Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik

  “Forgive me; we have spoken so much of these matters, among ourselves, that we go too quickly.” Wilberforce drew a hand over his jaw, rubbing down his jowls. “I believe you know something already,” he said, “of the difficulties which we have encountered, in our attempts to abolish the trade.”

  “I do,” Laurence said: twice already, victory had seemed in reach. Early in the struggle, the House of Lords had held up a resolution already past the Commons, with some excuse of examining witnesses. On another attempt, a bill had indeed gone through, but only after amendments had changed abolition to gradual abolition: so gradual indeed that there were no signs of it as yet to be seen, fifteen years later. The Terror in France had by that time been making a bloody ruin of the word liberty, and putting into the hands of the slave traders the choice name of Jacobin to be leveled against abolitionists; no further progress had been made, for many years.

  “But in this last session,” Wilberforce said, “we were on the verge of achieving a vital measure: an act which should have barred all new ships from the slave trade. It ought to have passed; we had the votes in our grasp—then Nelson came from the countryside. He had but lately risen from his sickbed; he chose to address Parliament upon the subject, and by the vigor of his opposition alone caused the measure to fail in the Lords.”

  “I am sorry to hear it,” Laurence said, if not surprised: Nelson’s views had been pronounced in public, often enough. Like many a naval officer, he thought slavery, if an evil, also a necessary one, as a nursery for her sailors and a foundation of her trade; the abolitionists a cohort of enthusiasts and quixotics, bent on undermining England’s maritime power and threatening her hold upon her colonies, while only that domination allowed her to hold fast against the looming threat of Napoleon.

  “Very sorry,” Laurence continued, “but I do not know what use I can be to you; I cannot claim any personal acquaintance, which might give me the right to try and persuade him—”

  “No, no; we have no such hope,” Wilberforce said. “He has expressed himself too decidedly upon the subject; also many of his great friends, and sadly his creditors, are slave-owners or involved with the trade. I am sorry to say such considerations may lead astray even the best and wisest of men.”

  They sought rather, he explained, while Lord Allendale looked morose and reluctant, to offer the public a rival for their interest and admiration; and Laurence gradually understood through circular approaches that they meant him for this figure, on the foundation of his recent and exotic expedition, and the very adoption which he had expected his father to condemn.

  “To the natural interest which the public will have, in your late adventure,” Wilberforce said, “you join the authority of a military officer, who has fought against Napoleon himself in the field; your voice can dispute Nelson’s assertions, that the end of the trade should be the ruin of the nation.”

  “Sir,” Laurence said, not certain if he was sorrier to be disobliging Mr. Wilberforce, or happier to be forced to refuse such an undertaking, “I hope you will not think me lacking in respect or conviction, but I am in no way fitted for such a role; and could not agree, if I wished to. I am a serving-officer; my time is not my own.”

  “But here you are in London,” Wilberforce pointed out gently, “and surely, while you are stationed at the Channel, can on occasion be spared,” a supposition which Laurence could not easily contradict, without betraying the secret of the epidemic, presently confined to the Corps and only the most senior officials of the Admiralty. “I know it cannot be a comfortable proposal, Captain, but we are engaged in God’s work; we ought not scruple to use any tool which He has put into our way, in this cause.”

  “For Heaven’s sake, you will have nothing to do but attend a dinner party, perhaps a few more; kindly do not cavil at trifles,” Lord Allendale said brusquely, tapping his fingers upon the arm of his chair. “Of course one cannot like this self-puffery, but you have tolerated far worse indignities, and made far greater a spectacle of yourself, than you are asked to do at present: last night, if you like—”

  “You needn’t speak so to Laurence,” Temeraire interrupted coldly, giving the gentlemen both a start: they had already forgotten to look up and see him listening to all their conversation. “We have chased the French off four times this last week, and flown nine patrols; we are very tired, and we have only come to London because our friends are sick: and left to starve, and die in the cold; because the Admiralty will do nothing to make them more comfortable.”

