“Half a point south and half a mile ahead, do you see them?” called Tharkay to Arkady. “A small group of men and dragons. Stop there, if you please; I wish to confirm our direction.”
“But what if I don’t please?” grumbled Arkady. “Why must we always be stopping for directions? I thought you knew this route; isn't that why they sent you?”
Tharkay glared at the back of the dragon’s head. “I've never gone this way dragonback before. I beg pardon if it is not all perfectly familiar to me from the air.”
“But didn't we just stop only five minutes ago?”
He counted silently in his head. “Two hours ago, yes–”
“It’s just that climbing out of these mountain valleys is difficult and tiring, unless there’s a nice thermal updraught to ride, which there isn’t here,” complained Arkady.
Tharkay took a deep breath. “If you'd rather waste your energy and time zig zagging our way through Asia–”
“I would. Or wait for a nice thermal. That last spot worked nicely.”
He blew out his breath and settled in for a long cold ride. “FINE. I think we're a little south for Peking. Head a point north, will you?”
They were still too far south for Peking; however, that turned out to be fortunate, as they discovered the army on the move south from the capital, Laurence and the other English aviators among them. Tharkay found Laurence’s tent in the large encampment without much difficulty. It had all the hallmarks of the commanding English-cum-Chinese Captain’s camp quarters. Its inhabiter was not present, so Tharkay made himself comfortable for the wait, leaning back in a chair with his feet, still in their boots, up on a table. Bless the Chinese and their notions of an officer’s proper travelling style. He loosened his uniform jacket, already warming up from the bitter chill of the flight.
When Laurence entered he came to an abrupt halt upon noticing Tharkay, no doubt shocked and surprised to see him.
Tharkay felt a smile grow unbidden upon seeing his old friend. “Laurence! You are a welcome si–”
Laurence interrupted, frowning. “You may address me as 'Captain' or 'sir'; and you will oblige me by removing your feet from my furniture, sir.”
Tharkay’s smile dropped immediately and he stood up slowly. “Captain–” he began, only to be interrupted again.
“What the devil do you mean, sneaking into my quarters without so much as a by-your-leave? And in such haphazard dress – I do not believe that– that headgear is in anyway acceptable in the Corps, however lax the standards may be. Our standing with the Chinese is precarious enough without feeding every stereotype they have of barbaric and slovenly Westerners.”
Tharkay nodded once, short and sharp. “Then I will deliver my message, and remove my offensive self from your presence immediately.” He handed over the letter, still wrapped in oilskins, and exited the tent.
He stalked quickly through camp, stripping off his green aviator's coat and throwing it to the ground. He headed straight to Arkady to collect his things; he’d pressed the dragon too far and too fast to fly off on him now. In any case, he intended to have nothing more to do with the Corps.
He found Arkady conversing with Temeraire. “Tharkay! Arkady was just telling me…” Temeraire bent his long neck down to peer more closely at him. “You seem most distressed. Oh! Do you need something to eat? Something hot to drink? Let me send for some tea.”
“No, I thank you,” replied Tharkay. He set to work repacking his personal items. “I have completed my delivery of a message that is at once urgent and distressing enough; I will not stay.”
“Have you seen Laurence already, then? Arkady was just telling me this about Napoleon and a million soldiers – can that be true?”
“It is.” He was finding the packing to be much more difficult than it should be, considering he had hardly unpacked, but then travelling whilst carrying his own belongings was quite a bit different from stowing them dragonback. His travel-worn hands, shaking from exhaustion and cold, were not helping the situation.
Temeraire was still considering him with much more attention than Tharkay appreciated at the moment. “Did – I suppose I ought not to pry –”
“No. You oughtn't.”
The dragon was much taken aback, pulling his head back on his long neck and looking away, clearly mortified.
Tharkay paused in his packing, sighing. He turned to face Temeraire. “I beg your pardon; I shouldn't take my own disordered feelings out on you, my old friend.”
The dragon’s surprisingly expressive face seemed to clear with understanding. “It is very distressing, isn't it? To see how Laurence is now.”
Tharkay was rather confused by this. “How he is now? Hasn't he always been thus?”
“Oh! Did he remember you? That is excellent news!” exclaimed Temeraire. “He has forgotten all the rest of us, you know. Roland and Granby and myself: all of us. He only remembers his time in the Navy.”
