Granby had wanted to say it in Cusco. They had stood together on the terraced hills that overlooked the court of the Sapa Inca, all the wide world away from anything like home and anyone who might have reprimanded them, and Granby's heart was heavy. It longed to unburden itself. A second confession could scarcely have worsened matters, the way they stood already, and perhaps it would have been better to get it all out at once. If Laurence had liked to shun him for any of it, then Granby might as well get his heart broken properly and over with.
But Laurence had been so dreadful about it, about him being an invert, that is; all polite confusion and awkward commiseration, so bound and determined to be an absolute gentleman. Granby would almost have preferred it if he had recoiled from him, or looked at him with horror—but no, he wouldn't have, of course not; he could never have borne that. But neither could he say what else he felt, not in the face of William Laurence and his perfect damned courtesy.
"I am very sorry," Laurence had said, "—very sorry, indeed," apologizing when there was nothing to be sorry for. Granby felt certain that his other confession would have been received the same way, had he had the courage to make it. Laurence would have apologized for being loved, and unable to love in return, and he would mean it, damn him. Granby had no wish to hear it.
His feelings must have shown on his face, and in his silence. Laurence clapped him on the shoulder, once, to comfort him. Granby did not reach up to touch his hand, did not kiss the fingers, so well known from all the long years. He kept perfectly still, and after a moment Laurence took his hand away.
He had been inexpressibly stupid at the beginning. It had begun harmlessly enough, a delicate flutter in his stomach when they went up for maneuvers together, his eye lingering too long when Laurence fastened his harness. He was handsome enough, and a good captain, even if he still seemed dreadfully severe and stiff. He liked an older man. Courage had always been attractive to him, too, and in that respect no one could be at all dissatisfied with Captain Laurence. He had loved before for worse reasons, and Granby cheerfully gave himself permission to be bewitched.
It rather embarrassed him, but Granby had been in love many times. He had not expected it to last any longer than the others. He had sometimes been in love for a mere matter of days, or hours, always a transient, fleeting emotion. Little had laughed at him for it, and called him heartless; Granby had never minded. He saw no point in a lasting attachment in this service. It was not as if he could expect a family or a home, after all, and he was used to leaving friends and lovers behind when switching posts. There was no harm in indulging in fantasy, for however long it lasted. There was great fun in it, too, for a while; he made Little leave on his captain's coat when they were in bed, much to the man's quiet amusement, and it gave him more interesting incentive for his work, which was all to the good in any case; he thought if he performed well enough on Temeraire, he might soon be tapped for premier on a formation leader somewhere, perhaps even a Longwing or a Regal Copper.
It surprised him, then, to find himself turning down Captain Roland, when such an offer arrived. He puzzled about it at the time, and had even more time to think it over during the long voyage to China, all of them kept together within the narrow confines of the ship, with danger and strange sights on every horizon. He remembered, as if he had seen it through thickly bottled glass, being sick with fever, and having the captain come and visit him. Laurence sat by his bed a very long time, talking in a low voice, and laid his hand on Granby's forehead. His hand was cool and gentle on his burning skin. He had wanted to be sick forever, if only to have Laurence come and tend him. The fever had subsided; the feeling had remained.
By the time they arrived in China, Granby was as well acquainted with his own feelings as he ever wanted to be.
Granby had, he rather felt, a knack for making wretched bargains with fortune; he had wanted to be fevered, and so he was, it seemed, forever on his sickbed with poor Laurence leaning over him like some broad-shouldered angel of mercy; he had cavalierly offered various arms, legs, and eyes to make Iskierka less of a tyrant, and so here he was. It was the last time, he promised himself. He was not a religious man, particularly, but he felt rather suspicious now that there was something paying close attention to him, and it was both bloody-minded and literal. No more promises or offers of various parts, at all, not unless it was staggeringly and monstrously important.
Right now, however, he would have given his other arm to be able to shave properly.
He had never given much thought to the act of shaving before, much as he had never given much thought to eating with a fork and knife, or tying back his own hair, or any number of tasks that were now so daunting as to seem impossible. But Granby was not inclined to give way before them: he was determined that everything should be as it was before. He would not be an object of pity, he would not be a burden for Laurence to carry. Everything became easier directly he put on his hook, and a good thing, too, as they were all shortly in such a rush of capturing ships and settling with the Tswana and talking Portuguese nobles off their mad ledges that it was some time before Augustine, catching him privately, said,
"John, I do not mean at all to criticize, but have you noticed that you're growing a distinct resemblance to a rather unfortunate bear?"
And Granby realized, with a start, that he had not shaved since they left the Incan Empire.
He had immediately found the nearest mirror clean enough to show his face and lathered the month's worth of growth on his chin and neck. Having done so much, however, he hesitated: the cut-throat razor he held in his unsteady right hand seemed to grow sharper the closer it came to his skin. Dismayed, he set it down again. It wasn't only that his weaker right hand did not seem to be able to hold it quite as steady as he liked, but also that he wanted to brace his other hand against the skin of his face, to flatten it for shaving. A hook was not sufficient for the purpose, he found; experimenting had only led him to narrowly avoid poking himself in the eye.
Still it had to be done. He could not claim to be Laurence, and present an immaculate appearance to the world no matter how improbable the circumstances, but he did not mean to be as bedraggled as all that. Anyway Iskierka would inevitably try to repair his appearance, if he left it untended too long, no doubt by covering him with as many rubies and emeralds as she could contrive. He set the razor unsteadily against his cheek.
"Poor Iskierka won't know who to kill when she finds my throat slit," he said aloud.
"Let us worry about that another time, if you please," said a voice from the doorway. Granby lowered the razor with relief.
"Laurence! Pray tell me the Incans have sent over some beasts and we're off to battle directly; I daresay this scruff is as good as armor."
"I am sorry to disoblige you," said Laurence with rough humor, "but it appears that peace will reign for at least one more day. No, I'm afraid the prince means to do us honor. We are all invited to dinner tonight, and no doubt Hammond will have some instruction for us. We shall have to wait for your hopes to be answered; in the meantime, however, may I be of use to you? Captain Little led me to believe that you may need some assistance."
