i.It was far better than it might have been, after all. Captain Riley allowed him to spend as much time on the dragondeck as he wished, even sleeping sometimes in the curve of Temeraire’s foreleg, for which he was grateful; if Riley’s manner continued a fraction stiff and uncertain otherwise, modulating sharply depending on who was in earshot, that was no more than might be expected under the circumstances. The three hatchling captains gave him rather a wide berth, as an unpredictable and possibly contagious kind of creature. Among the hundreds of men and prisoners on the Allegiance, it was only Granby, Tharkay and his own small crew – and the dragons, of course – who treated him with any degree of ease. By all rights Laurence should have been seeking them out, but though he was always happy to be reading or conversing with Temeraire, he found he had little taste for company otherwise; he was certain that all of them must see him as he felt, a textbook anatomy with all his nerves stripped bare.Thus he stood alone by the rail with the Atlantic gliding away dark beneath, while Granby and Tharkay played cards in a corner of the dragondeck beneath a lamp that swayed gently with the ship’s movement. Laurence knew, guiltily, that they were there partly out of consideration for him – if invited to one of their cabins, he would have felt obligated to reciprocate when his own quarters were manifestly unfit – but he had a strange reluctance to join them. It was as though he was watching from a great distance, an exile seeing a painting of his familiar home.
Though he would not be seen to be brooding, or in any way repining of his fate: he knew he had been far more fortunate than he deserved. Indeed, there was little objectively to repine of, for had he not spent the most of his life on shipboard or in foreign parts, as distant from England as he was now? As for any disgrace, he had brought that upon himself: there was no use saying he had had no choice.
‘Come, Laurence,’ Granby called, ‘will you not join us?’
‘Pardon me; I must see to Temeraire,’ he answered quickly, composing his face before he passed into the circle of light.
‘He is gorged with his supper and fast asleep, and Iskierka with him,’ said Granby, who was expertly shuffling the cards. ‘Surely we must not neglect such a chance at a peaceful evening.’
He had no other excuse: no business, in his present situation, other than his dragon to attend to. And surely he was not now such a coward as to avoid the two men who had seen him at his nadir of conscience, and each in his own way tried to wrest him from it. With his best attempt at a smile, Laurence pulled up a crate and allowed them to deal him in.
All this time, Tharkay had not yet spoken, dark eyes watching Laurence closely in the lamp-light. Returning the gaze, Laurence felt himself flushing and hoped that it might be attributed to the heat: the ship sailed close to the equator, and it was all they could do to sit out of Iskierka’s cloud of steam.
‘Why, you are warm, Laurence,’ Granby said solicitously. ‘There is no need to stand on ceremony.’ They were both of them in shirtsleeves, they cravats untied; Laurence would have looked a terrible prig not to join them, as bad as when he had first blundered his way through the manners of the Corps.
‘Forgive me, gentlemen,’ he said, doffing his coat. ‘I do not know why I am in such an ill humour tonight.’
Granby’s expression softened and he leaned over to pour a glass of wine from the bottle. ‘Never mind; you shall soon be cured of it, I’m sure.’
And indeed it was pleasant company to pass an evening in, with wine flowing free and conversation easy, and no competitiveness in the game; and through it all the well-known shipboard sounds and sense of motion, not caring for the moment whither or hence.
Laurence threw himself into the discourse, determined on no account to be made allowances for, though they needed no aid from him: at some point where he had not remarked it, Granby and Tharkay had formed a rapport and perhaps a real friendship, and he could not but be glad for it.
‘Well,’ Granby said at last, covering a yawn, ‘now I fear I must leave you, or I shall never be rested enough for Iskierka tomorrow. She is a dear love, but, in faith, she leaves little of me to spare.’
‘Then I shall also—’ Laurence began, moving to rise.
‘No, by no means, I would not have you away on my account…’
‘Do stay, Laurence,’ Tharkay said quietly, and Laurence was startled to realise that, despite the general flow of conversation, these were perhaps the first words the other man had directly addressed to him all night.
‘Certainly,’ he murmured, and busied himself with pouring out the dregs of the wine as Granby retired. He resisted the urge to down his own glass at once – he had drunk enough already, and had never been a proponent of Dutch courage. ‘Indeed, I have wished to speak to you.’