  He finished stormily, a low threatening resonance building in his throat, the instinctive action of the divine wind operating; it lingered as an echo, when he had already stopped speaking. No one spoke for a moment, and then Wilberforce said thoughtfully, “It seems to me we need not be at cross-purposes; and we may advance your cause, Captain, with our own.”

  They had meant, it seemed, to launch him with some social event, the dinner-party Lord Allendale had mentioned, or perhaps even a ball; which Wilberforce now proposed instead to make a subscription-party, “whose avowed purpose,” he explained, “will be to raise funds for sick and wounded dragons, veterans of Trafalgar and Dover—there are such veterans, among the sick?” he asked.

  “There are,” Laurence said; he did not say, all of them: all but Temeraire himself.

  Wilberforce nodded. “Those are yet names to conjure with, in these dark days,” he said, “when we see Napoleon’s star ascendant over the Continent; and will give still further emphasis, to your being also a hero of the nation, and make your words a better counterweight to Nelson’s.”

  Laurence could scarcely bear to hear himself so described; and in comparison with Nelson, who had led four great fleet actions, destroyed all Napoleon’s navy, established Britain’s complete primacy at sea; who had justly won a ducal coronet by valor and deeds in honorable battle, not been made a foreign prince through subterfuge and political machination. “Sir,” he said, with an effort restraining himself from a truly violent rejection, “I must beg you not to speak so; there can be no just comparison.”

  “No, indeed,” Temeraire said energetically. “I do not think much of this Nelson, if he has anything to say for slavery: I am sure he cannot be half so nice as Laurence, no matter how many battles he has won. I have never seen anything as dreadful as those poor slaves in Cape Coast; and I am very glad if we can help them, as well as our friends.”

  “And this, from a dragon,” Wilberforce said, with great satisfaction, while Laurence was made mute by dismay. “What man can refuse to feel pity for those wretched souls, when it may be stirred in such a breast? Indeed,” he said, turning to Lord Allendale, “we ought to hold the assembly here where we sit. I am certain it will answer all the better, so far as producing a great sensation, and moreover,” he added, with a glint of humor in his eye, “I should like to see the gentleman who will refuse to consider an argument made to him by a dragon, with that dragon standing before him.”

  “Out of doors, at this season?” Lord Allendale said.

  “We might organize it like the pavilion-dinners in China: long tables, with coal-pits underneath to make them warm,” Temeraire suggested, entering with enthusiasm into the spirit of the thing, while Laurence could only listen with increasing desperation as his fate was sealed. “We will have to knock down some trees to make room, but I can do that very easily, and if we were to hang panels of silk from the remainder, it will seem quite like a pavilion, and keep warm besides.”

  “An excellent notion,” Wilberforce said, leaving his chair to inspect the scratched diagrams which Temeraire was making in the dirt. “It will have an Oriental flavor, exactly what is needed.”

  “Well, if you think it so; all I can say in its favor, it will certainly be the nine-days’ wonder of society, whether more than half-a-dozen curiosity-seekers come or not,” Lord Allendale said.

  “WE CAN SPARE you for one night, now and again,” Jane said, sinking Laurence’s final hopes of escape. “Our intelligence is nothi
ng to brag about, now we have no couriers to risk on spy-missions; but the Navy do a good business with the French fishermen, on the blockade, and they say there has yet been no movement to the coast. They might be lying, of course,” she added, “but if there were a marked shift in numbers, the prices of the catch would have risen, with livestock going to dragons.”

  The maid brought in the tea, and she poured for him. “Do not I beg you repine too much upon it,” Jane went on, meaning the Admiralty’s refusal to give them more funds. “Perhaps this party of yours will do us some good in that quarter, and Powys has written me to say he has cobbled together something for us already, by subscription among the retired senior officers. It will not do for anything extravagant, but I think we can keep the poor creatures in pepper, at least until then.”