Granby felt himself coloring. So Augustine had sent Laurence to his door, had he?
"—No," he said, after a moment. "No, it is only an infernal struggle, Laurence, but I will master it yet. I do not suppose," he added with desperation, "that this is not a particularly important dinner, or perhaps that the prince will not mind just a few nicks? Nothing to signify, of course—"
Laurence coming forward took the razor neatly out of his hand.
"Do sit, John. This will not take a minute."
"Oh, will it," said Granby despairingly, but he sat. There was no other chair in the room; Laurence was obliged to lean over him. The cut-throat razor was steady in his hand, and he set it expertly against Granby's chin, his other thumb resting against his cheekbone. Granby pressed himself back into his chair. He could feel every part of his body yearning to move closer to Laurence, and he had no wish to betray himself. His skin was alive at Laurence's touch. He was very conscious of his racing heartbeat, which he was sure was visible in his throat, the very throat so exposed to Laurence now.
With deft, methodical strokes Laurence began to scrape away at his beard, which fell away in tufts to the floor. His eyes were intently focused on the task before him, his face set with careful concentration. Looking at Laurence with his face so close to his own was torture. Shutting his eyes was even worse. He could feel every minute shift in Laurence's movements. The rough pad of his thumb dragged fire across his cheek. Granby felt the heat of Laurence's body as he came closer, but could only wait in blind anticipation for the next stroke of the razor; a peculiar kind of agony.
Yet he dared not open his eyes again. He was sure Laurence would see something in them that he could neither take back nor deny.
His cheeks were done, finally; he felt Laurence get up to rinse off the blade in the water basin. Then he was back, with a freshly stropped blade. He leaned in very close to get at the delicate bits around his nose and mouth. Granby was very aware of the warmth of Laurence's leg as it pressed tightly against his own; there was precious little room for him to work. Granby hardly dared breathe. It seemed to him that Laurence was taking an ungodly long time around his lips; he could feel the blade stroking carefully up and down, and Laurence's fingers braced on his cheek, thumb now at the corner of his mouth. Granby was beginning to become inordinately well-acquainted with that thumb pad, with the callous right in the middle; the one part of Laurence that he knew about as well as he wanted to.
Laurence went away again to the water basin. Granby held himself still, trying not to shiver like an untouched boy. Then Laurence was back, his fingers on Granby's chin, tipping his head back. Granby, feeling safe to open his eyes again, stared at the ceiling. The razor was pressing against the skin of his neck now, cutting through the last few weeks of growth, Will Laurence's hand as certain as the blade itself. Granby could not easily describe what he felt at that moment. There was a trembling within him, which Granby was doing his best to suppress, and his chest felt painfully tight. He felt that he might burst out of his skin. The razor withdrew, finally. To cap it all he felt a soft damp cloth go all over his face, cleaning him off; Laurence's handkerchief, he realized after a moment.
"There," said Laurence finally, while Granby tried to recover himself. "Not a scratch on you. Iskierka and Hammond will both be pleased."
"They can both go to the devil together, but thank you anyway. I suppose I'm fit for the House of Lords, now." He looked himself in the mirror and saw a face much altered from the one he remembered. "If the Admiralty ever see fit to strip your rank again, Laurence, I shall hire you to valet me. I suppose I am as presentable as I will ever be, but lord! How happy I will be not to stand up again in front of these foreign royals and make a polite sound. We cannot get gone from their sight fast enough. Give me our old mad king home in England, any day, who does not know us from a shoemaker to invite us to dinner, and would not constantly be trying to marry me."
Laurence said gently,
"As for that, John, it may be some time yet before you are quit of monarchs..."
So it seemed that they were meant to return to the Imperial Court of China, as if one trip were not enough for any body. Granby imagined Iskierka's reaction upon seeing in how many ways Temeraire was given precedence in that country, and sighed, but he did not otherwise object.
"Well, we shall have to make the best of it," Granby said. "And it'll hardly be privation for the dragons, at least, in China; better than we can say for many other places."
"I hope I do not impose on you too terribly for it," said Laurence. "The journey may be for many months yet."
"Laurence, how ridiculous. Of course not," said Granby. "But however are we supposed to leave?"
Somehow there was another ship. Granby was tired enough of sea travel that he could have burned it himself, with no need for Iskierka. How many times now had he chased William Laurence around the world? Did the man have a compass that pointed only at the nearest ship?
"This voyage will be better than the last, I hope," said Laurence, as apologetic as if he had heard Granby's thoughts. "And perhaps with a better outcome."
"I suppose I've only one arm left to lose, and the Emperor of China can hardly hope to take me to wife, so there's good news enough for me already." Granby leaned against the railing, turning his face to the wind. "Not that our journeys ever seem to end as properly as they should. It seems I can hardly reach one port without being directed to the next, I may as well be the Flying Dutchman. How does the play go? Twelfth Night, or some such—"
"'Journeys end in lovers meeting,'" said Laurence, smiling. "Perhaps the hands will perform it for us."
"I'd rather see my own journey's end." He paused, and added, "But that is the nature of the service, I suppose."
Laurence said, hesitatingly, "There will be the other aviators in our complement, this time. I am particularly glad for Captain Little's company."
Granby stared, trying to understand what he was getting at. "Oh?" he managed.
"Permit me to say," Laurence said, awkward with a hint of color high on his cheek, "that there are few men of whom I think so highly."
Granby closed his eyes in horror. Laurence was giving them his blessing.
"I see," said Granby, strangled. And then, "No, you don't see. Little and I—"
Laurence was looking at him, nothing but concern on his face. Granby wished he could trace the lines that time and the service had written there. He wished he could write new ones of their own. If he could get on his knees right there, on the deck of the ship, and beg for it, he would have.