Tharkay gave one of his sharp, slanted smiles. ‘I confess you left me with rather the opposite impression,’ he said, and Laurence was uncomfortably aware that his own behaviour might have been interpreted as fleeing every time that Tharkay came on deck.
He was unable to offer an explanation for it that would not have sounded garbled and hopelessly childish, so groping for a sociable topic, he asked, ‘What do you mean to do, when we have reached Australia?’
To his surprise Tharkay laughed, soft but rather brittle. ‘Why I have no conception; less even than you do. I daresay something will come along, but the compulsion that saw me aboard this ship did not see fit to provide me with an itinerary. I follow its path with no compass whatsoever.’
‘And yet you told me once,’ Laurence said, his heart beating hard in his chest at broaching the subject, ‘that you preferred to keep your choice unconstrained by any authority but your own conscience.’ It had seemed to him then the epitome of isolation; now, left with no ties but to his dragon and his tarnished honour, the freedom of it threatened to choke him.
‘I said that I would leave the choice to myself,’ Tharkay answered. ‘I did not claim that it was always unconstrained, or guided by no factor but reason.’
Laurence frowned, trying to force his sluggish wits into operation: it was an oddly intense way to speak of wanderlust, but he could not fathom what other emotion Tharkay might mean.
‘I hope it may bring you joy,’ he said awkwardly, ‘or in any case, that you may not find cause to regret it.’
‘I hope so too,’ Tharkay said, low, holding his gaze. He paused – seemed about to go on – lifted his hand in an abortive movement. It was his left hand, dotted with the old white scars where his eagle had bitten him. Laurence found himself captivated by it, obscurely disappointed when it paused, and Tharkay shook his head and ran it through his hair: an uncharacteristically revelatory gesture. ‘Laurence, I see you are determined to remain ignorant, and there is that within me, call it conscience or scruple or what you will, that forbids me to be plainer. I must bid you good night.’
‘I have not offended you?’ Laurence asked, mystified.
Tharkay’s face relaxed a trifle, lines easing around his eyes and mouth. ‘No, indeed, you have not. I find I must be grateful to you, for preventing me from offending you.’ He was tidying away the bottle and the cards and rising: not rushing, but with the unmistakable air of retreat. ‘Good night, Laurence,’ he repeated. ‘There is a long voyage before us.’
‘And many more such evenings, I trust,’ offered Laurence.
Tharkay’s eyes creased into a smile, somehow self-mocking. ‘I daresay I shall find some way to bear it,’ he said lightly, turning away.
Their journey proved uneventful, and by the third month of it both dragons had grown sorely restive, quarrelling with each other and with their captains. At last Captain Riley was forced to the desperate measure of taking a census of books among the passengers, in hope of keeping at least Temeraire entertained. It yielded, for the most part, nothing but Bibles and volumes of sermons, at which Temeraire evinced an alarming tendency for awkward questions, but one Mrs. Smythe – travelling alone, and rumoured to be an adventuress – had produced not a negligible collection of fashionable novels published by the Minerva Press, which proved more successful.
Even Iskierka, who claimed to disdain silly books, consented to listen while Laurence – as embarrassed by this development as glad to have the dragons calm – read aloud on the dragondeck. The former condition was only enhanced by the growing crowd that gathered around him. Though the crewmen at least pretended to a useful occupation, and Tharkay kept busy with some complicated bit of handy-work, Granby sprawled by Iskierka’s side with unashamed attention.
‘But I do not understand,’ Temeraire protested, as Laurence neared the conclusion of another story. ‘If the heroine has truly loved him all along, why did she insist on checking and teasing him so?’
‘Why, she is a lady of fashion,’ Granby said, laughing, and patting his dragon’s foreleg. ‘There is no telling what such a one might do.’
‘It is because she loved him,’ Tharkay volunteered suddenly, ‘that she would urge him to do nothing unworthy of his character. She knew it would only grieve him in the end, and that she would find difficult to stand.’
‘Oh come,’ said Granby, ‘I do not credit that chit Isabella with such noble reflections as that.’
‘No doubt you are right,’ Tharkay said, without lifting his head. Laurence watched him as he methodically punched holes in a bit of leather, his own mind gone strangely blank.
‘Will you not read further?’ Temeraire inquired. ‘It will have a happy ending, will it not?’
