Actions

Work Header

wisdom to the mighty, honor to the brave

Work Text:

He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave,
He is wisdom to the mighty, He is honor to the brave:
Glory, glory, hallelujah! His truth is marching on.

The Battle Hymn of the Republic

~*~

Tharkay, left to his own devices, would have been happy enough to sit in silence and allow Laurence all the time in the world to stare broodingly out at the sea. So long as he was merely contemplating the water, and not throwing himself headfirst into it, Tharkay thought it unlikely any harm should come of it. However, Captain Riley had left strict instructions in the event of Laurence's falling into one of his sulks, or whatever the term was for an honorably moody temper, and Tharkay, conceding the greater acquaintance with Laurence's disposition to Riley, felt obliged to obey. And so, "Laurence," he said, "perhaps Temeraire would care for a brief flight? He seems a trifle out-of-sorts today, and the weather is unusually fine."

Laurence started and glanced over at Tharkay as though he had completely forgotten his presence. Tharkay stared him in the eye, unmoved, until Laurence dropped his gaze and drew back from the railing. "It is, at that," he agreed. "Would you join us?"

Tharkay was about to accept – he missed the freedom of the open air, trapped like a rat aboard this barrel of a boat – when he happened to observe the expression on Riley's face as he conversed with Granby on the far side of the deck. "No, although I thank you for your generous offer," Tharkay said smoothly. "Perhaps Captain Granby and Iskierka might oblige by accompanying you?"

Laurence frowned and turned involuntarily to look at Granby. Perhaps something in the slump of his shoulders made an impression on Laurence; perhaps not. It was difficult to tell, with him.

Tharkay wondered, sometimes, whether he was vastly unfair to William Laurence in assuming that because he never responded to undercurrents, he could not understand them. Given any unspoken weakness, Tharkay himself could never refrain from needling it, but perhaps Laurence was simply a strong enough man to ignore such things. Tharkay did not think it particularly likely, but still. Perhaps.

"John?" Laurence said tentatively, catching his former lieutenant's attention easily despite the expanse of the deck stretched between them – far more easily than either Riley or he himself would have been able to, Tharkay thought disgustedly, and wondered just what it was about William Laurence that inspired otherwise sensible men to follow him about like hopelessly lovesick puppies. He supposed he had no grounds to throw it in Granby's face, after choosing to follow Laurence all the way to another bloody hemisphere, but still, it rankled.

"Sir?" Granby drifted away from Riley's side to Laurence like a compass needle obeying the inexorable pull of north.

"Would you and Iskierka like to go for a brief flight with us?"

Granby could not be said to look exactly cheerful – his doldrums had persisted since Iskierka first landed on the Allegiance and would hardly yield at such slight inducement – but his face brightened noticeably. "Thank you, sir, for the invitation – I think we will both enjoy the air a great deal. Allow me to fetch my harness and we may be off." He hurried below to retrieve the necessary equipment from his cabin, and Tharkay moved, seemingly idly, to join Riley.

"Masterfully played, Mister Tharkay," Riley said, mouth twitching. "Your care for your charges is as subtle as it is admirable."

"I am not a nursemaid," Tharkay said crossly.

"No?" Riley asked, clearly amused. "Well, they are out of the nursery a long while now, I grant you, but you do seem to spend a great deal of time jollying them out of their tantrums."

"It is less like minding children," Tharkay muttered, "and more like herding cats."

Riley was forced to choke down his responding bark of laughter, as Granby emerged from the aviators' quarters with an armful of harness and, rather than going straight to Iskierka, came up to Tharkay and Riley. "Captain Granby?" Tharkay said politely, when Granby simply stood and waited in an expectant attitude.

"We are to go flying, for a bit," Granby said.

"Yes," Tharkay replied, puzzled. "I trust you will pass the hour pleasantly."

"Oh." Granby looked down for a moment, then back up at Tharkay's face, his expression slightly hurt. "Will you not accompany us, then?"

Riley did laugh, then, and clapped Tharkay on the shoulder. "I'll detain you no longer, Mister Tharkay, since your company is sought elsewhere. Enjoy your flight."