"It's not what you think," said Granby, miserable. "Iskierka knows more than I've let on to her about, but she doesn't know everything, either. I—"
Hammond, huffing up to them on the deck, forced an end to the conversation.
"Ah, Captain, there you are! I must tell you that it is of the utmost importance that we begin preparing for the Imperial Court with every moment we have. Prince Mianning will expect us to be fluent in the language and customs by the time we arrive. I will say, it is of the utmost use for us to have an agent of the court here with us, and we must not waste any time in practicing the forms with Gong Su. You remember the technique, I hope?" and Granby, grateful for the interruption, slunk away.
It had scared him how close he had come to confessing.
He couldn't avoid Laurence completely, after that. There were dinners on board the ship, formal ones, thrown by Captain Blaise, and informal gatherings among the captains, dice and cards and conversations serving to while away the long hours of the voyage. He sat next to Laurence in the ship's glittering stateroom and only asked him to pass along the Madeira. They made a pair at whist and spoke only of the weather or the game. Laurence could not have failed to notice the distance Granby had suddenly put between them, but he never spoke of it. It was so like him. Granby suspected that Laurence would have let him cut him dead without saying a word, rather than be rude.
The days were long. Every night Granby was aware of Laurence, sleeping in the next room, separated only by a thin bulkhead. They sat at the same table for breakfast. Laurence shifted, his elbow brushing against Granby's remaining arm, and Granby dropped his fork. He focused on breathing for the rest of the meal. Augustine, who knew everything, of course, threw him worried looks. Hammond made it easier for him. More and more often, he demanded the monopoly of Laurence's time, often keeping him from early morning until late into the night, until at last Temeraire threatened to dig up the floorboards so that they could go flying. Granby found himself feeling an odd sensation; relief and fury, mingled. Having to see Laurence, to be near him, was inimical to his health. It was always a great effort not to touch him, and every conversation turned into an agonizing struggle not to say something entirely inappropriate. It was safer, and better, to stay away.
Yet the thought that Hammond should be shut up with him instead maddened him. He felt sick with it. Granby wanted to be the one there with him, from morning until night, wanted to serve him, help him, as he had done before, when Laurence was his captain. He wanted to be there in Hammond's place; he knew, at the same time, that he was being irrational. Granby had no business helping Laurence prepare for China; he had no place at Laurence's side. The feeling persisted, uneasily akin to jealousy; Granby forced himself to stop thinking about it.
The days were long, but the months were short. They would be entering the Sea of Japan soon, Captain Blaise announced one day, and Granby realized that very soon they would arrive at China's shores. Laurence would soon be swallowed up by the Imperial Court and all their intrigues. Granby could be of no use to him there. And if Laurence stayed—Granby's heart hammered painfully. And if Laurence should stay in China, as he had once told Temeraire he would, if Laurence would stay—
There could be nothing for Granby in China. He could not depend on Iskierka to fling him madly after Laurence, as she had done before. They would sail back to Europe, to the war with France, and Laurence would remain behind.
Granby was struck by an unreasoning fear. He had done it before. Laurence had sailed to Africa without him, after all. Granby had left him on shore at New South Wales. But this felt different, somehow. He couldn't explain it. He knew only that now, less than at any other time, he could not have let Laurence go.
"Forgive me, Captain, if I intrude, but your instruction at the moment is at a somewhat delicate place. We may well find it advantageous to schedule further practice sessions—we are in nowise ready to face the Emperor, and you cannot imagine the very great weight the court gives to the smallest matters, the utmost perfection is necessary—"
Granby, descending from the dragondeck, found Hammond once again harrying Laurence. The hours he spent every day shut up with Hammond and Gong Su were, it seemed, not been enough; more was being required.
"And, Captain, you must consider the very great importance of the credit your performance will give to the crown prince. You dedication so far has been commendable, but we are not so confident yet that we are not in need of further practice. The forms of your greeting to the Emperor—"
Laurence looked so very weary that Granby spoke without thinking.
"Here, now, what are you on about, bothering the captain?" he said. "Haven't you had enough blood for today, you old bat? I won't say you're coming off a mad governess over the whole affair, but anyone can see Laurence doesn't need any more damnable lessons. He's more likely to fall dead asleep at the Emperor's feet, the way you keep pressing on. Lord knows he's not a debutante in his first season, I think Laurence can be trusted to make a few polite sounds without making an ass of himself."
Hammond spun around, mopping his forehead. He didn't look very well, Granby noticed with satisfaction.
"You seem to think nothing more is at stake than a presentation at a ball!" he said hotly. "I assure you, the future of our entire mission—if not Britain herself—depends on these vital points of etiquette the Chinese find enormously important! The tiniest flaw in our entrance—the merest mistake--will be seized upon by enemies of the throne to undermine us."
"Yes, yes, Laurence will be sure to practice his curtsey, I'm sure. But not tonight, in any case—I'm afraid Laurence has already agreed to an engagement with me tonight," said Granby, hoping that Laurence did not begrudge the invention. "I hope you won't mind very much."
"Mind? Yes, I should say that I would mind—"
"Very good," said Granby cheerfully, choosing to be deaf. He took Laurence by the shoulder and steered him to his cabin. Hammond, like some very determined terrier, followed them down to the captain's quarters, yammering on about the devastation of the China trade and the wreck of all of Britain's hopes, or something such like. It all very much noise to Granby; he turned and shut the door on Hammond's face as he was going on about the inevitable domination of Napoleon's empire, should the mission fail. He shook his head.
"By God, Laurence, I don't envy you in the least. The very vulture is nothing to it. If he isn't forcing a fellow into marriage, he's sending him mad with dancing lessons. This is a strange sort of gothic novel we've wandered into."
That brought a smile to Laurence's face, at least. Granby had not seen it since the beginning of the voyage; he had forgotten to treasure it. Granby stared, because of the way it changed his entire face, making him look younger, for once, than his years. His eyes were darker when he smiled, or perhaps it was only the shadows in his cabin. The sun was going down in front of the ship, and only the reflections cast from the water shed any light into the cabin.
