite tame?”

  “I am not tame,” Temeraire said very indignantly, his hearing perfectly adequate to the task of overhearing this unwhispered exchange, “but I am certainly not going t
o hurt you, if that is what you are asking; you had much better be afraid of being stepped upon by a horse.” He knocked his tail against his side in irritation, nearly sweeping off a couple of the topmen engaged in pitching the traveling-tent upon his back, and so gave himself the lie even as he spoke. His audience was sufficiently distracted by his remarks not to notice this nice point, however.

  “It is most wonderful,” Mr. Wilberforce said, after conversing with him a little longer, “to discover such excellent understanding in a creature so far removed from ourselves; one might call it even miraculous. But I see that you are making ready to depart; so I will beg your pardon,” he bowed to Temeraire, “and yours, Captain, for so indelicately moving to the subject which has brought us here, to seek your assistance.”

  “I hope you will speak as frankly as you like, sir,” Laurence said, and begged them to sit down, with many apologies for the situation: Emily and Dyer had dragged chairs out of the cabin for their use, as that building was hardly fit for receiving guests, and arranged them near the embers of the cooking-fire for warmth.

  “I wish to be clear,” Wilberforce began, “that no-one could be insensible of the service which his Grace has rendered his country, or begrudge him the just rewards of that service, and the respect of the common man—”

  “You might better say, the blind adoration of the common man,” Lord Allendale put in, with more heavy disapproval. “And some not so common, who have less excuse; it is appalling to see the influence the man has upon the Lords. Every day he is not at sea is a fresh disaster,” and Laurence gathered, after a few moments more of confusion, that they were speaking of none other than Lord Nelson himself.

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