Granby smiled at Tharkay, so sweetly that the hardened adventurer felt his heart skip a beat and roundly cursed his weakness to foolishly courageous aviators, and offered him one of the harnesses in his arms. "Would you come up on Iskierka, since you find yourself at liberty?"

"It seems I have no excuse not to," Tharkay said, glaring at Riley's back. Well, the point of the exercise had been to distract Laurence and cheer Granby a bit, and it seemed to be succeeding on both counts; well and good. "I thank you for your kind offer, Captain."

"You know," Granby said, with unconvincing airiness, "we are hardly in a military situation at present; you need not address me by my rank."

Tharkay ducked his head briefly to hide a smile he could not manage to contain. "I thank you, Mister Granby."

Granby's sunburnt cheeks acquired a slightly more pinkish tinge, but he said firmly nonetheless, "John."

Tharkay bit his lip and made no reply. As Granby was helping him climb up onto Iskierka's back, he glanced down and smiled decisively. "Thank you. John."

The pink tinge deepened and spread.

~*~

It was, Tharkay reflected, the sort of day on which any sane adventurer might desperately wish to escape into the rigging and avoid all future contact with his fellows. Captain Riley had had words with Purbeck concerning Laurence's quarters (whether they had been heated or glacial, Tharkay did not know, but having seen for himself the gaol cell Laurence was at that moment obliged to call his own, he could guess at their content), which was all to the good, except that Laurence had caught wind of it somehow, and had, with truly cutting correctness, requested that Riley not involve himself in Laurence's affairs or put himself out on his behalf. Riley had absented himself from the dragondeck before anything unforgivable could be said, thankfully, but it was an awkward scene for all present. Tharkay made himself scarce for the remainder of the morning in the hopes that matters would settle themselves, only to find, upon his return, Laurence in a brown study, Temeraire fidgeting at Laurence's inattention, Iskierka quarrelsome over Temeraire's short temper, and Granby already half-drunk. Tharkay did not venture to guess what Iskierka must have said to drive her captain headlong into a bottle of rum, but of late it did not seem to take very much.

"Laurence," Tharkay said, low-voiced. Laurence looked over at him, startled; Tharkay inclined his head in Granby's direction, and Laurence's expression immediately closed off. "Laurence, you must speak to him about it."

"I will do no such thing," Laurence said, equally quiet. "It is not my place."

Tharkay stared at him, somehow angry despite the fact that he had known perfectly well what to expect. It was not exactly Laurence's fault that he was crippled by his conception of proper etiquette, but it was still bloody inconvenient. "If that is what you believe, then you are quite correct," he said at last. "You will do me the favor of taking Temeraire for a swim." The children, thankfully, were long since vanished, frightened off by the ugly atmosphere on the deck; it was one concern fewer.

Laurence looked as though he would have liked to say something, but in the end he turned away without making the attempt. "Come, my dear, let us away," he murmured to Temeraire, who swung his head about to look from Laurence to Tharkay to Granby in confusion. With a little more gentle urging from Laurence, he consented to slip off the deck into the water, his captain securely fastened to the collar around his neck, and swim out of earshot, where he could ask all the awkward questions he liked: Tharkay hoped meanly that they made Laurence thoroughly uncomfortable.

Iskierka, who was sulking on the far side of the deck, made as if to speak; Tharkay fixed her with a coldly furious stare. "I will speak to you later," he said, very precisely; she registered something of his feelings and, miraculously, quieted rather than challenge the implicit threat.

Granby had been too deeply contemplating the bottom of his bottle to notice the quiet evacuation of the dragondeck from Tharkay's near-silent wrath, and only now looked up to notice that they were alone. "Oh, hello, Tharkay," he said, half-slurring the words together. He frowned with the careful concentration of a man aware of his own intoxication but not its degree, and sat up straighter. "Where's..." He waved a hand in the air vaguely; the gesture most immediately meant everyone, but Tharkay chose to interpret it as a request for the information most likely to interest Granby.

"Laurence has taken Temeraire for a swim."

