“The devil will I!” Laurence burst out, over breakfast and the morning mail.
Tharkay cocked an inquiring brow.
“I beg your pardon, Tenzing. It is that damn Tsar of Russia again, asking-- do you find something amusing?” Laurence broke off to ask.
“In all the wildest dreams of my youth - and I did have many wild dreams - some of which have even come true, come to think of it,” said Tharkay, diverted for a moment. “However, despite the large and varied number of my youthful wild dreams, never did I think I would be sharing the home of my childhood with a man so sought after by royalty from all corners of the globe.”
Laurence was not amused. “The Russian Tsar hardly represents ‘all corners of the globe’. And he ‘seeks me out’ only for --” but Tharkay was waving this off.
“Yes, yes; but pray consider: You are the son of the former Emperor of China--”
“Adopted! For purely political--!”
“--and brother of the current. You have been the intimate of the Emperor of France--”
“Former!” interjected Laurence.
“Former,” granted Tharkay.
“And never an intimate!” exclaimed Laurence.
Tharkay looked sardonic. “You were upon several occasions an honoured guest at his home in the Tuileries--” he ignored Laurence’s wordless expostulation and continued, “--he spoke with you even after his defeat, even though you were in large part responsible for said defeat--”
“Now there, I must disagree with you, Tenzing, it was the Tswana and betrayal by his own Empress--”
“--and legions of Chinese dragons, due to your familial connection with that Empire, as I mentioned earlier.” Even after all these years, it was still such a delight to Tharkay, to wind Laurence up so. The poor fellow had been rendered near speechless, which was a rarity in Tharkay’s experience. “I have seen how Napoleon greets you, Will,” he observed to his friend, whose head was shaking in denial. “And I am aware you maintain a correspondence with him.”
“He is stuck on an island in the middle of the Atlantic, with very little rational company. You cannot fault me if I should choose not to withhold what little diversion my inconsequential writing may provide.”
“Indeed I do not fault you in the least; I merely observe the nature of your close relationship with another royal personage.”
“Yes; although you were also a guest of the current Empress of France and their son, the current Emperor.”
Laurence snorted. “I suppose you would build upon one visit, in the aftermath of the war, the phantasy of my being sought by the current and future rulers of France.”
“Ah, but that was not the only time you were close to the Empress; and we must remember she is the Incan Empress as well. You were nearly best man for her wedding, as I understand it.”
“I -- what?” Laurence was honestly baffled.
“She nearly accepted Granby’s suit, or I should say Iskierka’s on John’s behalf; and if she had, do you doubt but that you would have stood by him in his hour of need? I do not.”
“Now you are merely being ridiculous.”
“I prefer to consider my reflections on this issue as being thorough. We have covered Asia and Europe, South America--”
“You equate China and Russia to all Asia; and I suppose you build upon Napoleon’s failed claim to all Europe.”
“I do not claim you are close to all the royalty in the world, only to some throughout. As China and Russia are each fairly large, I suppose they represent Asia adequately. You did not happen to meet the Emperor of Japan, during your sojourn there?”
“No, I did not!”
“Pity. As for Europe, besides France, there was the King of Prussia, yes? I believe Temeraire gave him and the Queen and the young princes a ride to safety, much needed at the time.”
“Once,” said Laurence flatly. “One time.”
“I have heard that the King credits you with the safety of his son, the Crown Prince, whilst the lad was, shall we say, a resident of Paris.”
“I was very happy to learn of the young man’s continued good health, but I do not know why anyone would think I had aught to do with it. That was all to the honour of Napoleon, and his wife, perhaps.”
“Having thus established your influence upon rulers in Asia, Europe, and South America, let us now turn to Africa.”
“Where I was taken prisoner and tortured for refusal to provide intelligence?” asked Laurence dryly. “I suppose that might suit some definitions of ‘sought after’ but is not indicative of a close, intimate relationship, in my mind.”
“Not that initial encounter, no; however, despite your inauspicious beginning, Prince Moshueshue was open to your overtures whilst you were both visiting the Tuileries, and I have no doubt that your conversation was a deciding factor in the Tswana’s participation in Napoleon’s downfall; as Africans would not otherwise have been likely to risk themselves in a wholly European matter.”
“You might have no doubt; I am very much of a sceptical mind on that matter, myself.”
“There was also your considerable influence on the outcome of the slavery issue in Brazil. That must be marked down in your favour for both the Crown Prince of the Tswana and the Empress of the Inca, as she would not have to concern herself with a significant African power establishing itself in a neighbouring territory.”
“An officer in the service of his country may find himself in command at a turning point of significance to more than one nation, without himself being a confidant of any sort of the rulers of those nations.”
“Well, yes, ‘an officer’ might. But you are not any officer, Will,” said Tharkay, smiling fondly.
“Temeraire is not any dragon, either,” Laurence pointed out. “I would not have - could not have - taken any of these actions you mention but for the accident of my becoming his captain.”
“I will beg your leave not to consider it pure accident that it was you who was able to take the French ship bearing his egg--”
“We happened to be the frigate to sight her! The poor Amitié was badly beset by misfortune. Any competent British captain in my place would have had the same success.”
“And yet any captain might not have been selected upon his hatching by Temeraire. He chose you, yes? That is how Riley described it.”
“Well, but, he would have had to pick someone.”
“Or they would have refused to feed him? I think that unlikely. Then he was given the opportunity to select a different captain, one from the Corps, I understand.”
“He would never have gone with Dayes. The man lied to him!”
“Perhaps not. But knowing that he had a choice, would he have chosen to stay with any ‘competent British captain’?”
“Any decent one, who cared for him!”
Tharkay’s smile widened. “I rest my case.”
“You do too little justice to the Royal Navy.”
“On the contrary, Will, in its role in your development as a gentleman and an officer, I give all due justice to the Navy.”
Laurence’s lips twitched and he looked away. Then he frowned. “What is it we were arguing about?”
Tharkay laughed. “Are you certain you wish to revisit it?”
