Laurence could not ask. It is a private thing of course, so there is no way to really ask. Even among the Aviators where some traditions are followed only loosely – and some still not at all – there are limits to propriety, and this, Laurence feels, is one that cannot be crossed.
And yet, there it is, on Temeraire's hide, just in the middle of his chest. What had started out as a mere paler line slowly comes into view, stronger and stronger – a string of silver words, written in his own hand, increasingly legible as the dragon grows.
I beg your pardon; I did not mean to.
It is unmistakeably soulwriting, of course. He'd suspected it might be, when he'd begun recognizing the writing as just that, writing. Now it sits hidden, usually, under a platinum breastplate, bought half in tradition and half in sincere kindness, as confused as he was. He knew, from the first sight, they would be his words – Temeraire reacted to them, even before neither of them knew what it was.
Other dragons have similar words upon their skin. Maximus has writing upon the back of his left forearm, which he often worries at fondly with his snout – Laurence hasn't looked close enough to read it out of politeness sake, but Berkley strokes the words gently, when spending leisure time with his dragon, so they must be his. Lily has writing across her wing joint, which shows in stark relief and is impossible to miss or misinterpret, Oh, you look so lovely, dearest, truly like a flower, a lily!
It seems to be the case with most dragons. Even poor Levitas seems to carry words of his captain upon his hide – he seeks comfort in them often and sadly, and it makes it damn awkward trying to comfort the dragon otherwise. To be rejected by one's soulmate…
Which only makes Laurence's concerns ever more pressing, and increasingly awkward. Rankin definitely does not display the ordinary care or respect one might to the one whose words were inscribed upon his skin. Indeed, if they were, he would be borderline criminal and most certainly sacrilegious in his behaviour. No, Laurence doesn't think Levitas's words were written on Rankin's soul.
Is it therefore the ordinary case? That a dragon would bear their captain's words – but not the captains themselves?
Laurence bows his head, feeling the writing upon his back burn, and dares not to ask.
Sara's first words to Tharkay had been, "Thank you." What's inscribed on her skin, he doesn't know and dares not to ask, but judging by her reaction, his answer of, "No, thank you; truly, I have never been knocked over with greater grace."
He isn't sure why, then, it makes him so bitter. Her simple and kind "Thank you" wasn't the same as the I thank you, sir, that was written upon his knuckles, a strangely violent place for such a polite sentence. He is still bitter – it is so utterly commonplace. Better, perhaps, than something as simple as, "Yes," which he'd once seen written on the throat of a prostitute, or "Pleasure to meet you," which is hardly any help either. I thank you, sir, says precisely nothing about the speaker, except that they are fluent enough in English to speak it, and know he's a man.
Tharkay tugs at the skin over his knuckles, smoothing the writing as much as he can, but it's little use. The shape of bone and sinew make it impossible to read the words cleanly – no matter how he holds his hand, they are mangled and stretched by the shape of his hand, borderline illegible at certain angle. The handwriting looks to his eye sophisticated enough, elaborate enough to have been written by one who knows cursive, but written firmly and strictly. The I is looped beautifully and though the rest of the letters are less elaborately written, they are elongated and slender. Hand of one who can write beautifully, but ordinarily doesn't bother.
He has spent what feels like his whole life tugging at his knuckles, looking for answers in the sentence, analysing it to the point of it being obscene. The placing, he thinks, is meaningful still. A politeness to knock a man's teeth in. He entertains himself by finding the speaker sweetly sarcastic and perhaps in some way bitter, with a punch in their words. Simple bit of politeness, a first volley in a conflict – and accursedly commonplace.
"I thank you, sir," he gets from very proper young man whose recently finished portrait Tharkay was pressed to compliment when he was eight.
"I thank you, sir," from an amused teacher, year or so later, who would in three weeks time go increasingly frustrated with his manner.
"I thank you, sir," from a distracted courier, delivering a message.
"I thank you, sir," from a breathless newsboy whose paper he'd caught from the wind.
"I thank you, sir," endlessly.
And yet it is not what Sara said to him, no matter what he wishes it was, her words were shorter. She isn't sarcastic, of course, nor are her words whipcord tight or like blows in a fight. She is kind, and patient, and gently smart in a way a flower hiding poison might be, everything a man like him might want in a woman… but she is not his. Whatever words were written on her, they were not his.