"Oh."

Tharkay settled gracefully on the deck, near enough to Granby to reach out and touch but not so close that he was overtly intruding, and hesitated, trying to choose his words. He was ill-fitted to the task he had appointed himself, he thought savagely, and wished that Laurence were not so cursed polite that it should be necessary. He had never been obliged to tell a friend something unwelcome before; he had never really had a friend before, unless one counted Sara, which as a general rule Tharkay tried to avoid. What he had said to Laurence, in that tent back in England, had been prompted by such a sense of anger and horror that the words had simply come out of his mouth. The anger that had set him on his current task had all but vanished, seeing the pitiful figure Granby cut, but having flung himself into this company of headstrong aviators, there were obligations to be met. And so he began, "John." Then he stopped, for he was at a loss what else to say.

As Granby waited for Tharkay to finish his sentence, he turned his attention back to his drink, starting to lift it to his lips again, and Tharkay felt the prickling inspiration of ire start to burn again. "John, you must stop this. Trust me when I say that I have looked in enough to know that there are no solutions to be found in a bottle."

Granby let the hand holding the rum drop and glared at Tharkay with rising outrage. "I don't know what business is it of yours where I look for my solutions," he said icily. Coming from Granby, the snub was nearly unbearable.

"I beg your pardon, Captain," Tharkay snapped, "for my presumption to care for my friends. I shall not overstep again." He started to climb to his feet, more furious with himself than with Granby. He should have known better; he did know better. He had no notion why he had expected anything different from Granby.

"Wait. Tharkay, wait." Granby caught at his elbow before he could finish getting up, and when Tharkay looked down at him his mouth was set in a confused half-frown. "Are we friends?"

"You are mine," Tharkay said stiffly. "I could not venture to speak for you."

"Oh." Granby sat back, still holding Tharkay's arm, so that he had to stoop over a little awkwardly to keep from wrenching out of Granby's grasp. He could almost see thoughts passing across Granby's open, honest face, and forced himself not to say anything, not to think anything, until Granby suddenly smiled. It was like sunlight breaking through clouds, and Tharkay wanted to ram his head into a wall until he succeeded in driving all the poetry out. "All right," Granby said, hauling himself up, a little unsteadily, by his grip on Tharkay, and handed him the nearly-empty bottle of rum. Tharkay stared at it blankly, taken aback by his own success.

"Thank you," he said at last.

"You will have to be a little careful with me," Granby told him, with the sweet seriousness imparted by just enough alcohol to blunt self-consciousness. "When I'm struck the service, I will probably be very determined to get drunk, and I say things I don't mean when I am angry. But I promise I will try."

Tharkay bit his lip on the immediate reply that if they dared strike Granby from the service, the service did not deserve to have him; it was not anything that would comfort Granby, who for some inscrutable reason loved his king and country. Worrying about things like tact and the feelings of others was strange and new to Tharkay, but he was learning, and he said instead, "I know."

Captain Riley came out onto the deck a few minutes later, much to Tharkay's relief, and joined their conversation before he ran out of easy remarks; he was too accustomed to stabbing those around him with verbal needles to manage very long without cutting anyone, even himself. Riley had the same knack as Laurence of glossing over what he did not care to notice without making a point of the fact, and with Tharkay present to glare Iskierka into submission whenever she began to make some ill-considered comment (which she did several times), they passed a surprisingly pleasant hour. Laurence and Temeraire returned, which could have gone poorly for a moment as Laurence and Riley avoided looking at each other, both clearly contemplating excuses to be elsewhere, but Tharkay shot Laurence a very hard look, and apparently the guilt of leaving him to deal with Granby won out over his embarrassment, because he addressed Riley after all – very politely, but with a little warmth, and Tharkay could guess from Riley's demeanor that some invisible but significant social hurdle had been leapt.

Riley invited them all to dine with him that evening, and Tharkay smugly occupied himself with picturing the expression on Lord Purbeck's face when he discovered his prisoner, a half-disgraced aviator likely to be dismissed for mutiny, and an Oriental across the table from him. If Riley, passing by on his way to his cabin, murmured, "Thank you, nursemaid," in his ear, in his current attitude of comfortable self-satisfaction Tharkay was willing to overlook it.