‘I am sure it will, my dear,’ he said, turning back to the book.
Rounding the Horn – as they had to do, now that the Cape of Good Hope was closed to them – they had all they wished and more of excitement: caught in a storm in the furious fifties, with waves high enough to threaten even the massive Allegiance and winds whipping snow and rain into their faces.
‘You must allow yourself to be tied down, Temeraire,’ Laurence urged him, shouting over the force of the wind.
Temeraire eyed the cables with suspicion – though a pass of his claw could sever them (as Laurence made him promise to do, were the Allegiance in serious danger of foundering), they were solid enough to hold him even with the deck pitched nearly vertical. ‘I do not see why I might not fly above it, and rejoin you later.’
‘These winds will be too much even for you, my dear,’ Laurence answered, thankful at least that Temeraire had not offered to roar the waves down. ‘And see, Iskierka has consented.’ Though she had complained all the way, claiming that the storm was a mere shower and she was by no means afraid, this proved to be the deciding argument. Laurence helped Roland and Dyer loop the cables around Temeraire’s bulk; the rain was blinding enough that they were nearly finished before he noticed that Tharkay was also on deck, shrouded in an oilskin and lending Roland a hand.
A sudden wave, out of the rhythm of the storm and taller than the rest, hit the ship nearly head-on. The deck pitched steeply; blinking freezing rain out of his eyes, Laurence watched with horror as Emily Roland tried to cling to a rope: her frozen hands would not grip, and the next heave of the deck was enough to throw her against the rail and nearly over it.
She did not fall: Tharkay grabbed on to the back of her jacket and hauled her bodily backward, until she could clap on to the cable extending down Temeraire’s side. But he had to let go of his own rope to do it, and the next tall wave was nearly upon them: Laurence, already scrambling along the deck, knew that it would be enough to wash Tharkay over the side.
‘You must not move, Temeraire,’ he somehow found breath to shout: the dragon was craning his neck trying to take account of his crew, but if he shifted to hold Tharkay, he was sure to dislodge Roland again, and the wall of water was cresting over them.
The next few seconds passed with nightmare slowness, though Laurence was never afterward able to recall them distinctly: the next he knew, he was sprawled on the deck clutching Tharkay around the chest, both of them drenched with sea-water, the knot of the rope he had hastily managed to tie biting hard into his own belly.
‘Are you all right, both of you?’ Granby was shouting from somewhere above them: Laurence looked up to find his face ashen through the pelting rain.
‘Yes,’ he managed, letting go once he was certain they were both secure and pushing himself up to his knees. Beside him Tharkay was coughing but clearly alive; and Roland was unharmed, clinging to her cable.
‘Get below, for God’s sake, you can do no more here,’ Granby ordered them, helping them up. ‘I cannot leave Iskierka—’ for she insisted on having him beside her, telling her in a soothing yell that she was on no account to breathe fire, though she complained that the water was very cold.
Laurence cut his way free of the sodden and tangled rope, and having assured Temeraire that they were not hurt in the least, he and Tharkay together managed to stumble down to Tharkay’s cabin, hearing the dragon’s deep voice expostulating behind them before it was muffled by the deck: ‘See, I am not like some who must have their captains always by them in bad weather. I shall do very well…’
Tharkay lit a storm-lantern, hung his oilskin over the door and sat down heavily, pulling at his wet boots. ‘I am much obliged to you,’ he said, not quite meeting Laurence’s eyes, but with all evident sincerity. ‘I have never longed to be drowned off of Tierra del Fuego. Will you not sit? I have a spare set of clothes I can offer you.’
Laurence hardly knew how to answer, still inwardly shaken: of course he would not have left either Tharkay or Emily to drown, and Tharkay had not been required to risk his life helping them; there could be no talk of obligation. He accepted the proposition, however, out of the ordinary as it was: in truth, he had no desire to stumble down to his damp and frozen cell of a cabin, exposed to the cries and stench of the prisoners below; and he was already shivering with cold.
He was built broader than Tharkay and the borrowed shirt did not button, but with a blanket over his shoulders and a glass of brandy in hand he felt far more comfortable, his heartbeat slowing to a more accustomed rate. The storm, too, seemed to have eased, so that they were no longer stumbling against each other with the rolling of the ship: perhaps the Allegiance had by now safely rounded the perilous Horn. He was quite content to leave its handling to Riley and his lieutenants: the time when such things were his concern was long behind him, buried with all the rest of what his life had once been.