“No, indeed, I am certain I do not!” Laurence responded with some heat. He looked down at the letter he had nearly crumpled in his agitation.
Tharkay followed his gaze. “Are you still willing to indulge my curiosity as to what the Tsar seeks from you now? Or have I thrown away my chance through my unwarranted teasing?”
Laurence smiled at him. “No, never, Tenzing. I daresay your teasing has done my mood some good, as despite the request made in this letter, I no longer find myself so incensed by it. The Tsar wishes me to advise him on the repair of relations between the Russians - the officers and military, the nobles and peasantry, all alike - and their dragons; as he plans to acquire one thousand of the eggs that Napoleon and Lien caused to be bred and that France now has little ability to maintain.”
“One thousand,” repeated Tharkay in his blandest way.
“Yes!” exclaimed Laurence. “And this from a country which not three years ago treated its dragons with unimaginable brutality and cruelty, and whose countrymen still pursue the slaughter of ferals!”
“Because they fear starvation from feral predation on cattle and game, and that starving ferals might turn to eating humans.”
“Yes, that is correct. I understand, to some extent, why the situation has arisen, though I cannot but abhor it; and likewise I understand the Tsar’s interest in reversing the course. Through wiser management and cooperation, using dragons’ intelligence and labour, Russia could easily produce enough food for all its citizenry, both human and draconic, and likely enough to set by for famine years, should they come again.”
“I am at a loss to understand your indignation at being asked. You seem the ideal candidate to me; I cannot fault the Tsar for making the request.”
“Well, I can, as I have already responded that he would be much wiser to ask his neighbours the Chinese, since they have a model he could most easily adopt, as opposed to that of the Tswana or the Inca, and they are the experts, having been doing so for thousands of years. Not to mention he could build on the goodwill the Chinese expressed, in sending their dragons to help him fight off Napoleon. With Mianning willing to engage more with outsiders, Russia would do well to create all the goodwill and positive relations she can with China.”
Tharkay’s mouth twisted into a wry smile. “And now I think I can guess what the Tsar’s latest missive has to say.”
Laurence sighed. “I am sure you can. He agrees with all I say, and again begs me to come and exert my efforts in the bridging of relations between his Empire and that of Mianning. My efforts and those of Temeraire, of course.”
“You are very much set against doing any such thing?”
“I am retired! Temeraire is settled here, trying to do his best by Britain and his friends here; he has obligations in Parliament as well. I have no desire at all to leave the comfortable home you have welcomed me to, all to somehow convince some millions of Russians, who do not know me from Adam, that they must completely reverse the way they treat, regard, and interact with dragons. It would be the undertaking of generations, and it is not my problem.” At this last Laurence looked down towards his neglected breakfast and sorted through the rest of his letters.
Tharkay regarded him in silence.
Laurence looked back at him from under his brows. “Do you have an observation to make, Mr Tharkay?”
Tharkay smirked a bit. “I never thought to see Admiral Laurence shirk a challenge.”
“I am not Admiral Laurence, nor even Captain Laurence. I am plain ordinary Mr Laurence. I do not back down from crucial challenges that my country faces, when I may be of assistance, nor did I duck those I faced whilst in the service. From which, I remind you again, I am retired.”
“You may consider yourself ‘plain’ and ‘ordinary’, Mr Laurence, although I doubt any of your acquaintance does; but no-one could apply any such terms to Temeraire. I suspect the Tsar’s mistake has been in applying to you, and not directly to him.”
“Very likely, and that is further evidence, as if any is needed, of how far even the greatest Russian proponent of this scheme must come to make it viable. I wish joy to whomever can be brought to undertake the mission; I would not expect to experience anything like, myself.” Laurence went to the sideboard to pour himself fresh, hot coffee.
“Russia during war and winter could not have shown herself to advantage, certainly.”
“No, although that is not a consideration with me, I assure you.” Laurence sat down again. “For Temeraire, however…”
“You think the experience worse for him?”
“I have no doubt. He was young and although he had had much experience of war before that campaign, there had been nothing really to compare. At one point we came across a Grand Chevalier, and she--” Laurence cut himself off. “However, that is not my main concern. You know how difficult it is for Temeraire to hide anything, to keep anything in the nature of a secret.”
“Yes, certainly.” Tharkay smiled. He knew where the dragon had likely acquired that openness, why he had never learnt anything like dissimulation.
“Well, after the Russian campaign was over and Temeraire had heard about the danger the egg was in -- you found him first, after he had left me, due to my - my recent injury.”
“Yes,” Tharkay nodded.
“Between his leaving and your finding him, I believe he experienced something… I am not certain what exactly, but it seemed to terrify him. It left him more haunted than I have ever known him to be about anything else. I would not expose him to anything like that, nor even to the remembrance of that event, not for the world would I.”
Tharkay, who knew very well the trauma to which Laurence referred, could only bow his head in agreement.
“Yes, the Tsar has written me,” said Temeraire, when Tharkay brought up the matter of correspondence with the various royals he had met. “I would not like to subject Laurence to Russia again; it was a dreadful time for him, you know. He felt it very deeply.”
“Ah, yes, I see,” said Tharkay. “Of course you told the Tsar you were unavailable.”
“Well,” replied Temeraire, a little shifty in manner, “I told him he might write to Laurence himself, and if he convinced him that it was necessary for us to help, that I would consider it. But I would not for worlds attempt to convince Laurence myself that we should go. He has done so much for me already. I would not like to ask him for anything unless it were really vital.”
“No, very true,” Tharkay agreed easily.
“Why, Tharkay, should you like to go? Shall I tell the Tsar to ask you?”
“No, not at all, my friend,” replied Tharkay, privately amused at the notion of Temeraire telling the ruler of Russia whom to invite to be an adviser to him; and the look on the Tsar’s face, should he in fact issue such an invitation, to find a half-Nepalese bastard on his doorstep, claiming to be an expert in upending cultures and reworking interactions between men and dragons. “That is, I should be happy to accompany you, if you and Laurence should ever be tempted to such a journey, but I have no desire to go on my own.”