“He has forgotten you? How on Earth could he possibly have forgotten you?” How did one forget a twenty-ton dragon that one had spent nearly every moment of the last ten years with? Tharkay was beyond astonished.
Temeraire was attempting an explanation: “There was an accident, at sea, and everyone would have it he had drowned, and would not even let me go and look for him: they all said saving the ship must come first, and the egg, and he was certainly dead anyway. But I knew he must still be alive; and I was right, and finally we did find him, at Nagasaki: he'd been washed up on shore. Except his wits were somewhat disordered, and it turns out he had some sort of brain fever, and had forgotten everything since before he ever took the Amitié and found my egg.”
Temeraire paused to take a breath, but before Tharkay could make much sense of this tangled account, the dragon continued: “And the worst of it is, I expect he has forgotten on purpose, because all I have brought on him is ruin; and I am so sorry, Tharkay: I am glad he does remember you, because you have ever been a tremendous friend to us, and you deserve to be remembered – you haven't lost him his fortune, and title, and honour – I am only sorry because it seems that I am right (again) and it is only that he doesn't want to remember me, or the Corps; it must be that way, since he remembers you.”
Tharkay found himself somewhat overwhelmed by the dramatic tale, but he managed to grasp this much: Laurence was suffering from some sort of amnesia which had caused him to lose the better part of a decade from his memory. “I am sorry for it, Temeraire; I cannot tell you if this is good news or bad, but I believe Laurence does not remember me either: that would account for his behaviour towards me.”
Temeraire nodded understandingly, and said sadly, “Was it very bad? Was he stiff, and withdrawn, and short? I'm so sorry – please do forgive him, Tharkay: you see he is not at all himself.”
Tharkay huffed a little at this. “On the contrary, I'm afraid that he is very much himself.”
He was sorry for Will’s misfortune, and for Temeraire, but he had no intention of living with Laurence's suspicious, prejudicial treatment all over again, until he should have saved the man's life thrice over and provided invaluable and critical assistance to Laurence's mission at the grave risk of his own life, just to discover if Laurence should condescend to befriend him once more.
He said as much to Granby, when he encountered the aviator on his way out of camp.
Granby's shoulders slumped, and his face fell in sympathetic sorrow. “I cannot fault you indeed: you have always gone above and beyond for us; and it's little enough we can ever do for you in return.”
“The past is just that, behind us; and I have no regrets: I would change nothing. It's to the future I look now; and Laurence is certainly right about one thing: I am no aviator and I have no wish to make one of the Corps, as brave and worthy as you are.” He bowed briefly and departed.
Granby ran next into Laurence, who'd been looking for him. “Granby, I have just received word; it is so much worse than we could have imagined–”
“A million men and a hundred dragons, yes, I've heard,” Granby answered, and proceeded to roundly chastise Laurence for his treatment of Tharkay. “Why, not only has he saved our lives half-a-dozen times or more; but I – we – owe him Iskierka, and Arkady and the other ferals who helped repel the invasion, and, and – Lord, I cannot count the times he has been instrumental in – vital to – our success, whatever endeavour we were engaged upon.”
Laurence, shocked, silenced, was very much ashamed. “I must find him and apologise at once. I have already informed General Chu about the message; he and Hammond are debating the best course of action.”
Temeraire and Iskierka helped him look for Tharkay. Arkady had gorged himself near comatose, and announced his intention to sleep for the next week, arousing only to eat again – the way Tharkay had pushed him, he told everyone in hearing distance, you'd think the Devil himself had been on their tail.
Temeraire snorted. “He was, with a million imps and a hundred demons at hand.”
Tharkay was quick and quiet, but the large and noisy demands of the dragons defeated his attempt at a departure as unannounced as his arrival had been.
Laurence caught up to him and tried to apologise. “I do beg your pardon, Captain, I should never –”
“I am no captain at all, as you astutely observed earlier,” Tharkay said, sardonic. “I have cast off the uniform which so offended you, and I make no claims upon Arkady nor any part of the Corps.”