"Hammond is an unlikely choice of villain," said Laurence; rather wrongly, in Granby's opinion. "It is not—I do not resent him. I am determined to see out my duty, and I do not doubt what he says of the very importance of the mission. It is only chafing, at times, to be constantly a student."
Granby snorted. "You'd be right to resent him, if you want my opinion on the matter. Not that anyone in their senses should pick me to be a prince of anything—no, I suppose Iskierka would, which only proves my point." He rummaged through the chest at the foot of his bed, throwing out a mess of rumpled shirts and a slightly faded book that he had half-heartedly begun reading. Finally he held up a bottle of brandy, triumphant. "Shall we? I wouldn't lay odds that Hammond isn't outside in the hall at this moment, ready to pounce; you're much better off in here with me."
"It would seem so," said Laurence ruefully, and accepted a glass from Granby's hand. Their fingers brushed. They drank. The sun died, and the nearly full moon came up; the waters, unusually calm, shone a little with the eerie green phosphorescence Granby had sometimes seen on long sea-voyages. A foxfire sea and a gibbous moon. A night for witches, he might have said, save that Laurence disliked superstition. A night for lovers.
They spoke of other things, a conversation that unspooled gradually between sips of brandy, until it was as if for all the world they were captain and lieutenant again, sharing a private drink at the end of a day's work. The years had been pulled back, but there was no treason to come, and no exile; Granby was still young and foolish enough to believe that love could never hold him, and Laurence had not yet let the world make him grim. It was idle, foolish fantasy, and Granby forced himself out of such imaginings. Granby would not give up Iskierka for anything, not even to be Laurence's premier again, and what Laurence had done, he would never undo. Yet still there was a part of him that longed to live those years over again, those wasted, wonderful years that he had spent longing for affection that could never be returned to him in full measure; he could not help but wonder if Laurence felt the same.
"I will not deny the simplicity of those years," said Laurence, when Granby could not help posing a version of the question to him, "And perhaps no man would quibble with a return to youth, if offered. There is appeal, certainly, in believing that we might make remedy for the mistakes of the past, or even avoid them completely. Yet to consider it too deeply can only invite regret, and regret is not forgiveness. That can not be earned by dwelling on the past."
He spoke as an authority on the subject. Granby said lightly,
"Oh, I cannot say so. I find that the more I think on years gone by, the more I find to forgive myself for. I've seldom wronged anyone as much as I have myself." Granby brought out the bottle again, and Laurence did not turn away the offered glass. They sat drinking together for a while, in easy silence, watching the moon-lit horizon shift outside Granby's window.
Presently Laurence set his glass down.
"I would speak on that subject," he said, "if you will permit me. I thought I had offended you. It seemed to me that I may have made an unwelcome remark. If I have, I would ask forgiveness for it, if I can."
"Forgive you?" said Granby, very startled. "Lord, for what? If anything, I should be asking you for forgiveness. Turning cold all of a sudden without telling you why, barely saying a word to you over the past months—I've been a complete swine about the whole business."
"Then, if I may ask," began Laurence, a new urgency in his voice, and then he cut himself off. "I beg your pardon. I would never hope to intrude."
"I wish you would," said Granby, low.
"John? What do you mean?"
Granby refilled their glasses, a trifle too generously. He took a long draught before he spoke. "What were we speaking of, the last time we spoke? Spoke for real, I mean, and not damned stiff niceties at dinner."
Laurence hesitated. "We were speaking of Captain Little, I believe."
"Yes," said Granby. "I was—I was trying to tell you that we aren't lovers."
After a short silence Granby went on.
"Not to say we never were, nor that we won't ever be again, but—"
He trailed off.
"Forgive me, then," said Laurence, after a moment. "I assumed."
"You weren't wrong to, I suppose. We always got along well enough. And we were looking for the same thing, not to be a lecher about it. We might still be together, if not for...Well. The truth is, I haven't had a lover for some time. I'm sorry," he said suddenly, lurching to his feet. "I don't know where this is coming from. Am I being indelicate?"
Laurence looked up at him from his seat by the window. Oh, he looked young; and it occurred to Granby then that they were young, the both of them, that they might have years and lifetimes ahead of them, if they wanted it, and if the war did not get very much in their way. It was funny, in a way, because that had never occurred to him before. He had always been so very concerned with the moment he was in, always chasing the next approving look, the next lingering touch, the next adventure.
"No," said Laurence, in a voice that was so low as to be nearly inaudible. "You cannot speak too much, on this."
He was so tired of that chase.
Granby was still standing. He had drunk the brandy too quickly, and it had gone to his head. He sank down to the floor by Laurence's feet.
"Will," he said, begging. "Just ask me. Please."
Laurence took a breath. The meager light coming in through the window touched his eyes and lips with silver. Granby wished he had lit a lamp. He couldn't see the expression on his face. Laurence deserved every light there was in the world, and Granby could look at him forever. Laurence touched his tongue to his lips and said,
"I should not ask; I should not want to know. Forgive me. You said that you and Little were lovers. Why are you not lovers still?"
"Because there's only one man that I love," said Granby. "Will—"
His breath caught. He couldn't even say it, in the end. Instead he took Laurence's sea-calloused hands in his own and pressed them to his lips, shaking just with the touch of him. He had trusted Laurence before with knowledge that could have ended his life, but he hadn't feared that as he feared doing this now. It wasn't his life he was putting into Laurence's hands, but his heart. It felt harder, infinitely harder.
"John—" he said, and Granby kissed his hands again, his lips lingering on the knuckles, large and slightly uneven from years of ungentlemanly pursuits, brushing along the fingers and underneath to the palms, trying to convey everything he felt and could not say.
At last he stopped, and looked up into Laurence's face. He was breathing fast.
"I am very sorry," Laurence said, and Granby felt his heart shrivel in his chest. "—sorry, indeed, that I did not suspect earlier."
Granby forced himself to breathe.
"What?" he asked, and then Laurence kissed him full on his open mouth.