“That is just as I thought,” said Temeraire with satisfaction. “Laurence would have it, after we had been settled here for not more than half a year, that we might be in your way somehow, some sort of inconvenience or burden; but I knew it was no such thing, and so I assured him again and again. ‘Why, our presence is more an advantage to Tharkay than anything, Laurence,’ I told him. ‘It is much more convenient for him to have his friends living here, in easy reach, than to require him to go and visit them wherever they happen to be instead.’ And then I pointed out that my pavilion encourages many of our other friends to visit here, and some of Laurence’s friends as well, who are all friends of yours, except they might not be able to visit both of you so easily if you lived in separate places. So really, this is the most convenient arrangement for all concerned, and Laurence had to agree. --Oh, oh! Who is that?” Temeraire sat up to watch a dragon winging in gracefully from between the peaks.
Tharkay had made out only that it was a larger dragon, a heavyweight, when Temeraire abruptly sank down again, tail twitching. “Oh, it is only Ning,” he said. “Why does she want to come here?”
Tharkay’s lips twitched wryly, but he made no response, only walking out toward the landing area to greet his guest. The pleasantries exchanged, Temeraire spoke up again. “Why have you come here? Have you not yet selected a companion?”
“Good day to you, Temeraire,” answered Ning. “It is a pleasure to see you again; I hope I find you in good health.”
Temeraire snorted. “You sound like Lien, pretending to be friends when we are no such thing.”
“I do not quite understand the reference to Lien,” replied Ning doubtfully. “If you mean that she is well-mannered, I do not think one should be impolite merely to avoid her example. Also I do not understand why we should not be friends; I bear no ill-will towards you, or towards Laurence or Tharkay. I am always happy to meet with any of you, or to hear well of you.”
Temeraire flicked the tip of his tail in dismissal. “I do not understand why you are here, when you have yet to select a companion. Should you not be in China, with the Emperor there?”
“I very much enjoyed my visit to Peking. His Imperial Majesty has been everything that is kind and gracious.”
Temeraire peered at her. “But you are not his companion. Did Mianning reject you?” A hint of a warning growl, the echo of his divine wind entered his voice as he continued, “He had better not have decided you are somehow not worthy merely because you are not pure Celestial, but are part Kazilik instead.”
“No, not at all. The Emperor and indeed all the court, both men and dragons, were quite impressed with my fire-breathing ability, combined with my grace, beauty, speed, and all the other traits of Celestials.”
“Most of which are characteristic of Kaziliks, as well,” murmured Tharkay.
“Very true,” agreed Ning. “They remembered Iskierka vividly, and were most impressed by her fighting abilities. They were pleased to note that my temperament is less fiery than hers, and more balanced.”
“You mean ambiguous and ambivalent,” said Temeraire.
“Again, I am not certain I take your meaning,” said Ning, as close to ruffled as Tharkay had ever seen her, which was to say, about as much as he ever allowed himself to be perceived as agitated. “I am still young, and have much to learn from my elders, whose wisdom I seek out. I do not care to set myself up as an expert against those with much more experience.”
“That is news to me,” huffed Temeraire. “Ever since you first hatched you have seemed to me to take only your own counsel, and none of anyone around you. Rather the opposite, indeed, in your frequent instructions to others as to how they should act in their best interest. Or in yours, I suppose.”
Ning inclined her head. “I am dismayed that you should have such a view of me. It is true I have offered my advice on some occasions, in particular when I have had knowledge that others might have lacked, but I mean no disparagement of your own judgement, I assure you.”
“Oh, you are free to disparage mine all you like,” replied Temeraire. “I am sure I do not care what opinion you should hold of me. Laurence and I have learned whose good esteem it is important to have; and not to value what view the world in general may have of us, if their notions are contrary to our own conscience. But what I mean to say is, although you speak of seeking the wisdom of experienced elders, you still have not selected such a companion, one whose wisdom and experience you may rely upon to guide you throughout your youth.”
“It is a difficult decision,” conceded Ning. “It will have great impact upon my life, as you note; I do not wish to rush into a commitment I might later regret.”
“Ha! Ambivalent and indecisive, as I said,” observed Temeraire.
“I will, however, bear in mind your excellent advice that the selection should be done sooner rather than later,” added Ning, with what Tharkay considered good grace, in the face of Temeraire’s criticisms.
“Mmm,” hummed Temeraire in response, an ambiguous noise between flattered and wary.
Tharkay noticed a movement out of the corner of his eye, and turned to see two dragons flying towards them from between the peaks to the north. A large red dragon and a smaller yellow one; both in harness. He smiled involuntarily.
Temeraire, turning his head to follow Tharkay’s gaze, exclaimed, “Why, it is Iskierka and Immortalis, with Granby and Little! What a pleasure it will be, to see Granby again, and Immortalis. Though I don’t know why Iskierka must come as well,” he added in an undertone. “I am sure Immortalis would be happy to carry Granby along with Little.”
The two captains dismounted as Tharkay strolled up to the newcomers.
“Hallo, Tharkay,” said Granby. “I apologise for dropping in on you unannounced like this.”
“Not at all,” Tharkay replied, shaking his hand and Little’s. “I am always happy to welcome you to my home; you have a standing invitation, as I hope you know.”
“Well, yes, but not one for all our crew as well, I shouldn’t think,” said Granby in his usual forthright way. “I hope you don’t mind if we set up camp here for a day or two? We have brought our own provisions, of course; we shan’t eat you out of house and home.”
Tharkay gave a slight bow and opened his arms wide. “All I have is at the service of His Majesty, of course. I begrudge nothing to the Aerial Corps.”
“That is very prettily spoken, Tenzing; but I never know when you are mocking me,” said Granby, but he turned to wave his crew to dismount; Little was already assisting with Immortalis. “Roland has kindly given us orders to patrol in the mountains and other isolated places in these northern parts. We’re to make sure the ferals and other unharnessed beasts aren’t causing any trouble, or the people either, what with all the changes since the end of the war.”
Temeraire’s ruff came up. “I assure you, Laurence and I take great pains to discover and resolve peacefully and equitably any difficulties that may come up between dragons and men.”
