Tharkay immediately knew something was amiss when, after having not seen him in over a year, Laurence chose to greet him in Chinese.
The messengers’ pavilion in Zhongnanhai was bustling with activity, small courier dragons flitting in and out of the court like slivers of jade, civil servants carrying armfuls of scrolls. Scarlet dragons loosely patrolled the skies, the insignia of the Imperial Guard on their chest reflecting the mid-afternoon sun. Tharkay felt their gaze on the back of his neck, thin-slitted eyes watching him carefully from where some of them were perched on the eaves of surrounding buildings. There was a heavier presence of guards than he last remembered, though he’d not been in Peking in some time. He alighted down Arkady’s side and was in the midst of loosening the leather harness when he caught at the corner of his vision, a flash of fair hair coming from the direction of the western gate.
“Greetings. I was told to receive a messenger here with an urgent missive for me.”
Tharkay beheld the odd reception with ill-concealed surprise. Putting aside the introduction—the unexpected formality was, after all, not what you’d call uncharacteristic of William Laurence, though definitely incongruous with the man as he’d come to know him in friendly company—Laurence was wearing ornate green silk robes, excessively embroidered with golden thread, beads weighing heavily on the sleeves; the gaudy kind of fashion that must have been forced upon him by circumstance, and most likely egged on enthusiastically by a certain dragon. Yet it was less his costume and more a certain peculiarity about his bearing that made Tharkay uneasy. Arkady bent his neck to look curiously at Laurence and promptly interrogated, “Why is Temeraire not with you?”
Laurence’s eyes widened, confusion plain on his face as he looked between Tharkay and Arkady. Tharkay put a hand on Arkady’s neck and murmured, “Pray, remember Laurence does not speak your tongue.” He then turned to Laurence, and carefully replied in English, “Your tones are still awkward, but your accent is much less wooden than it used to be. I suppose all those hopeless lessons on the Allegiance have finally borne some fruit.”
A confused look was all of Laurence’s reply, before an expression of grim realisation crossed his face, his mouth turning into a harsh, thin line. “I do apologise entirely. I should have realised sooner—“
The rest of his answer was interrupted by a flurry of wings bearing down upon the courtyard, Temeraire suddenly hovering above them. He landed next to Arkady, as nearby dragons and humans alike immediately recognised and made way for the Celestial. He bent down his head and cried, nuzzling his captain, “Laurence! I wish you would not sneak off so, after all that has happened. Besides which, General Chu is waiting on us to finish preparations for Xi’an and though he does not say so I think he must believe we are being deliberately slow—”
Laurence ran a comforting hand over Temeraire’s muzzle, his expression not a little distressed. “I am receiving a messenger, dearest.”
Temeraire looked up, finally noticing their guests. “Oh, Tharkay!”
Tharkay gave a small nod of his head. “It’s good to see you too, Temeraire. Do tell me what has ailed your captain in the year since I left him so.”
“Oh, Tharkay, everything has turned horrible since you were gone! Laurence is suffering from some brain fever, and it has caused him to forget many important things!”
Whatever Tharkay had been expecting, it wasn’t that. He looked at the man himself for confirmation; Laurence looked equal parts resigned and remorseful as he spoke, his brows furrowed slightly, and that was when Temeraire’s words truly hit him, like a cold gust of wind.
“I...I am William Laurence of His Majesty’s Aerial Corps, and I am sorry to say that I have not the slightest notion of who you might be.”
Tharkay’s news had derailed the British aviators quite considerably, catching them just as they were in the midst of departure. They had only just decided to go to Xi’an, but the fresh news of Napoleon's intentions to invade Russia had thrown a wrench into this plan, with some of the captains now arguing they rendezvous with the corps at Gibraltar, or even fly to Moscow straightaway. Tharkay had taken it upon himself to end the argument by drawing their attention to the red dragon with a great golden mane across the pavilion—General Lung Shao Chu was by then fully awake, sitting upright on his haunches and staring at them with sharp eyes, an expectant expression on his face. Urgent though his news of Napoleon’s invasion, there was no disobeying a direct Imperial command.
So it was only some hours after Tharkay arrived in the city that he was back in the air, joining Ambassador Hammond aboard the Incan dragon, Churki, after appropriate introductions. He had to leave Arkady behind, as even if he had not been tired from their journey to Peking, Tharkay was unsure if he could’ve been persuaded to match the breakneck speed of the Chinese aerial company.