Perhaps, Tharkay muses, they are upon his knuckles because of how often he feels the urge to hit the invisible speaker who just had to speak such an accursedly common sentence, and who yet refuses to appear to make him whole.
Not that he truly believes in such thing, anyway.
Tharkay lets his kestrel scratch and bruise the skin of his hands until the words become borderline illegible, and lets it go.
"I thank you, sir," says a rather uncomfortable looking British Captain in a Chinese coat, and with many years of practice, Tharkay ignores it.
Granby has no words. Laurence learns this by accident, more than because it was something Granby chose to divulge. The man is sick and delirious and murmuring to himself, and Laurence isn't sure what it exactly in Granby's words that gives it away, but something does. "There's no point, no point at all, there's no one there, no one there for me at all. No man, no dragon, nothing."
Laurence says nothing about it, of course, but it makes him sad to hear it. But it only makes him more concerned still.
He honours Temeraire and loves him, of course, and respects as any man might his soulmate, but it is not Temeraire's writing on his skin. Indeed, how could a dragon write at all? How would their words manifest, except perhaps as terrible scars and gouges, written in monstrously large hand? Perhaps that is why there is nothing. And yet, and yet…
"You do know that I love you, don't you, my dear?" Laurence asks, once, over the ocean on their way to China, when they can finally fly together and have some privacy from sailors and aviators and Chinese, all.
"Of course I do, Laurence," Temeraire says, turning his head. He seems puzzled. "You love me best of all."
Laurence smiles and feels a painful twinge. He does, he does, of course he does. There is no question of his love for Temeraire in his heart.
He isn't sure how the Chinese see soulwriting. Do they at all? What do Laurence's words on Temeriare's dark hide mean to them? With all the suggestions and allusions of freedom among the Chinese dragons and the apparent lack of such among the English… Laurence has found himself with a doubt, and a fear.
Of course he is Temeraire's soulmate. This was written upon the dragon's soul when he hatched and Laurence harnessed him, and that bond was made, on Temeraire's side, instinctive and eternal. A dragon, Laurence suspects, might not have a choice in the matter. Not that men do, either, but… a dragon's bond seems almost artificially wrought. Their captain would be their soulmate because… of course they would be.
But the same, Laurence suspects, is likely never true for the captain.
No, he fears with terrible, gnawing guilt. He doubts it very much that the other Celestials have such writing on their skin. And he fears, increasingly, how it might be perceived in the Imperial Court.
"I do, my dear," Laurence says miserably. "I love you best of all, indeed." And he does.
And yet the words on his back say otherwise.
Tharkay isn't entirely sure whether the Englishman hates him or not. The man stares, when he thinks Tharkay isn't looking, with expression of deep unhappiness and suspicion on his face. Tharkay endures it at times – other times, he turns to look back, brazen, viciously enjoying the look of embarrassment and guilt and even shame, when the man turns away, looking unhappier still.
It is vexing, all the things the man obviously thinks and suspects and wants to say, and then does not. Captain Laurence is all politeness and manners and strict protocol, and it's almost amusing in all of its propriety, how the man struggles with the troubles and issues of the wild. A gentleman's upbringing isn't enough to weather the storms of the Taklamakan, and yet he clings to his manners like they're the only bit of stable ground in obviously rocky world.
A Englishman made Chinese prince for the sake of politics and dragons and trade. Oh, the horror and embarrassment, what would they say in the ballrooms and at the dinner tables of jolly old England.
Still, he is not as bad as some, and he does listen to Tharkay, at least – sometimes with the intensity of a man obviously searching for lies, perhaps, but Tharkay has dealt with worse. Captain Laurence might not trust Tharkay, nor believe him, but at least so far he is still following him. Still, Tharkay can feel the invisible hand of blame on his shoulders for every ill that befalls their company, be it spoiled water ration or the loss of camels – surely, his presence is the source of the mere concept of misfortune as a whole. Captain Laurence is generous in his displeasure, and it spreads in the company too.
And yet, when they even encounter a bit of trouble, neither gets stabbed in the back during it. That, Tharkay muses, might be as much a social victory that can be had here.
"Is this sort of robbery common, in these parts?" The Captain asks, watching him, as they bury the robbers in a shallow, sandy grave, dug by Temeraire with a single sweep.
"Life is hard and the people hardy here, and opportunities to make fortune scarce. Such circumstances make men more daring than might be wise in other circumstances," Tharkay says, amused and annoyed in turn by the sideways glances. "I have not found myself a target of robbery here – but I am only one man, and not a company carrying with me souvenirs."