“Oh, I’ve no doubt you do,” said Granby. “Our patrol area extends beyond your district. As I said, we’ll only be in your way a night; two at most.”
“Please feel free to stay as long as you need,” said Tharkay. “Is it just the two of you, or are the rest of your formation coming along?”
“Just us. Good Lord! Imagine an entire formation patrolling the interior; we’d never hear the end of it. No, to be honest,” Granby said quietly for Tharkay’s ear alone, “it’s a bit of make-work for Iskierka, until they’re ready to ship us back to India. The natives there are restless. --Oh, er, that is…” he trailed off unhappily.
“Quite,” said Tharkay dryly.
Granby cleared his throat. “Any road, Iskierka gets bored with formation flying and routine patrols; this’ll be a change of pace. And the locals hereabouts are many of them familiar with us from when we were beating off the irregulars during the invasion, so they shouldn’t be too frightened or worried when they see us coming.”
“And thus you consider this a fortunate assignment?”
“Yes, because otherwise I don’t see how either Iskierka or I can be considered either especially diplomatic, or as getting on well with the ferals - the Turkestan ferals, I mean, the ones who’ve taken up residence in the mountains along here, since neither she nor I speak their gabble. But what Roland’s noticed is that Iskierka minds much better when Immortalis is around to keep her steady; that’s the really fortunate bit. And if anyone’s worked out why, they’re keeping mum about it, thank God.”
Tharkay smirked. “Perhaps they’re hoping for a Kazilik-Yellow Reaper cross.”
Granby’s eyes widened. “Lord, wouldn’t that be a fine thing! A sociable Reaper with fire-breathing--”
“Iskierka’s fighting abilities with Immortalis’ tractability?”
Granby smiled. “Ha! Exactly. Won’t be long before they’ll be asking her for an egg, either. With no war on, and they know she’s willing and able, they’ll want some offspring of hers, whomever she chooses. They’d be in ecstasy for another cross with Temeraire, if only the hatchling would stay here, rather than flitting about the world. Speaking of,” he jerked his head towards Ning, who was conversing with the other dragons companionably, “why is she here? Isn’t she supposed to be in China, or looking to end a war somewhere or other?”
“Ning enjoys visiting here on occasion. I am not certain if it is merely to tweak Temeraire, or if she has another motive.”
“Well,” said Granby doubtfully, “both her parents are here in Britain, not that dragons generally give a fig for that. Although Temeraire speaks often enough about his mother. They even correspond.” Granby shook his head at the notion of dragons writing letters. Few aviators maintained the habit. “Perhaps she feels as much at home here as anywhere else?”
Tharkay shrugged. “Could be.”
Meanwhile, the subject of their conversation was asking Temeraire after the whereabouts of his own companion.
“Oh! Laurence has gone into town for the day,” replied Temeraire, with an affected air of unconcern.
“You let him go alone?” scoffed Iskierka. “You are not taking very good care of your captain.”
This was a bit much, in Tharkay’s opinion, as Laurence was no more than a dozen or so miles away, in peaceful country. However, there was a time when he might have agreed with her, as it seemed to him it did not matter how safe Laurence appeared to be, ensconced in the middle of a friendly army or his own country, but that when one returned to him, after attending to one’s own business, it would be discovered that he had barely escaped with his life from a rout, or had hared off to some other continent and been taken captive, or had gone to commit treason, and then apparently to sit content whilst his erstwhile prison burnt down around him. So Tharkay could understand the basis for Iskierka’s criticism, however little it applied in the current case. He hoped. Perhaps there did continue to be a nagging doubt that one had to work to quash.
Temeraire’s ruff had risen in indignation. “I certainly did offer to take him, and to wait outside the town, as it has not yet been improved for dragons, but he said he did not want to take up my day waiting upon him, and has ridden his horse instead.”
“Sometimes men like to be on their own, you know,” put in Immortalis. “It’s no good, making them always be with oneself.”
“Very true,” agreed Iskierka. “You should not hover so much over Laurence, Temeraire.”
This bit of sophistry left Temeraire speechless, though his ruff quivered eloquently.
Tharkay turned back to Granby, who was laughing quietly. “Have you encountered many problems, on your current assignment?”
“No, not so much, really. Mostly just those folks who are always happy to be complaining to someone about something. But better they complain to us, as Roland says, than to the Government.”
“Do you anticipate any of the dragons’ newly won rights being withdrawn?” Tharkay asked quietly.
Granby hesitated. “It’s a lot to ask of a country, to turn all their expectations upside down, especially when you don’t have a fellow like Napoleon to make them swallow it whether they like it or no. For the most part, the dragons interacting with people are friendly and helpful, and are happy to move along when there’s no work offered them in a particular place. But without the war, there’s less obvious need for the Aerial Corps, the eggs laid during the plague, and the hatchlings. Plus we’re hoping to receive a dozen or three of those eggs Napoleon and Lien had bred; some Flames-de-Gloire, or their crosses. That’s quite a lot to be asking the Government to keep fed.”
“Except the unharnessed ones, which are apparently successfully feeding themselves?”
“Well, perhaps; but then, you know, it’s often by taking work away from men, of which there are plenty come home from the war now, and who would like paying jobs themselves. And we still maintain the breeding grounds, for unharnessed dragons content with the old ways, and for ferals to keep them from stealing from private land or reserves. The game preserves and the breeding stocks were pretty well thrashed during the invasion; some folks think the unharnessed beasts are still depleting those stores. It’s been hard for some to get an accurate count.”
“There are plenty of men also who will take advantage of confusion during wartime and the aftermath,” observed Tharkay.
“True, but it’s easier to scapegoat the dragons.”
“Making them vulnerable to any actions the Government may want to take against them.”
“Right. Which is why we’re trying to stay ahead of the game. Or at least on top of it. We really appreciate Temeraire’s efforts--”
Tharkay could not help but raise a sceptical brow.
“We do! Now that we’re not at war, you understand, and have to maintain a united front.”