~*~

The storm that overtook the Allegiance a few weeks into their voyage was not unexpected – the sailors had been preparing for it all day – but with such a shortage of crew and two heavyweight dragons to secure, it was perhaps not surprising that no one noticed for several hours that Tharkay was neither on the deck with Iskierka and Granby or Laurence and Temeraire nor within the aviators' cabin with the children. As soon as Emily Roland had pointed this out, more with innocent curiosity than any real concern, however, Laurence immediately struggled his way across the deck to Granby to check if he had any notion of their companion's whereabouts, determinedly refusing to consider how easily a man might be tossed overboard in such rough weather, or whether he had ever heard Tharkay mention an ability to swim.

Granby, once the question was shouted loud enough to be heard over the storm, went white and shook his head. "I will send Roland to check his cabin," Laurence called reassuringly, fighting off an encroaching sense of panic, and returned to Temeraire's sheltering wings to do just that. Temeraire required more in the way of persuasion than Granby, and Laurence was still striving to convince him not to break loose from the chains securing him to the ship in order to search for Tharkay in the water when Emily returned, her brow wrinkled in confusion.

"I think he is in his cabin," she said. Temeraire settled a little, but Laurence's sense of anxiety did not abate.

"You think?" he demanded.

"He wouldn't let me in, sir, when I knocked, and he only groaned when I said you wanted him, but there's someone in there and it sounded like Mister Tharkay. Or maybe a man dying of a stab wound," she added, frowning a little. "Come to think of it, that is what that groan sounded like. Perhaps Mister Tharkay has stabbed someone?"

Laurence sent her back into the aviators' quarters, grimly concealing his concern for her and Temeraire's benefit. Tharkay had not made himself popular with the sailors, and his foreign appearance labeled him a target even to people who had never spoken to him; in the chaos surrounding the oncoming storm, it would have been very easy for someone to slip away and break into Tharkay's quarters; Emily's faith in Tharkay's ability to defend himself was touching but not necessarily based on reality. "Can you manage without me a moment, my dear?"

"Yes, certainly," Temeraire said, "only, you will not be gone long, will you?"

"I will return as quickly as I may," Laurence said, stroking Temeraire's nose briefly. "Please, do not worry. I have been in many rougher storms than this."

"I am not worried," Temeraire lied. "But you will be careful, won't you? If you fell overboard, I am sure I could come and pick you out of the water, but if I cannot see you it would be more difficult."

"I shall endeavor not to fall overboard," Laurence said.

He made his way with great care to the far side of the dragondeck, where it connected to the rest of the ship, aware of Temeraire's anxious gaze, but was surprised upon reaching it to find Granby waiting for him just inside. "He is my friend as well," Granby said shortly, and made no other explanation.

Tharkay's door was, as Roland had reported, bolted shut; there was no response to Laurence's knock. "Tharkay?" he asked. "Are you injured?"

"Please leave," was the only response, too distorted by the door to be recognizably Tharkay, but certainly the same voice Emily had heard.

"Tharkay, open this door," Granby ordered.

"Just go away!" the voice shouted.

Laurence and Granby exchanged alarmed looks, and Granby immediately launched his lanky frame at the door; it rattled but held fast. Laurence, the stockier of the two, braced himself and did the same, to which assault the doorbolt reluctantly gave way, and the two aviators burst into the room, prepared for a scene of carnage but not the setting which presented itself.

Tharkay was huddled on the deck of his cabin clutching a basin, his normally dark skin so sallow that it was nearly green. "What part of 'go away' was too difficult to parse?" he demanded hoarsely, and then ruined the effect of his irritation by retching helplessly into the bowl.

"Oh, dear," Laurence said, embarrassed, and cast about for an escape route. Granby shot him an incredulous glance, which stiffened his spine a bit. "Can we help at all?"

"Just leave me to die in peace," Tharkay moaned.