Captain Laurence bows his head at that, saying nothing for a moment. "So you often travel here alone."
Tharkay casts him a glance. "It is easiest, I have found."
That, somehow, seems to displease the good captain. "I see," he says, nods, and turns away.
Tharkay looks after him, wondering, as the man returns to his dragon's side. Though too far away to hear, from his body language alone it's easy to say he's whispering endearments. It is sadly obvious that he does so for more his own comfort, than the dragon's.
Tharkay watches him for a while, wondering.
Laurence learns to live with it and not think of it. It does not matter, truly. He has his love and it is a true one, regardless of writings or fate – and besides, his mark is on Temeraire and that alone is unspeakably significant. It is almost painful, in how significant it is. He needs nothing more.
And yet, it aches.
They made it to Istanbul to find the city unpleasant and unfriendly, and Tharkay only more callous and unhelpful still. The bitter helplessness Laurence feels at polite imprisonment in their gilded case only makes the hurt of it all deeper.
Tharkay does not hide his hand. His knuckles are scratched, white lines cutting through the silver writing there, mangling it. It's almost indecent, in a way, how he displays the text, illegible though the words now are. The man has no shame and no care for his soulmate, whoever they were. Laurence suspects a rejection might be a cause – or constraint of society.
They could not have been his writing, and yet… Tharkay, slipping away without word while Laurence's men are bound to poles and whipped for crimes they were too foolish to realise the severity of… it aches. The knowledge of the man's dual nature and callousness aches. The betrayal, though he doesn't know why he even feels it is such, as there was so little to trust to begin with… it aches.
If only Laurence could ignore such things with such ease as Tharkay does. He cannot, not in his heart of hearts, but his words still come out bitter. "Well, sir, and do you return?" His men have been whipped, boys barely old enough to be called men, and they now lay in wretched painful stupor upon their cots. He has little patience left, for the upset Tharkay brings. "I wonder you should show your face here again."
Tharkay doesn't even bother to look guilty, or even taken aback. He looks only wryly amused at him - and then he reveals his dealings with Mr. Madden, the man who'd sent him across the quarter of the world with Laurence's orders – and Laurence's words. And whose daughter, it seems, Tharkay has particular connection with and is to be married.
Who knows, the pain Laurence feels, maybe Tharkay knows it too. Laurence can tell now, how easily it might make a man bitter.
"I would say something to you," Captain Laurence says, once they had made their way back to the gilded prison where the rest of the man's people wait. The rest are asleep, it being well past the middle of the night, and even the man on guard is half asleep. It is as much privacy as one might have, in such a place. "An apology."
Tharkay doesn't want it. He is tired and heartsick in a way he should not be. He doesn't want more of it. "If you must," he says anyway.
"I have – misdirected some sentiments upon you that you ill deserved, for which I apologise," Captain Laurence says. "I have treated you in a manner I would disdain to use on any man in my service. I do not even know how to begin to apologise for it."
"Then let it pass," Tharkay dismisses. "I promise I will not repine upon it."
"No," Laurence agrees and looks away. "I reckon you will not. I have considered your behaviour, uncertain what to make of it – I think, after tonight, I understand better."
"Do you, indeed?" Tharkay asks, and the bitterness flares, unheeded and utterly unwelcome and all the more strong because of it. "And what is it that you understand, Captain Laurence?"
The man is taken aback, now. Then the openness of his eyes closes and he is on the defensive. "I believe I understand enough, and no more needs to be said about that," he says coldly and straightens his neck. "Still you are in my employment, and as such I would have us done with these games."
Tharkay frowns. "In your employment? I was under the impression you did not wish my services for much longer, or, indeed, at all."
Laurence looks at him, and it's a strange look, hard and wistful. "Whether for a minute or a month," he says, quieter now. "Still I would have done with these games."
Tharkay has missed something, he feels it and it bothers him – making him speak out of turn in a way he ordinarily wouldn't. Sara's news and all this tension, and now this fresh confusion about this stupidly respectable englishman demanding the truth from him – it all makes him give it. Bitterness of years alone, of distrust of others, disrespect of those whose services he'd entered, the disregard… it all bleeds through in a surprising vitriol he normally would swallow, but now cannot.