“And he is not nagging the Corps themselves for improvements.”
Granby snorted. “No, he’s got plenty of deputies still in the Corps to do that for him. But none of them are quite as noisy, and most of the harnessed beasts are pretty content, all said. --Ah, I had better go and help the crew arrange camp.”
Tharkay noticed with amusement that Temeraire was trying to assist in the placement of the tents for the camp by offering such helpful advice as: “The morning prospect will be much finer if you angle Granby’s tent just a little more to the south” and “Placing your cooking fires there will invite a path directly through that slight dip in the ground, which grows damp; your boots will become all over mud.”
Meanwhile Iskierka was arguing every point he made: “The finest prospect Granby sees every morning is me; he has told me so himself many times” and “Not all of us are so nice in our tastes that we require our crews to be spotless at all times; aviators are not such fragile creatures that they will become damaged by a bit of mud on their boots. In any case, I can dry up any muddy spots; my crew need never concern themselves with such.”
Turning away from her in frustration, Temeraire saw Tharkay coming towards him. “I wish it were not so highly incumbent upon a host to be polite to his guests, even when one is being quite rude,” he grumbled quietly.
Iskierka sniffed audibly and increased the volume of her conversation with Granby and her crew.
“Never mind, my friend,” said Tharkay, laying a comforting hand upon Temeraire’s muzzle. “In many circumstances, it is best simply to provide the opportunities, and allow one’s guests to determine for themselves how they prefer to enjoy them.”
Temeraire did not reply, but slowly his ruff settled back down. He rested his head on his forelegs and kept an oblique eye on the proceedings.
Tharkay gave him another affectionate pat and took his leave. He went inside the house to inform his staff of provisions he would like made for their recent influx of guests.
Returning outside to Temeraire’s pavilion, he was in time to see yet another dragon approaching. The slightly jagged look her scales gave to her silhouette made her unmistakable.
“Why, it is Churki!” said Temeraire, sitting up.
“Is Hammond with her?” asked Tharkay.
“Yes, he is. I wonder what they want.”
It wasn’t long before Churki had landed and Hammond climbed down from her back.
“I can lift you down just as easily, you know,” Churki said to him reproachfully. “I would be perfectly gentle and careful.”
“Yes, yes,” he answered absently, patting her leg before walking towards Tharkay, stumbling slightly.
“Just as I said,” observed Immortalis indulgently. “Men like to be independent.”
“Mr Hammond,” said Tharkay with a nod. “I hope I find you well.”
“Oh, yes,” the diplomat answered, still with a somewhat distracted air. “I never did take well to flying,” he murmured, whilst looking about at the collected dragons and aviators. “I see you have some company; I hope we have not arrived at an inconvenient time.”
“No, not at all,” said Tharkay in his dry manner. He did not know why it appeared that much of their acquaintance should have decided to visit today, but he did not mind in the least. It should prove a pleasant distraction for Laurence, who had still been out of sorts after their discussion at breakfast. “Would you care to take refreshment inside?” he asked Hammond. “We have laid in a stock of those leaves you enjoyed during your journey through South America.”
This succeeded in gaining Hammond’s interested attention. “Have you indeed? Why, thank you! Very kind, most generous.” As they walked towards the house, Hammond inquired, “Is Admiral-- that is, is Mr Laurence at home today?”
“He has gone into town, but is expected back this afternoon. You are most welcome to rest and recuperate from your journey in comfort whilst you wait.”
“Oh! Yes, I thank you, I am much obliged.”
Tharkay showed him into the drawing room and retrieved the box with the South American leaves Hammond enjoyed so much. Hammond helped himself at his host’s invitation and was soon settled back in an armchair by the fire chewing on a small wad. “Mmm, this is much better, thank you. Have you then also learnt to enjoy these leaves?”
“No, I find the numbing sensation somewhat unnerving. Laurence prefers his coffee above all else. We keep these on hand for those of our acquaintance who have taken to flying for convenience but find the sensation of it uncomfortable.”
Hammond was nodding vigorously in agreement. “Yes, yes, exactly.” Restored to himself, he looked about his environs, his eye catching on the numerous newspapers strewn about the side tables. As well as the Times and the Oxford Gazette , there were several from Scotland: The Glasgow Herald, The Press and Journal and a newly-started one from Edinburgh; from America there was the Halifax Gazette and a newspaper out of Boston. From the opposite side of the world were English-language papers from India: the Madras Courier and another out of Calcutta; and also the Sydney Gazette . There were additionally several French-language periodicals: one from Paris, a new one out of Corsica, and one all the way from Mauritius.
“My peripatetic youth has inclined me to a craving for more global news than is easy to acquire in my newly settled habit of living,” said Tharkay by way of explanation.
“Of course! I agree with your interest wholeheartedly. I am fortunate to have access to some of the diplomatic dispatches from our envoys around the world.”
“Since the end of the war, our local messengers Minnow and Moncey have induced some of the continental ferals, including Molic and Bistorta, to establish an international private courier route, which is one way I am able to obtain publications from as far away as India.”
Hammond hummed and nodded as he sorted through the papers. One he pulled closer, having to turn it this way and that to determine which way was up. “Is this, uh, Nepalese, then?” he asked.
“Bengali. If there is a publication in Nepali, I do not know of it.”
“How many languages do you speak?” asked Hammond, amazed. “Forgive me, I am used to thinking of myself as somewhat accomplished, having mastered Chinese, as well as Latin and French, of course; and then picking up Quecha and a few others along the way.”
“I am not certain I am any more accomplished than yourself, sir. I do not have much Bengali, but I was interested to learn of any papers printed in languages other than those of Europe. I am attempting to improve my comprehension of it by comparing its news to that of the other periodicals from India.” Tharkay smiled slightly. “I am afraid it is not very enlightening in itself; it is published by a missionary society.”
“Well, then I will not need to concern myself with it. You do not mind if I…” Hammond gestured towards the spread.
“Not at all; please, enjoy.”
“Thank you! I am certain I will. I see you have not found a publication from China either?”
Tharkay shook his head.