The next night there was a storm. The ship shivered and groaned under the shrieking wind. The shoals were very near. The ocean was a dark, roaring presence beneath their feet, bent on their disaster, and the dragons were still chained down. Laurence rushed into the rain, scaling the heaving deck of the ship as easily as if it were level ground. In a moment he had cut through the ropes. Even through the terrible noise of the storm Granby could hear the sound of many wings unfurling as the dragons took flight, throwing off their chains. Granby, straining to look through the streaming rain, saw the heavy chains loop around his arms.
There was no time to react. In a moment he was gone, between one flash of lightning and the next. The chains dragged him over the edge and down, down, into deep water.
He had long been used to think of death as a sharp pain, and it always had been, whenever he had lost friends and fellow-officers; a pang of hurt, so briefly terrible as to be overwhelming, but over quickly, and only the occasional stabs of memory to remind him of it, as sometimes an old wound might twinge in the night. Granby was waiting for it to come, for that fierce sharp sorrow that was the first part of healing, but instead everything seemed strangely dull and faded. He felt very numb. He took a mild dutiful interest in the very great danger the ship was in: nothing seemed very pressing at the moment, but he could recognize that Iskierka would never be able to get to safe harbor if the ship was not floating again. Then, too, there was Temeraire to consider.
The death of a captain meant an endless list of tasks to carry out, the dragon to comfort and try to contain, the successor to be put up in his place, decisions made for the line of battle. Taking the field was risky after a captain's death, and had sometimes precipitated disaster; the dragon, still in terrible grief, often would not follow orders, and his desire for revenge, any revenge, would lead him into danger. He was sure that was what Temeraire had in mind, when he returned to the ship, and would not have been willing to lay odds that he would not go ravaging the Japanese countryside in hopes of a fight. He ought not to have been surprised to learn that Temeraire had no intention of grieving, at all.
Let him believe it, thought Granby dully, watching as the others made wretched attempts to convince him to leave off searching. Let him cling to hope for a while longer: they would not have much reason for more very soon in the future. He hardly recognized his own voice when Temeraire finally swung his head to him, demanding to know his thoughts.
"I haven't got any, Temeraire," said Granby tiredly. "If there is hope for Laurence, it's only by rescuing the ship. Searching on shore will only make things worse."
In truth he hadn't paid close enough attention to Hammond's lectures to know if this was anywhere near correct, but he did know that Temeraire could not be allowed to go on land. When he finally understood that Laurence was gone, with no hope for recovery, it would not be wise to have him anywhere near an unfriendly dragon.
Temeraire flared his ruff with displeasure. If he had chosen to argue further, he would have met with no resistance; Granby was spent. But Iskierka rescued them all, unexpectedly. Granby listened first without comprehension, and then with rising wonder, disbelief; there was to be an egg, even amidst the destruction of all their hopes, an egg between Laurence's dragon, and his own.
Granby wished he could be sure, after, that the injury Temeraire had taken in the rescue of the ship was not somehow motivated by despair; he wished he could convince himself that Temeraire could not have acted otherwise to preserve his own life, even if Laurence was safe by his side. But in the end he gave up thinking of it. He went below to find the captains in a despondent huddle around the table, Harcourt openly crying and the others not so far off. Granby said awkwardly,
"Temeraire is still sleeping, but he is well, the surgeons say; they are sure his health isn't permanently broken, only it will be a terrible slow recovery for him."
"Thank Heaven for that," said Berkeley gruffly. "To lose Temeraire too would have been the outside of enough."
There were murmurs of agreement, and then Chenery, with uncharacteristic tentativeness said,
"You do not suppose, do you, that Temeraire could have the right of it? Laurence was the strongest swimmer of any of us, and was always coming victorious out of the most unexpected of foxholes. If anyone could have made it to shore alive, surely he could."
All eyes turned to Granby. He felt oddly at a remove from himself as he spoke.
"Those chains were made to tie down dragons," he said. "I saw them wrap around his wrists. He must have sunk to the bottom in a second."
"So there is no hope," said Augustine, and Granby did not contradict him.
They all sat in silence for a while, and then Warren stood up, with decision. "Well, we have rescued the ship, and not lost a dragon doing so: it is better luck than any of us might have expected. I do not expect for a minute that Laurence would approve of us not soldiering on as well as we can."
"Hear, hear," said Chenery, with a valiant attempt at cheer. Harcourt raised her tear-streaked face.
"We ought have a service, as soon as Temeraire permits it," she said quietly. "Granby, you knew him best. Do you suppose...?"
"A simple sailor's service, I think, for Laurence," said Granby distantly. "I don't suppose he would have liked anything better than to be buried at sea."
Something in his voice made her hesitate, and look at him more closely.
"Are you quite well, Granby? You sound ill."
"Yes," said Granby, without much thinking of it. "Yes, I am perfectly well."
Temeraire was still sleeping the next day, an immovable bulk that the other dragons were all very careful not to nudge or sleep on top of, even when they were all miserably short of room. And they were very short of room indeed; Iskierka had, inconveniently, announced that she was having her egg that day after all, and needed nearly the rest of the dragondeck to sprawl out on. Granby was perfectly aware that egg-laying was as tidy a business as one might like, and could be arranged perfectly well without so much fuss, but he was inclined to give way to her on this. Maximus' surgeon Gaiters was inclined similarly, "particularly as she is young to be a primagravida; and considering the extraordinary value of the egg, I cannot think we can take too many precautions."
So the rest of the dragons had tiredly lofted themselves up in the air, and Iskierka lay in sprawling coils around the dragondeck, looking sullen.
"I do not think it is very fair," she said to Granby as he stroked her nose, "that I should go through all this effort to have his egg, and Temeraire should be asleep when it comes. But I cannot hold it off any longer, and oh! It so very inconvenient! If only he would wake up. He ought at least to see what I am going through, on his behalf, and perhaps he could give me some of his treasure, in appreciation."