"Don't be ridiculous, you aren't dying," Granby informed him, alarmingly tender, and settled on the floor beside him to rub soothing circles on his back.

"Dear God in Heaven, I wish I were," Tharkay said, and gagged a little.

"Yes, but only think how glad you will be to survive once the storm is over. Laurence, would you fetch that flask of water by the writing-desk?"

Laurence, still hovering awkwardly in the doorway, obeyed with alacrity. Granby took the water from him with an absent-minded smile, most of his attention on Tharkay: "And a handkerchief, if you have such a thing, thank you. Tharkay, rinse your mouth out," he added briskly, and taking the flask back from Tharkay when he was finished, wet Laurence's handkerchief and wiped Tharkay's face for him, with the gentle efficiency of a mother or a nursemaid. Laurence, despite being very much out of his element, was beginning to feel rather ashamed.

"Is there anything I can do?" he asked.

"Hmm?" Granby looked up from the object of his ministrations, startled. "I'm sure you would know better than I – did they teach you nothing to deal with seasickness in the Navy? I helped my mother with my brothers, when they were ill with influenza, but that's little help here."

"Well – a bit of biscuit, or hard-tack," Laurence said, remembering his own first sea-voyage, and another ensign who had been miserably ill for the first month.

"Then perhaps you might go and fetch some," Granby suggested. "Or – no, send Roland, I think; Temeraire will want you. If you would look in on Iskierka – " Tharkay made a choked, wet noise, and Granby's thoughts were visibly diverted. "Go, go," he said, waving at Laurence. "There, don't fight it; I promise you'll feel much improved once there's nothing left to come up."

"Don't pander to me, you wretched liar," Tharkay spat viciously, and retched again. Laurence, his desires now given the sanction of duty, fled the scene.

Upon regaining the deck, he immediately dispatched Roland to find some hard-tack for Tharkay, but in the vast disarray caused by the storm he had no great expectations of her speed in completing her errand. Fortunately the worst of the tempest had passed already, and by the time he had succeeded in convincing Iskierka that Granby was perfectly fine and there was no need for her to tear up the planking beneath her to go looking for him – no easy task - the wind and rain had almost completely died down.

"Temeraire, will you mind terribly if I desert you again?" he asked apologetically. "Tharkay is quite ill, you see, and I do not like to leave him with only Granby to look after him." His own complete incapability in the face of Tharkay's malady conveniently slipped his memory.

"You did not say Tharkay was ill!" Temeraire said. "Of course you must go at once; if you had only explained I am sure I could have spared you sooner. Although perhaps someone might have detained you anyway," he added, giving Iskierka a resentful stare.

"If Tharkay needs you then of course you should go," Iskierka said, unperturbed. "And make him better quickly, so my Granby can come back."

Laurence left the dragons to continue their snide exchange of words and made his way to Tharkay's cabin, where he found Granby and Tharkay in much the same position as he had left them. "Are you – feeling any better?" he asked awkwardly.

"No," Tharkay replied, and hunched over abruptly to choke up a mouthful of bile. Granby calmly tucked his hair back behind his ears.

"Captain Laurence, sir," Emily Roland said from behind him. "I brought the hard-tack, like you asked, and I picked out all the weevils for Mister Tharkay."

"Oh God," Tharkay moaned. "Please never mention food to me again. Or weevils."

"Whatever you like," Granby said agreeably. "Laurence says you will feel better if you eat a bit. Yes, thank you, Roland, you may go back up to Temeraire now," he added, gesturing for her to hand him the hard-tack.

"Why will you never do as I ask you?" Tharkay demanded crossly. "I do not want a nursemaid! I want to be left in peace!"

"There's no need to be dramatic," Granby replied, not at all disconcerted by Tharkay's bad temper. "Here, try a bite."

"What the devil is going on?" Riley inquired, striding up to Laurence's side. He surveyed the scene before him, and nodded wisely. "Sea-sick, is he? From what young Roland said, I thought he must be dying of the typhus or some such, to drag you both away from the dragons. Buck up, Tharkay," he added cheerfully; "this too shall pass."