“No, neither have I. The closest I have come is The Prince of Wales Island Gazette.”
“Oh? I have not heard of it.”
“It is published in Penang; the British East India Company should be able to provide it for you.” Hammond’s voice trailed off; he was already engrossed in the India Gazette, from Calcutta.
Satisfied that his guest was as comfortable as possible, Tharkay took his leave, which was absently acknowledged, and went to check on the progress of the orders he had given the staff earlier. Once satisfied with those, he returned outside to the pavilion, in time to hear a conversation between Churki and Temeraire.
“No, Hammond’s family is not giving me any trouble,” stressed Churki. “They are perfectly content to be part of my ayllu, once Hammond explained how useful I have been to him, and I showed them how I could protect and provide for them.”
“Then I do not understand your concern,” said Temeraire. “You sound happy with your new ayllu.”
“Yes, but now Hammond himself wants to leave! I have recently discovered that he has been writing letters about returning to China, or possibly Russia. You would think all the difficulties we had during our last visit to those countries would have encouraged him to stay here, where it is lovely and peaceful. So much farming to be done! So many improvements to be made! Wonderful work for a lifetime, right here in England.”
“Yes, exactly!” agreed Temeraire. “Just as I have been saying. And all our friends are here. Well, most of them. I do have family and friends in China.”
“No one could object to your visiting them on occasion. But as for one of your ayllu establishing a career there, ridiculous!”
“I understand you perfectly,” said Temeraire.
“Then you will help me persuade Hammond to remain here in England?”
Immortalis was shaking his head. “Men like to be independent. If your Hammond wants to go to Asia, you had best go with him, to keep him safe. Those foreign parts are especially dangerous.”
“It is due to your poor management of your humans that this sorry state of affairs has come to pass!” exclaimed Churki, rounding on Immortalis, who was abruptly taken aback. “All of this attachment to a sole ‘captain’ whom you slavishly follow, and no attention given to the well-being of your whole ayllu! That is why you have so many humans living without any care or guidance; they have made such a mess of things here, I find.”
Much affronted, Immortalis retorted, “Then I wonder that you have left your own homeland to live in England, if things are so much more to your liking there and you are so unhappy here.” He turned away from the dragons’ conversation and located Captain Little, whom he curled about as best he could.
“Oh! I am sorry; I did not mean to offend him. Although I did only speak the truth,” Churki added, rather spoiling the effect of her initial apology.
“I wonder if you could clarify your concern for me,” said Ning. “I understand you consider Hammond and all his family to be part of your ayllu. You cannot bear to be parted from any of them, even if it is for a relatively short period of time?”
“Well, humans are so short-lived. And Hammond has not even had any children! None at all! I have been at great pains, working with his mother and his other older female relatives, to make a satisfactory marriage for him, which task they have been eager to pursue with me, so it is not anything his own family does not like, and he will not even consent to any such arrangement! He insists that he must be further along in his career before he considers settling down. It is absurd!”
In the pause that followed, Tharkay considered that he rather understood Hammond’s anxiety to further his career in a location far from Churki and his family.
“And so, if Hammond left a wife and children here in your care, with the rest of your ayllu, then you would be more content for him to travel away from you?” asked Ning.
“Because he would naturally return to his wife and children, so you would not be losing him from your own ayllu.” Ning continued.
“The places he wants to go are so far away! And very dangerous! I know; I had to exercise great care to keep him safe the previous times. He nearly died at so many points! How could I trust that he would even live to return?”
“But you would have the rest of your ayllu to console you if you lost one member; is that not what you have been arguing?”
“My ayllu is not yet so large that I can afford to lose even one member,” retorted Churki.
“How large would it need to be?” asked Ning curiously.
“That is none of your concern,” sniffed Churki and turned away from her.
Tharkay shared a slight smile, an understanding look, with Ning. He thought they perceived Churki’s concern better than she would admit.
“I think,” said Temeraire hesitantly, “that it is these past experiences with Hammond that has, perhaps, somewhat distorted your feelings about him.”
“What do you mean?” Churki frowned, which would have been a terrifying sight in a dragon of her type, if Tharkay had been one to be terrified of dragons.
“For a long time he was the only one in your ayllu; you had not met his family yet. And as you said, those initial travels were exceedingly dangerous; I should not at all wish to undergo any such journey again with Laurence!”
“You think I have become excessively attached to Hammond, to one man,” said Churki flatly.
“You might consider of it?” offered Temeraire.
Churki sniffed again. “You are all of you very young, and none of you have been properly raised; you are of no help whatsoever; I do not know why I even came here.”
“Was it because Hammond wished to visit here?” asked Ning, who apparently had yet to learn when to stop.
Churki did not dignify this with an answer. She gazed out over the dairy farm instead, which was lying some distance away and typically upwind, so the dragons’ presence did not disturb the cows. It was a fine prospect, Tharkay had to agree: he often found himself lost in admiration of it himself.
Whilst absorbed in this rewarding pastime, Tharkay discovered that Laurence had joined him, standing at his side, likewise enjoying the pleasing view. A smile took over Tharkay’s expression: he could not seem to help this expression of contentment whenever he was once again in Laurence’s company, even if they had been parted a mere matter of hours, rather than the long months that had divided them on previous occasions.
Laurence returned his smile, as guileless as Tharkay’s own, though a reinforcing reward nonetheless. “Are you contemplating how many cows must be sacrificed to feed this circus that seems to have descended upon us?”
“Granby assures me that the Corps have brought their own provisions,” Tharkay responded with a pretence of solemnity. “I have not heard the same from either Ning or Churki, unfortunately: they seem to have arrived empty-clawed, as it were.”
“Why, Laurence, there you are!” said Temeraire. He stretched his long neck towards him, as if to reassure himself that his companion was indeed still healthy and hearty after half a day’s absence. Laurence returned the gesture, walking to stand next to the dragon and comfortably stroking his muzzle. “Were you successful in your errands in town?”
“Yes, I was, and I enjoyed my ride there and back; thank you, my dear.”
