Chapter 1: Trouble in Paradise
Laurence was tying his neck cloth when he felt Tharkay’s presence in the doorway. He didn’t have to look to know it, and not just because they lived alone together. Tharkay didn’t like to own spaces. He’d once said that to be noticed was to be trapped. But his manner of ghosting had become familiar to Laurence, and when a room was doused in a particular kind of quiet he knew to expect his friend.
“Tenzing,” Laurence said by way of greeting. His neck cloth wasn’t sitting quite right. He stifled a sigh and slipped it open to begin again. Jane, of course, wouldn’t care about the cloth. “Why do you bother when I’m just going to take it off again?” Her voice echoed in his head and he smiled.
“I’ll be heading into town now. Is there any errand I can manage for you while I’m there?”
Laurence swiveled around. His hands dropped from his neck. “Going into town? Now?”
Despite the many years they’d known each other, Tharkay was still uncomfortably good at throwing Laurence off.
“I’m afraid there’s urgent business I need to attend to. Something that can’t wait until morning.”
Laurence frowned. If Tharkay had work to do there could be no arguing with him. To raise an objection would only be selfishness, but really, this was the third time Tharkay was cancelling dinner plans with Jane and it was starting to look suspicious. Laurence would duel anyone who dared called Tharkay a liar, and yet…
“That’s most unfortunate. Jane will be disappointed.”
“I’m sure Jane will forgive me in time. Pray make an apology to her in my stead.”
For a moment Laurence thought Tharkay was in earnest, but then he saw the quirk of his mouth and a certain glint in his eye and knew he was joke fodder. He turned away and went back to fixing his neck cloth in a very obvious gesture of dismissal.
“Come now, Will. You know she’s not coming for me.”
Laurence was glad he had his back to the man. A blush was creeping up his cheeks. Tharkay never tired of poking holes in his prudish nature.
“Is it wrong to want the two of you to become better acquainted?”
Laurence was aware of the sulky tone in his voice, but worse was that Tharkay heard it too.
“No,” he said. It was as close to an apology as Laurence was likely to get. “Though I can’t see why you’re so hung up on the matter. A mixed breed spy is hardly the company a gentleman could wish to present to his lover.”
“Because those convicted of treason have such high flung notions of what makes proper company, I’m sure,” Laurence launched back. He finished with his neck cloth, but wished he hadn’t. He had nothing to do with his hands now.
Tharkay chuckled. The sound made Laurence swivel round despite himself. Tharkay tapped his forehead in a mock solute. “A good evening to my favorite traitor.” He turned to go. Laurence caught his elbow before he could get too far.
“Should I be worried about this business of yours?” Their various escapades over the years had taught him that there was no danger out there that Tharkay would put himself above.
Tharkay tugged his elbow free, but gently, without ill feeling.
“The number of times I’ve saved your neck should remind you that I’m perfectly fit to take care of myself.”
“Pardon me for not wanting you wandering off to get yourself arrested and/or executed again.”
“I don’t think I need to be hearing that from you of all people.”
Laurence must have made a face because Tharkay chuckled again and headed for the door. Laurence thought about following him, but by the time he’d come to a decision he heard the sound of hooves churning dirt. The man was gone. Laurence blew out his breath and left the house. He headed for the pavilion where he could find a more soothing form of company. Temeraire nosed him in happy welcome but was full of questions.
“That was Tharkay leaving. I’m sure it was. Did we forget something for our guests tonight? I thought everything was arranged.“
“No, my dear, you’ve done everything perfectly, of course. I’m sure Jane and Excidium will delight in your preparations.” That was stretching the truth. Neither of their guests were exacting in their tastes. Though Jane was known to favor a good wine, she could by no means be called a gourmand. And Excidium always ate exactly as much as he should, with no care as to what he was eating so long as it was of the normal fare. But Temeraire always expected dragons and humans alike to be as particular as he was, and had interviewed a great many cooks for the estate before settling on a team he could groom to his satisfaction. An extravagance that Tharkay (considering it was his estate) greeted with equitable amusement. Temeraire was always consulted when it came to guests. He would take great offense if left out of the loop. Besides, Laurence enjoyed Temeraire’s efforts, and the exaggerated satisfaction the dragon felt after every successful evening.
“But then whyever has Tharkay left? You did invite him, did you not, Laurence?”
“Yes. But he has begged our understanding for some business that requires his attention.”
Temeraire’s ruff pricked up with interest. “Business? Is it a war? Not that I’d be wanting a war, of course. Not so soon after the peace with Napoleon. It’s nice to know our friends are no longer in danger. It’s just izkierka. If she hears there are wars being fought without her…”
Laurence pressed his face to Temeraire’s and felt his frown fade to nothing.
“No, not a war,” he said with affection. “None that I know of anyway. I’m sure he will be back soon.”
“But what terrible timing. Is this not the fourth time—“
“The third I believe,” corrected Laurence, but the point was made. He hadn’t been the only one to notice.