In between chewing mouthfuls of some odd leaves, Hammond began to fill in some details: how Laurence was lost somewhere off Nagasaki; the loss of his memories from since before the start of his career as an aviator; the recent assassination attempt on Prince Mianning and Laurence; and finally, the Emperor’s recent audience with Laurence himself, that had given them their current mission. Well, that explained the robes, at least.
Tharkay looked across to the front of their company, to the lone black dragon in a cloud of red and blue. Laurence was alone aboard Temeraire, a bottle-green speck in his aviator’s coat. Beyond their initial meeting, he had not spoken to Laurence alone, had not spoken to him directly past a curt summary of who he was and the news he’d brought with him.
They flew continuously for hours on end, and just when Tharkay had begun to suspect the Chinese meant to fly them through the night did they finally halt and descend in the outskirts of Baoding. Prince Mianning had requested Laurence and Temeraire’s audience upon their landing and in no uncertain terms, Laurence later conveyed in the meeting with the other captains, promised that should their venture prove successful, they would receive the complement of the Emperor’s forces to join them to the west.
Such a promise did little to assuage the company’s restlessness, aside from Hammond, and only gave fresh desperation that this ambiguous mission in Xi’an should succeed. After a round of argument, there was little choice but to stay their current course—the prospect of the Chinese corps augmenting their forces was too vital, their alliance too tenuous to risk.
Tharkay spoke only rarely, standing at the edge of the tent with his arms crossed, supplying intelligence—what number of troops already mobilised of the Grande Armée, their positions on the Polish border, the time-frame of invasion, the condition of Wellington’s campaign in Spain. As he gave a report of scouted supply lines to Moscow, his eyes met those of Laurence briefly. There was a curious expression on his face, and Tharkay could almost hear the question aloud.
Who was he to Laurence, precisely?
Tenzing prided himself on few things, a number of notable exceptions that he’d come to recognise out of necessity. His ability to make Arkady to listen to him across several continents, for one. His capacity for self-denial, another, despite that he’d been faced with a myriad of occasion that gave him cause to doubt it at times. Following a man through oceans and deserts to the ends of the world and back might seem perhaps a failure of this very faculty, but he’d decided he should be so commended for the extent of his self-control. He had not asked for more than to be near him, after all.
He was, however, not proud of his excess of pride. Though he did not blame himself as such, having accepted long ago that he was inevitably in part what the world shaped him to be, he recognised himself a supremely bitter creature, prone to carefully nursing grudges, with little capacity to forgive. He was not stupid enough to be at all ashamed of this, but had rather accepted it as a fact. His was not a noble heart.
Small comfort this proved to be, when he met Captain William Laurence, recently of His Majesty's Navy.
It was not the man he had sailed with to Australia, a traitor and the most foolishly honorable man Tharkay had ever known. It was not the man who swore his loyalty to him at the small price of his own. It was not even the man who first crossed the Taklamakan with him, full of suspicion and righteous anger, because at least that Laurence knew his name. It was certainly not Will.
Tharkay rolled the name in his tongue and swallowed it. He had been forgotten. That it hurt more than he would allow it proved how truly, truly careless he'd become, how complacent. When it was not the deliberate cruelty of other men, it was mere chance, with all its vagaries and ironic sense of humour, that should so conspire to make him miserable. He admitted a small, quiet horror alongside it all, at the depths of maudlin he’d been reduced to.
At the very least, there were several other miserable creatures to commiserate with.
“Ah, here you are,” said Granby when he arrived, bringing a bottle of baijiu stolen from the kitchen hands and two small cups. Tharkay looked up from he was sitting at the outskirts of their camp, sharpening a knife, with the rest of his accoutrements arrayed on the ground in a half-circle around him. “You left so quickly after the meeting that I thought you’d fallen back to old habits and gone off into the desert without a word.”
“Is that wise?” Tharkay asked, with a nod at the bottle. “We have an early start tomorrow morning.”
“Oh, come now, Tenzing. Our present circumstances are certainly reason enough for it, even without that we’ve not seen each other proper in a good year.” Granby sat unceremoniously on the ground beside him, confident of his welcome, and quickly poured a cup for himself and Tharkay, which he accepted.
“And what an eventful year it has evidently been,” replied Tharkay with a pointed look at his arm, or rather the empty sleeve where half his arm used to be, to which Granby simply shrugged. “Forgive me. After such a reception, I am quite wary of sure footing, in case your late adventures have left the rest of you similarly dispossessed.”