In Britain, he is a foreigner for his mother's blood and never trusted because of it, forever an outsider. Elsewhere, it is the same – even in Asia, where it is his father's blood that condemns him. He is the son of a lord and Sara a mere merchant's daughter – the match should have been a beneficial one for her, were it not for his skin, for his station in life, for his words, for his nature.
As much as he wishes Sara well now and as much happiness as she could possibly hope to find… he wishes more that she could've said a few words more, when they met.
Tharkay rubs at his scarred knuckles, and turns away. Laurence deserves none of this. "I beg your pardon for my vehemence," he says and digs his thumbnail into the silver text, and says something more – a bit of true sincerity, even. He had provoked the man's distrust and ire, at times, and taken some perverse pleasure in it - and now, he is sorry for it.
Laurence looks down at his hands, and he seems to understand. That, Tharkay muses, might be the worst kindness there is, to be understood. Laurence then offers his word and his loyalty both, and adds with an odd sort of weariness, "… I think I would be sorrier to lose you than I yet know."
It is then, at last, that Tharkay begins to doubt himself.
Duty presses them on, from Istanbul with lawfully bought but illegally acquired eggs and then to north and there, to engagement they have little knowledge about and are ill prepared. Britain, it seems, had promised Prussia dragons. Britain, it seems… had failed to deliver. So Temeraire would have to serve where Britain otherwise had failed to meet her duty. It's a sad situation, which, at last, draws Laurence's eye away from Tharkay.
Tharkay is easier in their company now, having proven his worth many times over and then his loyalty too. He is still his acerbic self when there is a call for it – and there usually is, it seems, in his opinion. But he is no longer openly prompting ill judgement on his own person and some of his vicious sarcasm has eased. He is, Laurence has found, almost painfully good company, when he likes to be.
He also looks at Laurence differently now – often through him, it feels like. It is a mixture of pleasant and terrible all at once, to be the aim of his attention – and it makes dratted difficult to ignore him. He is always there, just within reach, and Laurence…
Laurence should not be so preoccupied. There is something afoot in France, Prussia is in turmoil, Britain is failing to honour her commitments, failing to answer insults, failing to even send a message. The situation is tense and difficult, and then – amidst it all, Tharkay comes to him, and begs his leave. Since Temeraire has been pressed to service, Tharkay is no longer of use as a guide.
"I will not press you to stay, of course," Laurence says dully, struck utterly dumb by this. Why he assumed... no matter. "But Tharkay – I… can hardly reward you as your pains have deserved."
Tharkay eyes him, his expression impassive but not unkind. "Then let us defer," he says and moves to hold out his hand. "Who knows? We may yet meet again."
He says something more, but Laurence hardly hears it. Tharkay's hand is outstretched towards him for a shake, the scars and illegible words upon his knuckles shining white and silver in the dim light. Laurence craves, but he cannot – cannot accept that pain. Not when Tharkay is about to leave.
Tharkay waits and then, slow, he lowers his hand.
"Please – let us kit you out properly," Laurence says, turning away, wretchedly. "Some of our gear – "
"I do very well with what I have, thank you," Tharkay says, his voice subdued. "Goodbye, Laurence."
Laurence swears he won't look, but he does – watching Tharkay pull his hood up, gather his things and go. One moment he is there, and the next he is gone, disappeared into the shadows. And if there was ever any doubt, the ache of it proves it – every step he takes, it cuts deeper.
Laurence turns and goes to Temeraire, and spends the rest of the night with his fingers slipped under the platinum, where his words rest on Temeraire's chest.
"My dear," he says quietly, in still awkward Chinese. "Can you tell me again, what your mother said about… about…" lord, he cannot even say it.
Temeraire nudges at him in concern. "A dragon's soul is not up for claim," he says, in very formal tones, low. "Nor is her heart for sale. The words written and promises wrought are pledges from the outside. Laurence –"
"My pledge to you, yes," Laurence murmurs. It's a lovely way to look at it, better than his own earlier thoughts of claiming Temeraire where Temeraire had no claim to him. And yet… I beg your pardon; I did not mean to is a sorry sort of pledge to make, and yet how true it is. He begs Temeraire's pardon, for he does not mean whatever hurt and uncertainty he is, unknowing, causing Temeraire in his ignorance. The Chinese had chosen to believe it a sign of his humility – a kind way to look at it, indeed.
So what on Earth are Tharkay's, I beg your pardon, gentlemen, for interrupting your dinner; my errand cannot wait, supposed to mean?