“Of course! I am not so dependent upon you that I cannot tolerate any absences such as you may require.” This Temeraire said perhaps more loudly than was strictly necessary, no doubt for both Churki’s and Iskierka’s edification.
Thus alerted to Laurence’s presence, all their guests made their greetings and received Laurence’s glad welcomings. And Laurence did indeed seem very happy to see all who had come, however unheralded their arrival. Not long after two of them (well, three, including Temeraire, of course) had settled down on the estate, Laurence told Tharkay that he considered himself a social creature by nature, rather preferring than disdaining the company of their fellows. Tharkay made no argument, but privately wondered whether Laurence deceived himself: he had always known Laurence to be polite in company, to move and speak easily amongst men and women, no matter the occasion; but he had rarely seen Laurence actively enjoy social gatherings.
Apparently that had been due to the circumstances of their acquaintance: Laurence had been nearly always engaged upon efforts and duties in the war, often in the direst of situations. Then his treason, which had set him apart from his own self, naturally separated him from others, and divided him from his own joy, for a long time. Over the past year, Tharkay had had the pleasure of watching Laurence recover from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortunes of war, and amongst the general enlivening and relaxing of his mood had appeared a most convivial man indeed, one who anticipated with pleasure the simplest of dinner parties, who thrived in the company of all the variety of visitors the estate attracted.
Whilst Laurence enjoyed the attentions of today’s diverse collection of guests, Tharkay made his way over to Temeraire to speak quietly in his ear. “Would you mind if we were all to dine in your pavilion tonight?”
“No, not at all,” replied Temeraire, a little puzzled by the question. “We usually do, when we have so many gathered. --Oh, I suppose I must ask Ning to stay for dinner.”
Tharkay smiled faintly. “You need not, if you dislike it.”
“No, no,” said Temeraire, a touch of the martyr in his air. “It would not be polite otherwise. Of course Churki and Hammond must also be asked to dine with us tonight. And then I suppose she and Ning must be invited to spend the night here; there is nowhere else convenient for large dragons close by. Four heavyweights, and Immortalis too; we will sleep warm tonight, if somewhat damp from Iskierka’s steam. I’ll have her sleep on the outer side; she’ll want to be close to Granby in any case.”
“It is well you had the foresight to design your pavilion to accommodate so many.”
“Naturally. I know some dragons build ones to fit only themselves, but that is not pleasant, to be unable to enjoy a companionable dinner in comfort; to be unable to invite one’s friends to spend the night, or else to watch them sleep on bare ground with no covering whilst one enjoys all the luxury of a warm and dry pavilion. That would be quite wretched, I think.”
Tharkay was not certain if Temeraire, like Laurence, was a gregarious, generous creature by nature, or if he’d been influenced by his captain. He liked to think that the latter, and not mere luck, was responsible. “Indeed,” he answered. “Your guests are fortunate to have such a considerate host. Ah, if you will excuse me, I must alert Laurence to Hammond’s presence.”
However, upon turning to Laurence, he saw there was no need; Hammond had already come out to join them and was engaged in a lively discussion with Laurence.
Tharkay had yet to grasp the thread of the conversation when Ning spoke up: “If you do not wish to travel to Russia by yourself, Mr Hammond, I would be pleased to accompany you.”
Churki turned on her, outraged. “You are not stealing my Hammond!”
Ning looked at her with mild surprise. “Why, no, of course not. Whyever would I want to? It is only that I may be travelling in that direction myself, and would be happy to assist Mr Hammond upon his journey.”
“What business takes you to Russia, if I may inquire?” Hammond asked Ning.
“The Tsar has requested assistance from the Emperor of China in assimilating dragons into Russian society in a more equitable, peaceful, and mutually beneficial way than has heretofore been the case. His Imperial Majesty mentioned in my hearing that he would view favourably such success as the Russians may have in this endeavour.”
“Yes, exactly!” agreed Hammond.
“Has the Emperor spoken to you, then? Or perhaps the Tsar?” inquired Ning.
“Ah, no, not directly, not as such. However, there has been much talk of the effort in English diplomatic circles, and my name has been mentioned numerous times, due to my previous experience in both China and Russia; and with dragons,” he added, with a bow to Churki.
“Indeed,” said Ning. “Although my knowledge of the Inca is sadly superficial, I believe their example could prove fruitful for the Russian efforts, as the Incan dragons do a great deal of work to improve the agricultural yield of the land, thus supporting the needs of both humans and dragons. The greatest fear of the Russian people, as I understand it, is that dragons compete with humans for scant resources, instead of cooperating to provide an abundance for everyone, as the Inca do.”
“All you say is true,” said Churki coolly. “However, my ayllu, which includes Hammond and his family, all live in England. There are plenty of Inca in France now, any of whom can assist in the Russian project. It is their responsibility, in any case, as the dragons in question will be hatching from eggs bred by the French. There is no need for Hammond or me to go back to Russia.”
“Churki naturally speaks for herself,” interposed Hammond hastily, “and it is true that my family have come to value her assistance. Whilst I had hoped to persuade her to accompany me to Russia, where I will act in an advisory capacity for a limited time, I certainly have no desire for her to come unwilling, nor to deprive my family of her presence here. That is to say, Ning, I am very happy to accept your very kind offer.”
“You would leave me? To go to her?! No!” exclaimed Churki, aghast.
“My dear,” said Hammond, quietly, patting her gently, “I am in no way committing myself to be Ning’s companion, at all; you heard her say as much herself. This is a temporary arrangement, for convenient travelling--”
“She is only barely out of her shell! A mere hatchling!” Whilst Churki was certainly much older than Ning, to hear this complaint regarding a dragon nearly her own size was somewhat odd. “You cannot trust her to have a proper care for you - I do not trust her, and you are mine!”
“Churki, my dear,” murmured Hammond, frantically looking about at all the interested faces watching the dispute. “Let us talk privately upon this matter, shall we?” He was walking away as he spoke, and Churki was perforce made to follow.