Privately Granby thought that what Iskierka wanted from Temeraire was his attention, rather than his treasure. He wisely kept this to himself, however, and said,
"Dear one, I am sure Temeraire will regret having missed the event, but he will see the egg when he wakes, and it is sure to be splendid. Do you think you can lay it now, then? Gaiters says it is perfectly in position, if you should give a little effort."
Iskierka gave a disgruntled sigh, but pushed, and with very little effort from her, the egg appeared. Gaiters at once began to inspect it. From the distance of Iskierka's body Granby could see that it was as large as Iskierka's had been, and appeared whole and healthy; the other surgeons were beginning to beam at each other and shake hands.
"Well done," said Granby. "Very well done indeed, and I am sure as can be that Temeraire will have nothing to complain of."
Iskierka coiled in on herself further to nose at the egg, inspecting it from every angle.
"Yes, it is quite perfect," she said at last with satisfaction. "Come look, Granby, come look!"
Obediently Granby walked down the length of her body, where the egg was being lifted into the crate full of straw. The men arranging the transfer into the crate halted to let him see it: beautifully white, with red clouds drifting across its surface as if painted there. A pearlescent gleam gave it a faintly shining quality, but that was only common for new-laid eggs. It was in every way ordinary, in fact, except for the very great power likely contained within that fragile shell; only a new life, like the new lives that were born every day, to replace all those that were lost.
It was only then that the pain came, like a physical blow. The egg, shining and indeed perfect, blurred in his vision, and he turned away back to Iskierka before he could betray himself. The unformed life stirring in that shell would emerge into the world that Laurence and Temeraire had made, but it would never know one in which Laurence was alive. Temeraire would never be able to introduce it to his captain. By the time it hatched, perhaps, the pain of Laurence's loss would be gone, or mostly, and there would be few who spoke his name, except as a traitor to the nation.
Hot tears came unbidden into his eyes. Iskierka, sensing something wrong, bent her head down to him; she was quiet for once, and he was terribly grateful for it. Granby rested against her, stroking her blindly, wishing that he could feel that dull sense of nothingness again, if only to stop feeling this. He felt that he might die from the terrible hollow ache in his chest, and that he would not mind if he did, except that it would cause Iskierka sorrow. He felt vividly that he would give anything, anything, to have Laurence back with them again.
"Tell me it is not true," said Harcourt immediately, before he had quite finished closing the door behind him. All the other captains were sitting with her in their quarters, looking at him with enormous anxiety; an anxiety that did not diminish when he had finished telling them, wretchedly, that it was true, and worse than they had feared.
"You mean to tell me," said Chenery, with disbelief, "that not only has Laurence forgotten everything of the last eight years, but also that we are meant to keep the most vital parts of his life a secret from him, to avoid anything that might upset him in any way—and what in his life has not been upsetting, may I ask?"
"We are not likely to have much time with him," said Granby. "Hammond wants him. He means to resume their lessons again, the worm."
"We can hardly avoid his company, and we shan't," said Harcourt firmly. "Not when we so very nearly lost him forever. But John, this has all the flavor of the absurd. How long are we meant to enact this charade for? Secrecy may well answer, I suppose," this said with all the doubt that Granby himself felt, "but only while we are in China, and you know how Laurence is. Sooner or late he will want to return home. How could we possibly explain it to him then?"
"I doubt it weighs much on Hammond," said Granby bitterly. "As long as he has served his purpose with the Chinese, I do not suppose it matters much to him what happens to him after."
"And I do not suppose he even knows our names," said Warren.
"He certainly didn't know mine," said Granby, low. He had known something was wrong as soon as Laurence had extricated himself from his embrace and looked at him properly: there had been no recognition in his eyes, nor the easy affection that Granby had become used to seeing there, without realizing it. Yet still he hadn't expected this: that all their years together would be gone from his memory as if they had never happened at all.
But Laurence was alive, and that could be the only thing that mattered. He walked away from the captains' meeting slowly, trying to don that thought like armor. Laurence was alive.
It wasn't so bad sometimes. The sea-wind was with them on their journey, and Granby, watching closely, could see Laurence looking approvingly up at the vast clouds of white sail above them, and his eyes, when they looked out over the the dark churning sea, were almost at peace. The wind plucked golden strands out of his neat queue and set them to dancing. Laurence did not seem to mind the mess it must make of his hair. He had the look of a man who was happiest with the salt wind in his face; all the more terrible, then, when something would rouse him from reverie, and he looked down to see the green of his aviator's coat, with confusion, and hear Temeraire's voice calling for him.
But those moments came less and less frequently as the voyage wore on. Laurence, with a determination that was achingly familiar to Granby, had quickly established a new routine and thrown himself into it. Loving Temeraire had endured, anyone could see that, and when he was reading to Temeraire, or flying with him, he might almost have been their Laurence, and would surely return to them soon; or so the aviators had contrived to convince themselves. Granby could not be so easily comforted. Affection had remained, despite the brain-fever that had swallowed the last eight years of his life, but Laurence still did not remember him. There was none of that easy fondness for Granby he had retained for Temeraire, nor—nor the passion, of that last night. He could only think of the logical conclusion, unpleasant as it was. Granby took to coming up to the dragondeck whenever he thought that Laurence might be in the air, just to have the small comfort of watching him with one for whom his love had, in fact, endured.
He had thought he was concealing his unhappiness from Iskierka, but it seemed that he was continually destined to be surprised. They were watching Temeraire wheel and dive over the open ocean, nothing ungraceful in his flying to tell that he had been recently injured, when at length Iskierka gave a great snort of disgust and laid her head down on her claws.
"Never mind it, dear Granby," she said, in what was evidently meant to be a consoling manner. "It's plain to me that he isn't so very fine a man as that if he could forget you, of all people. I'm sure you will find someone else, much better, who won't be always sailing away and leaving you behind and not knowing your name. Perhaps a proper prince," she added, entirely unconscious of Granby's staring; she then went directly to sleep, leaving Granby with a very uncomfortable realization indeed.