  In the meanwhile, they set about the experimental pavilion: the promise of so substantial a commission proved enough to tempt a handful of more intrepid tradesmen to the Dover covert. Having met them at the gates, with a party of crewmen, Laurence escorted them the rest of the way to Temeraire, who in an attempt to be unalarming hunched himself down as small as a dragon of some eighteen tons could manage, and nearly flattened his ruff down against his neck. Yet he could not help but insinuate himself into the conversation once the construction of the pavilion was well under discussion, and indeed his offerings were quite necessary, as Laurence had not the faintest notion how to convert the Chinese measurements.

  “I want one!” Iskierka said, having overheard too much of the proceedings from her nearby clearing: heedless of Granby’s protests, she squirmed herself through the trees into Temeraire’s clearing, shaking off a blizzard of ash-flakes, and alarming the poor tradesmen very much with a hiccough of fire which sent steam shooting out her spines to clear them. “I want to sleep in a pavilion, too: I do not like this cold dirt at all.”

  “Well, you cannot have one,” Temeraire said. “This is for our sick friends, and anyway you have no capital.”

  “Then I shall get some,” she declared. “Where does one get capital, and what does it look like?”

  Temeraire proudly rubbed his breastplate of platinum and pearl. “This is a piece of capital,” he said, “and Laurence gave it me: he got it from taking a ship in a battle.”

  “Oh! that is very easy,” Iskierka said. “Granby, let us go get a ship, and then I may have a pavilion.”

  “Lord, you cannot have anything of the sort, do not be silly,” Granby said, nodding his rueful apologies to Laurence as he came into the clearing, along the trail of smashed branches and crushed hedge which she had left in her wake. “You would burn it up in an instant: the thing is made of wood.”

  “Can it be made of stone?” she demanded, swinging her head around to one of the wide-eyed tradesmen. She was not grown very large, despite the twelve feet in length she had acquired since settling at Dover with a steady diet, being rather sinuous than bulky, in the Kazilik style, and she yet looked little more than a garden-snake next to Temeraire. But her appearance at close quarters was by no means reassuring, with the hissing-kettle gurgle of whatever internal mechanism produced her fire plainly audible and the vents of hot air issuing from her spines, white and impressive in the cold.

  No one answered her, except the elderly architect, a Mr. Royle. “Stone? No, I must advise against it. Brick will be a much more practical construction,” he opined; he had not looked up from the papers since being handed them, so badly nearsighted he was inspecting the plans with a jeweler’s loupe, an inch from his watery blue eyes, and could most likely not make either dragon out in the least. “Silly oriental stuff, this roof, do you insist on having it so?”

  “It is not silly oriental stuff at all,” Temeraire said, “it is very elegant: that design is my mother’s own pavilion, and it is in the best fashion.”

  “You will need linkboys on it all winter long to brush the snow clear, and I will not give a brass farthing for the gutters after two seasons,” Royle said. “A good slate roof, that is the thing, do you not agree with me, Mr. Cutter?”

  Mr. Cutter had not the least opinion to offer, as he was backed to the trees and looked ready to bolt, if Laurence had not prudently stationed his ground crew around the border of the clearing to forestall just such panicked flight.

  “I am very willing to be advised by you, sir, as to the best plan of construction, and the most reasonable,” Laurence said, while Royle blinked around himself looking for a response. “Temeraire, our climate here is a good deal wetter, and we must cut our cloth to suit our station.”

  “Very well, I suppose,” Temeraire said, with a wistful eye for the upturned roof-corners and the brightly painted wood.

  Iskierka meanwhile took inspiration, and began to plot the acquisition of capital. “If I burn up a ship, is that good enough, or must I bring it back?” she demanded, and began her piratical career by presenting Granby with a small fishing-boat, the next morning, which she had picked up from Dover harbor during the night. “Well, you did not say it must be a French ship,” she said crossly, to their recriminations, and curled up to sulk. Gherni was hastily recruited to replace it under cover of darkness, the following night, undoubtedly to the great puzzlement of its temporarily bereft owner.