"If I could stand," Tharkay informed him, "I would hit you, sir."

"I shall consider myself badly stricken," Riley said. "Eat that hard-tack Granby is giving you; you really will feel much better. It might do you a bit of good to be coddled instead of doing the coddling for a while."

"Perhaps I was too lenient," Tharkay mused murderously, in between reluctant bites. "Perhaps I should shoot you."

"Just as soon as you can hold the pistol, nursemaid," Riley agreed, and departed, clapping Laurence on the shoulder as he went.

"Come in or go with Riley, but cease hovering in the doorway," Tharkay said irritably. His temperament was clearly adversely affected by his indisposition; it could do no harm to humor him. Laurence obligingly sat down opposite Granby.

"There, there," he hazarded, patting Tharkay on the shoulder.

"I should shoot you all," Tharkay muttered. "Sanctimonious patronizing British imperialists. I should shoot you and feed your mangled remains to my bird."

"Of course," Granby said, and smiled at Laurence. After a moment's hesitation, he smiled in return.

~*~

Tharkay was not best pleased with his current plan of action, but at least all his preparations had been executed to perfection. Temeraire was barely visible in the distance but well out of earshot, engaged in catching his breakfast. Laurence would remain in his quarters until luncheon or Temeraire's return, either of which was at least an hour distant. The other aviators were preparing their personal gear for an inspection which Tharkay had hinted Laurence might see fit to stage later in the day. Riley had obligingly agreed to distract Granby for as long as Tharkay might require, although he had not specified his methods; Tharkay suspected he had somehow goaded Granby into attempting to learn to play chess. In short, the dragon-deck was empty save for Tharkay and Iskierka's steaming coils, which had spread to cover considerably more than her fair share of the deck while she was napping.

"Oh, it's you," she said disagreeably, raising one eyelid but not otherwise stirring from her recumbent posture, when Tharkay coughed to catch her attention. "Where is my Granby?"

"Granby is not here at present," Tharkay said. "I would like to speak with you."

"Well, I would not like to speak with you. Why is my Granby not here?"

"He is not available. Through happy coincidence, that is the very topic which I intend to discuss with you. Dare I hope to entertain your undivided attention for the next quarter of the glass?"

"If you wish to talk about Granby, I suppose I will listen," Iskierka sniffed. "But it is certainly not because I am at all interested in anything you have to say."

"Most gracious of you, I'm sure," Tharkay said, voice dry as dust. "Since it appears that you do listen to what you are told when it concerns Captain Granby, might I inquire if you recall what the consequence was to be if you disobeyed orders again?"

Iskierka exhaled furious clouds of steam, but Granby stood his ground, and eventually she dropped her gaze. "Wellesley said my Granby would be taken from me," she muttered. "But Granby would never leave me!"

"It would not be Granby's choice," Tharkey cracked out. "I am certain you are correct that he would never leave you of his own volition, but he is a British soldier and he will do his duty. You will have no one to blame but yourself if he is ordered to serve elsewhere, and it will break his heart."

"As though you were ever one to obey an order," Iskierka snapped, with surprisingly perceptive venom.

"I have never made Granby unhappy," Tharkay hissed, thoroughly aware that he was making himself ridiculous by fighting with a dragon over Captain Granby, of all things, but unable to stop himself. "I have never driven him to drink. And I will not be the reason that he is stripped of his rank and dragon and sent off in disgrace to some benighted corner of the earth where none of his friends will ever see him again!"

Iskierka drew herself up to argue, and then abruptly deflated. "Would they really send him away?" she asked, in a very small voice.

Tharkay sighed. "I don't know. It seems probable, if they do not simply strike him from the service and have done with it. There's nothing to be done for it now, but if you will try to be more obedient, it can only help. At the very least, it might make the present situation easier for Granby to bear."

"If it will make Granby happier, I will be the most obedient dragon imaginable," said Iskierka, with touching if clearly delusional determination.

"I shall supervise your efforts," Tharkay said. "Someone had better."