Granby found himself thinking, with ever-increasing frequency, of the last night he had shared with Laurence. He remembered the kiss, shockingly hot against his lips, and the taste of alcohol on Laurence's tongue. They were both drunk, and ungraceful with it; Granby couldn't remember who had tugged the other one to the ground first, but he had a vivid memory of undoing the buttons on Laurence's breeches with his teeth, too impatient of his hook to try to undo them properly. He remembered the way that Laurence had groaned, shivering, to feel Granby's mouth on him, even through the many layers of fabric.
He hadn't been able to take it anymore, then; he'd reached to tug off Laurence's breeches and paused, cautious of his hook. One moment of hesitation only, but Laurence, with an impatience that Granby had never seen in him, rolled him over onto his back to kiss him again. They were hard against the bulkhead, breath coming in ragged gasps. Laurence's hands were everywhere, everywhere that he could feel Granby's bare skin: his face, his jaw, the hollow of his collarbone where Laurence had pushed aside Granby's neckcloth. His shirt had come unbuttoned somehow, and Laurence's hands trembled as they touched his shoulders and went down to his abdomen, and lower. Granby arched into his touch, desperate for it, moaning. He ought to have been quiet; the sleeping quarters of the other captains and officers were on every side of them, but Granby could not help himself from gasping, fiercely,
And Laurence had looked at him, his eyes blown dark, his lips red from kissing, his clothing as disheveled as Granby had ever seen him. He had thought he had been desperate before: one look proved him wrong. The feeling that had possessed him only a moment ago was nothing in comparison, and Granby, still gasping his name, pushed Laurence over to the floor. He had spent seven years hungry for Laurence. He could hardly have restrained himself then, and their clothes were got off, eventually, despite the hook.
That was what he had had from Laurence, after seven years: one night that only he could remember. He brooded on it as they flew across China; it was hard not to think of, especially as he grew certain, increasingly certain, that Laurence was looking at him.
None of the others would have seen. It was only because Granby had made such a study of Will Laurence, committing the fine details of his expression to memory; had given him these many years and the half of his heart that Iskierka did not claim, that he could have seen the signs; and, too, there was this: that this Laurence had never learned to armor himself against the world.
Granby could not believe he had ever thought this man stern or severe, in the least; this Laurence of eight years past was made of soft and yielding stuff compared to the man he would become, whose skin was so hard that words could only break against it, whose expression revealed nothing, whose smiles were so rare that Granby had to stop and stare, when they happened. He had been confusing hardness of character with mere formality; beneath his stiff demeanor this Laurence was an open and easy book, everything he felt crossing his face freely. This Laurence, eight years younger than he ought to have been, was the man Granby had fallen in love with, and Granby knew him.
So he began to notice what he wished he could have ignored instead: Laurence, and the expression in his eyes when Granby came near to him, Laurence, giving a small involuntary shiver when Granby put his hand on his shoulder, Laurence, looking a fraction too long at Granby's lips, and looking away; the brief flicker of confusion and shame in his eyes. Granby wasn't even sure if Laurence was aware of any of it.
If he liked him now, Granby thought, with a sort of bitter humor, he wished Laurence could have seen him as they had first met; younger and less wretchedly scarred, and with two hands, each of which knew their business very well indeed—
Then he had to stop, and remind himself forcibly that this man did not know him; he was Captain Laurence as he was when Granby had first met him, a man still in love with the woman who might otherwise have been his wife. Likely it was all in his head, and he was seeing things, or wishing them to be true. This man had never kissed him, had never run a trembling hand along the scars on his ribs, never pressed him against the floor of his own cabin, his hands tight enough around his arms to bruise. That had never happened between them, and Granby would do better to forget it himself.
But Granby could not forget. The scorching memory of their kiss still played against his lips, making it all the more galling to see Laurence avoid all their company, and make eyes at Mrs. Pemberton instead—perfectly unaware, Granby assumed, that he was very like to make her in love with him—well. Granby was well on his way to being as jealous as Temeraire.
In fairness to Laurence, however, neither did the captains invite his company—it was easier to keep such a secret, without having to stop their mouths on every sentence, and it was less painful, not to see him look at them as mere fellow-officers, and call them formally by their proper titles. Augustine avoided him more than anyone.
"I cannot think it would do either him or I any good," he said quietly, as they sat drinking in the privacy of his tent. "I hope with all my heart for his recovery, but until it comes, there can be nothing gained in torturing ourselves. You would do better, John, to keep your distance too."
Granby sat with his head bowed over his glass. The taste of the Chinese rice wine was unfamiliar in his mouth, but there was some solace in it.
"I suppose," he said at last, "that you worry that he'll have us put to the court-martial, once he begins remembering who we are and what I've said to him, but as to that, I'd settle for him remembering anything at all."
"No, John," said Augustine calmly. "I'm not afraid of what he'll remember. We may have a great crowd of Yellow Reapers now, but still I do not think Immortalis would let me be hanged in the least, even if Maximus and Lily did not consider themselves honor-bound to intervene. I am, however, very afraid that you will break your heart on him."
"I've broken my heart on him more times than I can count," said Granby. "I can hardly fear he'll break it once more."
"Captain Granby," said Laurence, with an odd diffidence. "If I may ask, how long were you my first?"
"Oh—two years, I should say, or near enough. Most of that without any decent posting, mind you, but only going to China and then hither and yon through every battlefield in Europe. That was how we picked up Iskierka, you know: she absorbed war through the shell and hatched out breathing hellfire in the middle of the Prussian campaign—hasn't improved since then, I'm afraid," he finished with a sigh, and poured out a glass of wine, which Laurence took but did not drink. He had come to Granby's tent unexpectedly, and asked if he might bear him company. Granby could not refuse.
"Two years," said Laurence. "It is five years since you were made post, then, I take it; I congratulate you."
"Oh, I suppose so," said Granby blankly. He had forgotten to think about such things. He was a senior captain now, the absurdity of it.