  “Laurence, do you suppose that we should be able to get more capital, by taking French ships,” Temeraire asked, with a thoughtfulness very alarming to Laurence, who had just returned from dealing with this pretty piece of confusion.

  “The French ships-of-the-line are penned in their harbors by the Channel blockade, thank Heaven, and we are not privateers, to go plying the lanes for their shipping,” Laurence said. “Your life is too valuable to be risked in such a selfish endeavor; in any case, once you began to behave in such an undisciplined manner, you may be sure Arkady and his lot would follow your example at once, and leave all Britain undefended, not to mention the encouragement Iskierka would take.”

  “Whatever am I to do with her?” Granby said, wearily taking a glass of wine with Laurence and Jane that evening, in the officers’ common room at the covert headquarters. “I suppose it is being dragged hither and yon in the shell, and all the fuss and excitement she has had; but that is no excuse forever. I must manage her somehow, and I am at a standstill. I would not be amazed to find the entire harbor set alight one morning, because she took it into her head that we would not have to sit about defending the city if it were all burnt up; I cannot even make her sit still long enough to get her under full harness.”

  “Never mind; I will come by tomorrow, and see what I can do,” Jane said, pushing the bottle over to him again. “She is a little young for work, by all the authorities, but I think her energy had better be put to use than go in all this fretting. Have you chosen your lieutenants, Granby?”

  “I will have Lithgow, for my first, if you’ve no objection, and Harper for a second, to act as captain of the riflemen also,” he said. “I don’t like to take too many men, when we don’t know what her growth will be like.”

  “You do not like to turn them off later, you mean, when they like as not cannot get another post,” Jane said gently, “and I know it will be hard if it comes to that; but we cannot shortchange her, not with her so wild. Take Row also, as captain of the bellmen. He is old enough to retire if he must be turned off, and a good steady campaigner, who will not blink at her starts.”

  Granby nodded a little, his head bowed, and the next morning Jane came to Iskierka’s clearing in great state, with all her medals and even her great plumed hat, which aviators scarcely wore, a gold-plated saber and pistols on her belt. Granby had assembled all his new crew, and they saluted her with a great noise of arms, Iskierka nearly coiling herself into knots with excitement, and the ferals and even Temeraire peering over the trees to watch with interest.

  “Well, Iskierka: your captain tells me that you are ready for service,” Jane said, putting her hat under her arm to look sternly at the little Kazilik, “but what are these reports I hear of you, that you will not
mind orders? We cannot send you into battle if you cannot follow orders.”

  “Oh! it is not true!” Iskierka said. “I can follow orders as well as anyone, it is only no one will give me any good ones, and I am only told to sit, and not to fight, and to eat three times a day; I do not want any more stupid cows!” she added smolderingly; the ferals, hearing this translated for them by their own handful of officers, set up a low squabbling murmur of disbelief.

  “It is not only the pleasant orders we must follow, but the tiresome ones as well,” Jane said, when the noise had died down. “Do you suppose Captain Granby likes to be forever sitting in this clearing, waiting for you to grow more settled? Perhaps he would rather go back to service with Temeraire, and have some fighting himself.”

  Iskierka’s eyes went platter-wide, and she hissed from all her spikes like a furnace; in an instant she had thrown a pair of jealous coils around Granby, which bid fair to boil him like a lobster in steam. “He would not! You would not, at all, would you?” she appealed to him. “I will fight just as well as Temeraire, I promise; and I will even obey the stupidest orders; at least, if I may have some pleasant ones also,” she qualified hastily.

  “I am sure she will mind better in future, sir,” Granby managed himself, coughing, his hair already plastered down soaking against his forehead and neck. “Pray don’t fret; I would never leave you, only I am getting wet,” he added plaintively, to her.

  “Hm,” Jane said, with an air of frowning consideration. “Since Granby speaks for you, I suppose we will give you your chance,” she said, at last, “and here you may have your first orders, Captain, if she will let you come for them and, to be sure, stand still for her harness.”

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