“Do you think—“ but he cut himself off before he could make the proposal. It was shameful to even contemplate such things. Luckily Temeraire was more forthcoming with his doubts.
“Do you think Tharkay mayn’t like Jane?”
The dragon put out his claw. Laurence accepted the invitation and scrambled up the foreleg to sit in his usual spot in Temeraire’s elbow joint. Once comfortable he was free to contemplate the question.
“I do not see why. I have often thought the two would be of like mind on many matters. Yes, Tharkay is given to a great deal more privacy when it comes to his personal affairs, but the two have the same practical ease in their approach to life. The same focus on results. Not to mention they both find great pleasure in establishing me as the object of their wit and ridicule. I should have thought they would make the best of friends.”
Temeraire rested his head on his other foreleg so that Laurence was beside one great blue eye.
“Maybe he does it in deference to you.”
“He might wish to assure you that he isn’t out to take Jane as his lover. Though I don’t see why he should think you worried about such a thing. Jane is capable of rebuffing any such advances without your involvement.”
Laurence found himself spluttering in his reply. “My dear, I am sure—certain—that Tharkay, by no means, should be worried about my perceiving him in such a manner.”
But Temeraire wasn’t as sure, and they were still debating the point when the unmistakable sound of beating wings interrupted them. Laurence sprang up and went to meet Jane as Excidium touched down in the clearing. Dinner passed without any issue. The four of them ate together on the pavilion. Laurence had acquired a large service of dragon sized dishes and Temeraire delighted in displaying it to guests. As Tharkay predicted, Jane didn’t question Tharkay’s disappearance, and the four of them exchanged news and discussed the new fountain being erected in Trafalgar square that featured a longwing surrounded by a small horde of smaller British breeds. Naturally, the captains depicted were all men, despite the fact that they hadn’t been putting men to longwings in over a hundred years. Temeraire contested the point hotly, railing against the silliness of the government in hiding such things from the public, while Laurence tried to assure him that the fountain was a step toward progress. The general population still feared dragons and harbored many delusions about dragon intelligence and the organization of the aerial corps, and none of that was going to change overnight.
Eventually Jane and Laurence left the two dragons and went up into the house. They had some wine and ended up in the bedroom. Laurence almost didn’t want it to happen because of Tharkay’s earlier insinuations, but Jane was, as always, quite clear on what she wanted. They lay together afterward with a small lantern glowing on the bedside table.
“Do you think Tharkay is purposefully avoiding you?”
It was the wrong thing to blurt out, of course. But Jane had never been one to reserve the afterglow of sex for romantic conversations. More often than not she’d used the time to plot out dragon maneuvers and speculate about Napolean’s plans while Laurence fought against the sleep that orgasm always threatened. But this time he was wide awake.
Jane smiled and ruffled his hair. When she did things like that he was reminded of her seniority, and the years that separated them. Not that it mattered. Laurence was retired, and when one was in his forties a few years difference hardly counted.
“I wondered what was distracting you,” she said. “Were you picturing Tharkay’s face instead of mine?”
He snorted and expected her to laugh, but instead she sat up and peered into his face. She didn’t bother lifting the sheet to cover herself as she did so. Laurence didn’t know if all the women in the corps were casual about nudity, but he had yet to see one blush at the idea of exposure. She was beautiful, though as a young man he wouldn’t have thought so. He reached out and ran a hand along her stomach where a puckered scar, obtained during the early years of the war, showcased her bravery. He didn’t know the man who had done it to her. Jane had shared the story in uncolored words. It was a boarding party. They were guarding the channel. She killed the man, and dispatched another even after sustaining the wound. Jane leaned down and kissed him, but he was not to be distracted. After several moments he pulled away and raised an inquisitive brow. She waggled both her eyebrows in return.
“I’m sure you’ve already run all the scenarios through your head. Tell me. Do you think I’ve given offense in some way? Maybe honor is involved. Though I don’t think the man puts as much emphasis as the notion as you do—nor does any person, British or otherwise, as far as I can tell.”
“Pray be serious.”
“I don’t think there’s anything to be serious about. You said he had business to attend to.”
“Yes. But I’ve a feeling that business will crop up the next time I invite him as well.”
“The solution is obvious: stop inviting him.”
Laurence rolled away from her, to Jane’s great amusement. She tugged at his side, but couldn’t really muster the force to overturn him with all that laughter.
“Come, come. Look at you sulk! It reminds me of Emily. Did you know that as a girl she wanted only to sleep with Excidium? I can’t count the times I had to go to the covert to fetch her for breakfast. I had to put a lock on her window. Oh but look how cross you are with your forehead all wrinkles. You finally look older than me.”
Laurence could not help but be charmed and submitted to her pulling. She pressed his head to her chest and stroked his hair. He had fallen asleep in this position many times and was on his way to adding another mark to the tally when Jane’s voice tugged at his slipping consciousness.
“I wouldn’t push the issue. You may cause more pain than you realize.”
Laurence couldn’t place her words in the context of their conversation, but still they bothered him and the wrinkles on his forehead remained even in sleep.