After the third year, Granby gave up all pretence and embraced it as a tradition: The final week of July, barring war, injury, or other disaster, was to be spent on Tharkay’s estate in Scotland. Obtaining leave each year proved no issue; Iskierka, as she aged, grew grumpy with heat, and the admiralty were more than willing to be shot of her for seven days at a stretch.
Laurence was a decent correspondent, as Granby already knew; Tharkay proved a better one, his letters being less frequent but longer, and more sharply witty than those of anyone else of Granby’s acquaintance. Tharkay and Laurence had always had an odd closeness about them, a connection that frequently intimidated the rest of Laurence’s crew; but after multiple years of regular correspondence, Granby was confident enough in his knowledge of Tharkay’s character to diagnose him with an ailment from which he himself had once suffered.
“It’s rather wretched, isn’t it?” Granby murmured on the last day of his third visit, standing with Tharkay and watching Laurence upbraid the two dragons for some unkind word or other. “Something about the way his shoulders go when his honor’s been offended. It was nigh unbearable when he was still more a naval man than an aerial one.”
The silence stretched out so long that Granby began to fear he had concluded incorrectly, Tharkay’s sharp gaze pinning him in place, before the other man twitched his lips into a small smile and said, “Yes, I can well imagine it might have been. Have you any advice?”
Relief shot through Granby like the expensive whiskey they had polished off two nights previous. “Well, I would have advised against cohabitation, but it seems that dragon has rather flown, so I’m afraid not. Just sympathy.”
Tharkay snorted. “Much good that will do me. But I appreciate it all the same.”
The fifth year saw Granby flying in a full four days early, shaking with illness compounded by heartbreak, Little’s letter from America still clutched in one hand. Laurence put him to bed and very carefully did not read the letter until Granby could sit up and keep down a bowl of broth. He read while Granby ate, brow furrowing. “I never took Captain Little to be a cruel man, but this defies belief. Both the decision to marry, and the fact that he did not tell you directly.”
“We did not part well,” Granby admitted. “It was all rather heated, but still, I find this a touch beyond the pale. Demane brought a wretched strain of influenza back from Prussia, and it took me just after Harcourt showed me the letter. In the ensuing chaos she quite forgot to ask for it back.” Granby rather suspected this had been on purpose; there had been a pitying quality to her gaze when she handed it over. Little’s verbiage had been rather more obvious than was their custom, a deliberate Tell Granby my news, if you would be so kind, for I haven’t the time to write him myself opening them up to suspicion. That was a problem for another time, however.
“Do you think he is married yet?” Laurence asked. “This is dated three months ago.”
Granby shrugged. “It arrived a fortnight ago, and I’ve been rather too preoccupied with vomiting to give it much thought.” He hesitated, and then said, “I’ve never been more grateful for an illness’ timing, though, I can tell you that much.”
“Quite so.” Laurence carefully folded the letter and handed it back to him. “This should go without saying, but for the purposes of your peace of mind, know that Tharkay and Temeraire will not hear of this from me.”
“On the contrary,” Granby said. “I’m sure Temeraire already knows, from Iskierka, and I would be obliged if you would explain the matter to Tharkay. I wish him to know, but rather shrink at the thought of explaining it all over again.”
“I – John, are you certain?”
Granby nodded, eyes slipping closed. “He is already aware of my inclinations, and at present I find I cannot find a fig to give if Little minds. Please.”
There was a long silence. Just before sleep took him, though, Granby heard a muted, “Very well,” from Laurence.
Tharkay, bless him, said nothing of the matter, only lifting his coffee in a toast the first morning Granby could make it to breakfast, a sympathetic tilt to his lips. Granby nodded, and that was the end of it until the first of August. Granby was more or less recovered by then and had written to the admiralty that he would be returning in a few days. Over dinner, Tharkay handed Granby an envelope. “Laurence is of the opinion I should not give this to you until you are completely steady, but I believe the choice to be yours, and he finally conceded. It arrived late last night.”
Little’s familiar scrawl of Captain John Granby was lopsided on the front, in contrast to his usual neat hand. Granby slit the letter open with a butter knife and opened it.
God, I’ve made rather a hash of things, haven’t I. I couldn’t do it, she’s suing me for breach of contract and I’m being sent home with my tail between my legs, but I would have come anyway. It all got out of hand, John, I swear I never meant it to go that far. Please say you’ll still be there when I get home. I’ll be back too soon for you to reply but promise it anyway. I’m sorry for what I said. I miss you. – A. Little.
There was a candle within reach; Granby held the letter over its flame until it caught, dropping the final embers into his water glass and pushing it aside. “It was damned incriminating,” he explained to Tharkay and a frowning Laurence. “Must have been panicking or he’d never dream of sending it. He’s not married,” Granby added after a pause. “Nor will he be. He’s coming back.”
“I see.” There was ice in Laurence’s tone, more than Granby would have expected. “Should you feel the need to extend your convalescence here, John, you are welcome to my spare room for as long as you want it.”
Granby shook his head. “Kind of you, but unnecessary. I shall survive.”
“Quite so,” was Tharkay’s contribution, along with a fresh glass of wine.
Granby came alone and on schedule the sixth year, but the seventh year he wrote to Laurence ahead of time and brought Little along, despite the terseness of Laurence’s assent. “Laurence has always been rather cold, but I thought I would freeze solid with that greeting,” Little said in a private moment the night of their arrival.
“He has never been cold, just uptight,” Granby retorted. “And I suspect he hasn’t quite forgiven you for the state I was in two years ago.”
Little winced. “I thought that was long forgiven.”
“Well, yes, by me, but you were dishonorable and a coward, and you know how Laurence feels about dishonorable cowards.” Granby laughed at him. “Buck up and get dressed, or we’ll be late to dinner on top of your other sins.”
Granby came alone the next year, and the next, and Little joined him again after that, and that became a new tradition for every third year. The eleventh year produced another egg from Iskierka and Temeraire. The first night of his fourteenth visit, Granby saw Tharkay pull Laurence in for a kiss full of familiarity and comfort over breakfast. Iskierka had to be transported by cart the seventeenth year, recovering as she was from a cannonball to the wing, and the twenty-second year saw Little fully grounded, the last battle taking Immortalis’ tail and the better part of Little’s right leg with it.
Finally, on the third day of his twenty-eighth visit, Granby found himself saying over breakfast, “D’you know, I think I might retire.” Little dropped his spoon in shock; indeed, Granby had surprised himself with the declaration. Once it was said, however, it solidified into absolute truth. “I’m more ache than ease these days, physically, and Iskierka and I haven’t been needed for a fight in nearly six years. I’ll have to stop eventually, and I suppose it might as well be now.”
“Hear hear,” Little said, a little hoarse. Granby smiled at him.
“It is interesting you should bring this up now,” Tharkay said a few minutes later. “A plot of land adjoining my estates has recently come up for sale, and I was thinking of acquiring it. There’s a house on it, and enough level ground for a pavilion or two. I should like to have boarders lined up before making the purchase, as it is a substantial amount of money.” He looked up at Granby. “Have you any objection to viewing the place before you depart?”
“None at all,” Granby said, laughing. “I have long thought Scotland among the finest places to retire.”