~*~

Laurence was just emerging from his quarters as Riley allowed Granby to escape his cabin, having thoroughly thrashed him at chess. Tharkay, who was sitting quietly by Iskierka on the deck, glanced up to meet Riley's eyes and nodded, so that was hopefully settled for the time being. Granby made an immediate beeline towards his dragon, and Riley, seeing that his company would not be required, meandered over to join Laurence at the railing, where he was watching Temeraire in the distance.

"Fine weather for flying," Riley noted.

"Or swimming," Laurence agreed.

"I trust you passed a restful night?"

"Yes, of course." Laurence paused, then added awkwardly, "My new quarters are very comfortable. Thank you."

"I'm glad," Riley said, and turned away to look in the other direction, before he could be tempted to sneak a glance at Laurence's face. Fortunately he was quickly distracted by the sight of Iskierka attempting to demonstrate her newfound agreeableness to Granby, who appeared more confused than anything else. Tharkay swiftly glared her into submission.

Laurence turned, startled by Riley's snort of laughter. "Tom, what on earth..."

Riley leaned in to murmur in his ear, "They remind me of a spoilt little girl and her strict new stepmother: complete with oblivious and adoring papa. I wonder which of them will prevail in this battle of wills."

Laurence blinked, and stared at the ill-assorted trio for a moment. "I'd lay odds on Tharkay," he said at last.

It was Riley's turn to stare.

~*~

In the last few days before the Allegiance arrived at Gibraltar, Laurence noticed that Granby was growing progressively quieter and whiter around the mouth; Laurence was grateful that at least whatever Tharkay had said to him on that sunny afternoon, after he had banished all bystanders from the deck, was enough to restrain him from retreating back into a bottle. If Laurence were honest with himself, he might admit that Tharkay's narrow-eyed, continual surveillance of both Granby's movements and Iskierka's self-centered conversation probably played a significant part as well, although he could not approve of Tharkay's continuing interference.

When they were still a day's journey out of port, Temeraire looked up at the cloudless blue sky and remarked brightly, "I think there is a dragon coming from the shore! Laurence, do you suppose it will be James and Volatilus, or Hollin?"

Granby hunched his shoulders in visible misery. "I do not know, my dear," Laurence said. "We shall see when they arrive."

"We could fly out and meet them," Temeraire suggested. He was permitted to fly and swim as much as he liked, but Laurence suspected his dragon was already bored of the limited company and reading material available aboard the ship; Laurence had no notion how they would make it all the way to Terra Australis without his either doing something truly mad to relieve the tedium, or discovering a new mathematical theorem: possibly both.

"I do not think that would be appropriate," he replied carefully. Temeraire, disappointed, began to speculate on the probable purpose of the thus-far unknown dragon, to Granby's clear discomfort. "My dear, would you not rather I read to you from the Principia Mathematica, instead of discussing this?" Laurence asked, only a little desperately.

"But we have already finished it again," Temeraire pointed out. "Two days ago."

"Ah, yes, so we did," Laurence agreed, when inspiration struck: "But, you see, Temeraire, I am afraid that I did not quite understand some of the more complicated concepts. Perhaps you would help explain them to me?"

"But it is all perfectly simple!" Temeraire protested. "Of course I will be happy to help you, Laurence, if there is anything that is confusing you, only I cannot think what it could be."

"If we could start in the first chapter," Laurence said. Tharkay gave him a small, approving nod, and Temeraire was successfully distracted until the Winchester in the distance - not one with whom he and Temeraire were acquainted, for which Laurence was rather grateful, under the circumstances - was directly overhead, and required that both Temeraire and Iskierka shift a bit, in order to make room for her to land.

The ensuing commotion even drew Riley out of his cabin to watch with barely veiled curiosity as the contents of the dispatch captain's packet were distributed around: several letters for Laurence, though none official, more for his crew, a parcel for Emily Roland as well, and at last the dispatches from the Admiralty, one for Granby and one, strangely, for Tharkay.

It hung forgotten in Tharkay's hand as Granby read over his orders, silent and grim. When he said nothing, Tharkay leaned over his shoulder with abject unconcern for his privacy and scanned the letter for himself. A few moments later, he let out a bark of laughter. "Trust Roland," he said, shaking his head, and opened his own letter, still smiling.