He accepted the toast that Laurence gave him anyway, and waited. He knew Laurence well enough to know that there was something he wanted to say, and he was only thinking of the best way to say it, without causing offense to any body. Granby tried not to squirm. The silence between them might once have been companionable, but it was barely tolerable now. Granby badly wanted to touch him; he pressed his hands together in his lap. His jaw was trembling, but there was nothing he could do for that. He thought briefly of escape; if he claimed to have to attend to duty, Laurence would only accept the excuse, and he might delay this conversation, day by day, forever. But no, he put the thought out of his head. Laurence would never have tried to escape from him in such a way, and Granby could not be less brave. Whatever Laurence had to say, he was determined to hear it without revealing anything. He was very afraid that he had said too much already.
At last Laurence spoke.
"My situation, I have come to believe, is highly irregular. The composition of my crew, the evident state of relations between myself and the Admiralty, Temeraire's lack of a place within a formation, the very great reluctance, on the part of yourself and our fellow captains, to speak of anything from the past eight years—they must all speak to some wrongdoing on my part, one that must go deeper than a mere lack of discipline or an excessive love of independence. Can I be wrong?" he asked, as Granby sat in perfect appall.
"I must have committed some crime," Laurence went on implacably, when Granby could not speak. "Some trespass that would ordinarily warrant the gallows, which I would be spared only for use of my beast—" Granby's mind was spinning, wondering how Laurence could have known, and who would have told him, before realizing with horror that he may well have learnt it himself, based on all the careless clues they had mistakenly slipped him. Augustine was right; better he had kept his distance. Laurence was continuing, "—and enough tarnish my reputation such that only an unusual and sorry crew would come to serve beneath me. Captain, I must cry your pardon for asking such a question of you, but I beg that you will be honest with me, when posed with it direct. I must know. Was I—was I an invert?"
Granby stared, struck dumb. It had been on his lips to deny treason, with the surgeon's warnings of brain-fever and illness running through his mind, but this charge, he did not know how to deny.
Evidently his silence was enough. Laurence turned pale.
"I had hoped not," he said numbly. "If you had denied it, I would have done my best to believe it—but it is too much to hope for. I do not think I could have convinced myself. I feel as I ought not to feel. I long—I long to know—"
He cut himself off. "Did I," he said lowly, "before the loss of my memory, did I ever act shamefully towards you? I would make amends for it, if I might; you would not have to suffer my presence again."
Granby felt somewhere caught between laughing and screaming. "Act shamefully?" he repeated, hysterically. "You? No, not nearly often enough."
The confusion in Laurence's face rebuked him; this could not be any less painful for him than it was for Granby. He forced himself to be calm. "I am damned sorry, you have—you have only taken me by surprise, just now. We shouldn't have hoped that you wouldn't piece any of it together. I should have told you everything weeks ago—there is so much you don't know—and you deserve to know it. In fact," he added, slowly, "I would know, if you'd be willing to tell me, why you asked me such a question. Then I swear you'll get a complete accounting from me, doctors be damned: you'll know everything I know, and there'll be no secrets between us."
Laurence drew in a long breath. His hands were shaking.
"I accept your proposal, Captain—I hope you will not think ill of me, after." He spoke without looking at Granby, but his expression was set, so very determined that Granby should have a full and complete accounting of his failings, eager to submit himself for damnation.
"I could never, Laurence," said Granby, but softly; he did not hear, but only forced himself blindly forwards.
"I feel for you as I ought to feel for a lover," said Laurence. "—I can use no other word. I did not notice at first, I could hardly have even thought of it amidst all my confusion, but I find that I—that I harbor feelings for you both tender and passionate. I cannot explain it. I cannot remember what must have triggered it; I only know that I can not help but notice you—see you—want you—" This last was said in barely in whisper. Laurence closed his eyes, deep mortification in his face, and forced himself on. "When I asked how long you had been my lieutenant, it was because I could not conceive that I would impose myself on a subordinate—but even that I must now doubt. These should not have been my feelings, must not have been my feelings. They must be entirely unwelcome to you; I wish with all my heart that I could admit otherwise. You must only say the word, and I will excuse myself; I ought never to have come here, and you would not have to see me again."
Granby set his own face in his hands. He could not himself know how he should feel any more than Laurence did. To hear that love had survived after all—but had survived unbidden and unwanted, a source of shame—to hear the man he had longed for describe his own feelings as if he would cut them from his chest—to hear the guilt and confusion in his lover's voice as he spoke of what they had once joyfully shared—Elation and despair warred within him. Laurence felt, even if he did not remember, and his heart and his body were less fickle than his memory. His hands were wet where he wept into them, his voice coarse.
"I wish I could account for your feelings, sir," he said at last. "You had not yet explained them to my satisfaction when you still had the power to do so; as for my own, however, I believe they were in full train before I had known you a season, and I beg you to believe that they have remained constant ever since."
He looked up. Laurence was watching him, something painful in his expression. Granby tried to smile and failed.
"You don't know the half of it," he said helplessly. "Will, you must know. I have always loved you, even when you were half the world away from me, even when you were a traitor, even now, when you're lost in your own mind. Especially now."
"I beg your pardon, Captain," said Laurence, very proper even with his hands shaking. "I'm afraid I don't—"
"I know you don't," said Granby, his voice cracking. "I know you don't remember any of it. Even so."
He kissed him then, gently; a slow, chaste kiss, but Laurence's mouth was as hot as he remembered, and yielding. His mouth opened slowly with surprise, but Granby drew back rather than prolong the kiss. Granby looked at him, breathing fast. Laurence had closed his eyes, the shadows of his blond lashes falling on the high points of his cheeks. He opened his eyes, slowly, and Granby felt his heart beating faster at the recognition he saw there. Affection, loyalty, passion; these all passed through his expression in a moment, and then Laurence stepped into his arms, putting his hands on either side of Granby's face, his fingers in his hair. Journeys end in lovers meeting, Granby thought briefly, and then there was no more room for thought. Laurence put his lips very close to his.
"John," he said. "John."