Having drunk his own brandy, Tharkay was changing on the other side of the small cabin with brisk, economical movements, just as though he was not being observed. Laurence felt his numbed face heat further, realising that he was observing him: Tharkay’s body was lean but hard with muscle, and there would be a bruise over his ribs where he had struck the railing, but mercifully no more lasting harm.
The shirt he put on was worn thin, clinging to his damp skin and soaking through where his hair dripped on it; he reached around Laurence to take another blanket from the bed so that they might both wrap up like gypsies, and Laurence breathed in sharply at the stunning rush of revelation.
It could be nothing else but desire, protective under the circumstances but unmistakably carnal: too strong to be equivocated except through the most blatant self-deceit, and surely he had come too far to deceive himself now. His perspective was changed utterly – as in the moment when he had first looked at Jane Roland and seen her as both a fellow officer and a woman he was drawn to. Though even with his sensibilities so much more readily outraged then, it had been infinitely easier to accept such a change with Jane. He had had only to respond willingly to the open offer she almost immediately made him, and their relations had been founded on quick friendship and fellow-feeling, no more complicated emotion.
A great many of those complications were now becoming clearer to him: he could still scarcely credit it – it seemed terrible arrogance to attribute such motivations to another – but some of Tharkay’s mysteriousness of action did resolve once the correct lens was applied.
He was certain Tharkay would at once perceive all that he was thinking – could not imagine concealing feelings half so strong for such a time, unless through immeasurable discipline and hopelessness of return. Abruptly he remembered the other’s low, hoarse voice in a garden in Istanbul, saying I will not ask again.
What it must have cost such a man, after the enforced philosophy he had first explained to Laurence that same night, to ask even once – to take passage for an unknown continent, and drop even such oblique hints as he had done on the voyage… It was courage Laurence could hardly fathom, or judge himself worthy of.
He ought to take time, he knew, to truly consider the implications of it and what his own response might reasonably be; but having been given so much time already and being so reluctant to cause any further pain; and moreover being himself so moved by realisation and the shock of danger just past, it was hard to refrain from any immediate action, however foolhardy.
‘Are you quite well, Laurence?’ Tharkay asked; and perhaps it was not so obvious as that, for there was no hint of consciousness in his voice. ‘I hope you shall not pay with your health for your heroic actions, deeply appreciated as they are.’ The side of his mouth tilted upward slightly. ‘You have a bit of rope or seaweed, here—’ and he reached out his hand toward Laurence’s hair, only to have it caught midway. ‘I beg your—’ Tharkay began, before his voice died away in the most complete astonishment, as Laurence raised the captured hand to his lips and kissed it, just over one of the old white scars.
They looked at each other for a long moment in silence, Laurence doing his best to meet the assessment honestly, Tharkay’s hand still held to his cheek. It was warm against his still-chilled skin, calluses catching on the beginnings of beard; and his eyes were sliding shut even before Tharkay made a sound deep in his throat and leaded forward to kiss him, mouth hot and eager and demanding, though no more than Laurence found himself willing to give.
‘But I am all at sea,’ he confessed, a short while later; they were entwined upon the bed together, the warmth and nearness almost unbearably sweet.
Tharkay raised himself up on one arm, visibly trying to school his expression to his usual composure. His drying hair was mussed still further, lips bruised and face suffused with colour. ‘If you have any reservation— ’
‘None; none that signify,’ Laurence assured him, discovering in that moment that it was true, ‘but how I am to properly repay your regard and your patience.’ He hoped that Tharkay might not cavil at the notion of repayment; for with the hard thigh lying over his, he could scarcely think to join two words together. ‘I fear I have been lacking a great deal in penetration…’
He broke off, flushing, as Tharkay’s dark brows rose disbelievingly. ‘I shall forgive it,’ he pronounced at last, ‘for I know you are not in the habit of making such remarks, Laurence; but as for ignorance, really, it is too much to credit.’
The point might have been argued; but as Tharkay then bent to kiss him again, as soul-stirringly as before, Laurence could only be grateful for his forbearance.