“You make no claims upon us, but you do have every claim, upon me in particular,” said Laurence, lowly. “I do not blame you if you care not to accept an apology, or even to listen to one: I should never have spoken as I did to any man, let alone one who has just driven himself and his dragon hard across so harsh and unforgiving a landscape – across half the world. I can make no excuses for my boorish behaviour; the fault is entirely mine. I beg that you might not imagine that my own poor manners should reflect upon the other officers of the Corps, except,” he said, wincing, “I am all too aware that was precisely what I accused you of. I understand completely if you will not allow my words to be withdrawn: please, I pray only that you let me wish you the best of fortune and companions in your future endeavours. I know that you deserve that much, having always given of your best in all your undertakings with us and upon our behalf.”
Tharkay was silent a moment. “Ah, Will. What am I to do with you? Just when I think I have found you beyond redemption at last, you prove me wrong yet again.”
Laurence offered him a smile, hopeful and tentative. “Perhaps you will take refreshment with me? Or allow me to have provisions made? I am afraid we have not much variety to offer, but the Chinese supply the camp with wonderful efficiency.”
“Anything I do not have to hunt myself and that has not become stale and rock hard on the journey is more than welcome, I thank you.”
Laurence led him back to his quarters. “It is the very least that I can do, although I fear I may be called away soon. We have been tasked by the Emperor to put down a local rebellion – one which is allegedly funded by opium trade from the British,” he added darkly.
“What? Here?” Tharkay asked doubtfully. “No doubt there are any number of profit-hungry British traders in Guangzhou, of opium or anything else they can peddle, but why – or how – they would come this deep into China to support a minor rebellion is beyond imagining.”
Laurence’s mouth twisted wryly. “Likely it is an invention by an anti-Western faction in the Imperial Court. I hope to prove it so – and soon. We must be prepared to meet this outrageous threat by Napoleon. General Chu is wise and experienced; I hope he will see that an overthrown Russia, with a power-mad Napoleon sitting practically on their doorstep, is not to anyone’s benefit in China.”
Back in Laurence’s tent, Tharkay savoured his tea, letting the steam bathe his face with great pleasure.
“Tharkay–” Laurence started. “I beg your pardon, is that the proper address? Granby, and Temeraire – but they can be wonderfully casual…”
Tharkay smiled. “‘Tharkay’ is fine, although we made each other free with our given names some years ago. Mine is Tenzing.”
“Tenzing, then.” Laurence smiled in return. “I wonder if you might tell me how we met, or of some adventures we have shared. Not if you are uncomfortable at all – it is a terrible imposition, I know, for me to ask.”
“Not at all, Will. I would be happy to tell you what I can.” Tharkay’s smile turned wry. “We may be here some time, if I relate the whole of them.”
“I would not object in the least, if only we are not interrupted. The ship’s surgeon forbade anyone to tell me anything that might ‘disturb’ me, lest I should fall back into a fever, and now no-one will say more than two words to me about anything prior to our arrival here.”
Tharkay himself frowned, recognising the looming, omnipresent topic which no one could hint at, but which could hardly be talked around. No sense in starting there, however. “Ah, then. Let me tell you how we met. It was at a dinner party in Macao. You were resplendent in a green silk Chinese coat, and I very likely in even more disreputable clothing than what I wear now, not having the luxury of travelling by dragon at the time…”
Laurence listened, rapt, as Tharkay related the adventures encountered whilst travelling through deserts and mountains. “I am so sorry about your eagle,” he said, when Tharkay had described the avalanche.
“Ah, yes. I do still miss her, though she was not so young then, and now might have reached an age past adventuring. She would have been of great assistance whilst we were crossing the interior of New South Wales.”
“New South Wales?” said Laurence, frowning, taken aback. “What could have brought us there?”
“Ah.” Tharkay grimaced. “That would be the matter which your fellow officers are so careful not to mention. Unfortunately, it is a rather central episode to your life in the Corps.”
“Which would explain why any sort of anecdote from past years is aborted in my presence.”
“Will you forgive me if I don’t attempt to explain it directly, but allow the story to take us there naturally?”
“Of course! Tenzing, as I said, please, do not feel obliged to relate anything which you would prefer not to.”
Tharkay shook his head, smiling slightly. “I have nothing but good to say of our past together, my friend.”
To his surprise, he saw a blush creep up Laurence’s face. “No man is a saint,” the man muttered into his teacup.
“But some try harder than others,” said Tharkay, raising his cup to Laurence’s increasingly reddening expression and his own private amusement.
“You have had little good to say of me so far, in your tale,” Laurence retorted. “I seem to have been nothing but contemptuous and suspicious of you.”
“Ah, well. We are only beginning, after all.”