“You were the one who wanted to come here,” she was heard to say. “As if Temeraire or Laurence could have anything useful to advise on the subject; you see what has become of your notions! He has begotten a people-stealing little thief - though it is no wonder, her own egg having been stolen, and flung halfway around the world, no proper upbringing…”
Tharkay turned to Laurence, who was trying to maintain a serious, concerned look upon his face; however, his twitching lips betrayed his amusement at poor Hammond’s predicament. “Were you able to provide any useful advice for them?”
Laurence shook his head with a small, rueful smile. “Temeraire and I have faced one or two similar situations, when each of us felt drawn to a different location; but we have been fortunate in coming easily to a like mind on those occasions. It has helped that even when Temeraire began to consider other humans besides myself as his ‘own’, those men were generally our crew. Then again, I have been with him since he hatched, and many of his opinions have naturally been formed along my own lines of thinking, so it is no wonder we should nearly always see our duty in the same light.”
“And even to value duty with same high regard,” noted Tharkay.
Temeraire interrupted. “It is not true, that I only think the way I do because Laurence thinks likewise. I know that I have also had an impact upon Laurence’s thinking, and our experiences have affected us both.”
“All very true, my dear,” said Laurence, smiling. “I did not mean to imply I alone have formed your cast of mind.”
“Anyone who reflects upon it will determine that duty is of the highest importance,” continued Temeraire. “For all of us to coexist in peace and prosperity we must do our duty towards our fellows.”
“I must beg your pardon, Temeraire; I have never considered of duty very highly myself,” said Tharkay.
“But you do!” the dragon exclaimed, ruff rising. “You assisted us in obtaining the eggs we needed for the war against Napoleon, at great cost to your own welfare; then you returned - twice! - to bring Arkady and his fellows to help us fight--”
“And I was well rewarded by Government for those endeavours, which monies I have applied toward obtaining the riches of the estate I now live upon.”
“And that was the final example I was going to mention: You had said that your cousins did nothing to improve the estate, but merely wrung what they could out of it, reducing its value for everyone; whereas you yourself have invested not only money but your own labour towards improvements. And not only on the estate itself, but for everyone who works on it, or near it.”
“It is true, Tenzing,” said Laurence, with a smile. “All the years we have known you, and especially in this last one, we have observed you closely, and have seen how hard you work towards what you view as your duty.”
Tharkay considered his response for a moment. “It is all a species of selfishness, I assure you. To see my friends happy makes me happy, to invest in work upon the estate now will pay off in future returns.”
Temeraire snorted. “Which is all to say, doing your duty makes you and your fellows better off; exactly what Laurence and I believe. You may affect to be a cynic, and pretend at selfishness, but you will not fool anyone who really knows you, as we do.”
“Like all your acquaintance, I suspect,” added Laurence, lips twitching. “If I were to enquire generally amongst the Aerial Corps, the East India Company, and others with whom you have worked, I wonder what description of your character I would hear.”
Tharkay had not the sanguine view of his general reputation that Laurence evidently held, but he had little interest in disillusioning his friend. “I have made my attempt to enlighten you regarding my true nature,” he said blandly. “If you prefer to view me in more positive terms through the lights of your own values, I will not argue.”
Laurence chuckled. Temeraire nudged Tharkay affectionately, Laurence bracing his arm to prevent his falling over.
Temeraire looked over his shoulder at noises coming from the pavilion. “Oh! They are setting up for the dinner, excellent!”
Granby had also noticed the extensive preparations, including several long tables and dozens of chairs. He made his way toward Tharkay and Laurence. “I didn’t mean for you to go to all this effort!” he protested. “We did bring our own provisions.”
“Yes, but as Tenzing has just been assuring us, he is a very selfish man, and thus insists upon making his friends happy to keep his own spirits up,” said Laurence with a sideways look at Tharkay.
Tharkay paid as much mind to this jibe as it deserved, which was to say, none at all; and responded directly to Granby. “I had Doone work with your quartermaster to combine our resources for dinner tonight. I hope you have no objection? Otherwise, I am not certain how we would feed Ning and Churki, who were unfortunately not as considerate as you officers of the Corps.”
“That is not true: we can always provide for our friends when they visit!” said Temeraire indignantly. “Or even if they are not quite friends,” he added quietly, looking towards Ning.
“Tharkay spoke in fun, my dear,” said Laurence.
“Doone?” asked Granby. “Lieutenant Doone?”
“Yes, he was our supply officer on our last campaign,” answered Laurence. “He impressed me very much, handling the complex demands of our forces and adapting to changing methods. I decided to lure him away from His Majesty’s service into mine and Temeraire’s.”
Little, who had followed Granby, now said quietly, “Creating more defection, I see. Is there no end to the trouble you will cause the Corps, Laurence?”
Laurence laughed aloud. They had come to learn that Little’s quiet nature hid a dry, sharp wit, which he felt more politic to keep silent most of the time. In their presence, however, the presence of his close friends, he had learnt to relax and enjoy.
“Poor Hammond,” said Granby, looking at where the man and Churki stood, still arguing, some distance away. “I almost feel sorry for him.”
“What do you think of this plan of Russia’s?” Little asked Laurence.
“I think Hammond and Ning are well-suited to advising the Tsar on the matter,” said Laurence firmly. “I am pleased to leave the entire affair in their capable hands.”
“Hear him, hear him!” said Granby. “No need for us to borrow trouble. We’ve plenty here at home.”
Tharkay listened to the conversation and contemplated not just his estate, but all those who were gathered upon it now, and reflected that Temeraire was right: it was very convenient to have all their friends come here to visit. He might be willing to concede that maintaining the estate and all those connected to it was a duty of his, as well as a pleasure; but it was not duty at all that led him to open his home to both planned visits and any friends who cared to drop by unannounced. That, he would insist, quietly, to himself, was pure selfish pleasure. Generosity benefitted not only the recipient, but the ego of the giver; especially for one who for most of his life could ill afford to give anything.
As Laurence’s and Temeraire’s duty kept them here, in Britain, then clearly Tharkay’s duty lay in providing them a comfortable home from which to perform it, and generous hospitality to all their dutiful friends.