"I am... demoted," Granby said blankly. "To lieutenant. But I have not been reassigned."

"Congratulations, Lieutenant," Riley offered, and clapped him on the shoulder. "Shall I host a dinner to celebrate?"

"So you will not be taken away from me?" Iskierka asked anxiously, having apparently worked out for herself the real significance of Granby's orders.

"No, dearest," Granby replied, and then let out an undignified yelp as she wrapped her tail around him and squeezed. "Darling, please, I can't breathe!"

"I would never have let you go, anyway," she said defiantly, but she did loosen her coils.

"But," Temeraire said slowly, "if Granby is a lieutenant now, who is Iskierka's captain?"

"Granby will always be my captain," Iskierka snapped.

"Oh, no," Tharkay said, laughing again as he waved his own dispatch, "no, you see, Admiral Roland is by far the cleverest woman I have ever had the misfortune to meet, and she is much too clever for you. I have been recommissioned."

"Did she really - " Granby asked, wide-eyed.

"Guess my assignment."

"That woman is a genius," Riley murmured admiringly.

"Captain Tharkay, of Iskierka," Granby mused. "It's almost poetic."

"You are not my captain," Iskierka exclaimed. "I don't even like you! I shall certainly not obey you."

"Dearest, you promised me you would follow orders," Granby said, frowning.

"And if you do not, I shall not at all mind reassigning Granby to serve aboard Temeraire," Tharkay added mildly. "I have no particular need or desire to keep you, if you will not do as you are told."

"I should be very happy to have you back, Granby," Temeraire offered eagerly.

"Granby!" Iskierka protested. "Tell them you will not leave me!"

"He is my superior officer now," Granby said apologetically. "Iskierka, I must obey him, you know."

Iskierka huffed, and glared at Tharkay; he glared back, unintimidated. "Well, I will obey if you tell me to, Granby," she said at last.

"That will be perfectly satisfactory, thank you," Tharkay said. She hissed at him; he smirked, just the tiniest bit, and turned away.

"Well, I shall go tell Cook to expect guests for supper," Riley announced. "Congratulations again, John. I'll be sure to bring out my best brandy."

Granby shot a quick, nervous look at Tharkay. "Indeed, a toast is very much in order," the new captain agreed, nodding, and Granby relaxed.

Bemused, Laurence settled beside Temeraire and picked up the Principia Mathematica once more, watching as normality swiftly returned to the deck: Riley retreated from the aviators' part of the ship, the crew dispersed, and Tharkay and Iskierka began bickering, while Granby vainly attempted to mediate. It was an unconventional arrangement, perhaps, but if Temeraire had taught him anything it was that convention was not always right. Laurence suspected that Jane's solution would work quite well.

"Laurence," Granby said impatiently, still trapped within Iskierka's coils, and Laurence realized that he had called his name more than once. "Some assistance, pray?"

"Of course," Laurence said, startled, and went to help.

~*~

"Does it never bother you?" Riley asked suddenly. Tharkay looked at him sidelong, puzzled. It had been a long, long voyage to Terra Australis, and now, so close to the end, Tharkay's ability to understand the workings of the minds of cryptic Englishmen was much improved; but this was obscure, even by that standard. He followed the line of Riley's gaze, but no clarification was forthcoming: Granby and Laurence were swimming with Temeraire and Iskierka, as they did nearly every day that the weather was fine. Tharkay thought he might join them soon.

"Beg pardon?" he said at last, when Riley showed no inclination to illuminate him.

"That you will always be the odd one out, does it never bother you?"

Ah. Harcourt. "I do not know that my situation is exactly comparable," Tharkay said cautiously; Riley's expression closed off, and he gave up. "No, not especially," he sighed. "Perhaps I am constitutionally suited for nursemaiding after all, but no, it doesn't bother me. I think, in some situations, finishing second is infinitely preferable to refusing to compete at all." He clapped Riley on the shoulder with a faint smile, and went to join their friends.