Granby laughed, his manner as easy and informal as the rest of him; he was down to his waistcoat, having left his jacket elsewhere, and his hair untied from its usual queue. Tharkay took a sip of his drink, and the warmth that bloomed in his chest was not unpleasant. “There’s also less of me than when we last parted ways, true enough,” replied Granby with good humour, “but no, Laurence’s current condition is unique to him—though the more I think about what’s happened since you left, the more I’m inclined to think that perhaps parting ways was the mistake.”
Tharkay raised an eyebrow. “A flattering notion, but I wouldn’t dare to be so presumptuous. Laurence had the complement of a twenty-ton nursemaid single-handedly capable of leveling cities, who is not a little invested in his safety. No,” he said, raising his cup, “I should rather attribute it to Captain William Laurence’s unique talent of attracting such exciting circumstance.”
“Aye, to William bleedin’ Laurence,” said Granby, clinking their glasses together. Tharkay finished the rest of his drink. “Just begs the question of whether the man has a knack for finding trouble, or if it’s happenstance that trouble always seems to find him,” he added, as he refilled their cups.
“I suspect a confluence of both.”
The conversation paused, and they drank in silence, interspersed by the occasional noise of the blue dragons in the midst of their late evening duties, the clink of porcelain as cups were refilled. Patrols over the camp would now and then briefly eclipse the moon behind the expanse of wings. The arrangement reminded him of nights aboard the Allegiance, with the cool winds and the soft glow of lanterns, though most of them were by now already extinguished for the night.
It was not the first time they’d found refuge in each other’s company, given the similarity of their dispositions. They both willingly followed the man to exile, after all.
“He’s adapted much fairer that I would have expected him to,” Tharkay ventured.
“I’m damned if I don’t wish he were so much less composed. A good decade of memories just fallen out of his head? But I guess we can only be thankful, that Will could manage so amiably if only to enact his duty.”
“I take it he did not receive the news of his treason as magnanimously as he did the rest.”
Granby looked away. “Ah, well.”
Tharkay resisted the urge to rub his temple. “You have not told him.”
“Oh, Lord, Tenzing. Yesterday he knew he was a sea-captain, and now he’s an aviator and a prince of China besides.”
“It’s a temporary respite; he will find out inevitably.”
“I’m of the hope that he should remember before then, and save us all the trouble of breaking his heart.”
“It is difficult to entertain such a hope when he’s scarcely afforded us such similar consideration,” Tharkay said, as dispassionately as he could manage—which, it turned out, was not at all.
To his credit, Tharkay was gratified he had enough dignity left to be embarrassed by the outburst. “I do apologise, John. Even with the confidence you’ve allowed, I overstep my boundaries, and if you can accept it as product of a tired mind, having spent more hours on the road than in sleep these past few weeks, I would be very grateful,” he said, having recovered himself.
Granby scoffed and waved a dismissive hand, which being the only hand he had in service, was also the hand holding his cup. A splash of alcohol spilled on the ground, but he paid it no mind. “It’s not as though I’m not in your confidence as well, with more than enough proof to see me to the gallows should the inclination strike you.”
“Pray, that such queer inclinations avoid me, when others have not,” he said dryly. Granby laughed again, open and careless.
“It...It is not his fault,” Tharkay continued, more seriously. “Of course I cannot blame such cruel intention of anything, aside from the passing fancies of chance. But it is...difficult not to perceive it as a personal affront, that he should forget us in entire, and still be so whole.”
He stopped, for fear of having divulged too much, and opted instead for another sip of his drink. That he believed that the reverse could not be achieved, that to cut out the man would be to render himself unrecognisable, he left unsaid, though Granby seemed to have gleaned the rest of it anyway.
“He might still recover yet,” Granby said in a quiet voice.
Tharkay did not want look too closely at the part of him that desperately clung to the possibility. “I’m very fond of strategic pessimism,” he replied instead.
Granby smiled at him wryly and refilled his drink. “I cannot bring myself to be so hopeless yet, even when he looks strangely when I call him Will, and I persist even though I know such familiarity was never granted me, if only it should help jog his memory.”
“I would wager that such familiarity would not be so welcome from me.”
“Though it should be so from him?”
“I am discovering I do not take very well to being deprived of that which I have come to take for granted, though that may be given the scarcity of things I’ve been allowed to take under such auspices,” said Tharkay quietly.
“You’re more used to not having at all, than to have anything taken from you,” Granby replied. The blunt words had the ring of harsh truth to them, though they bore no hint of censure.
“Not in so many words,” Tharkay muttered, before finishing his drink in one go.
They spent the rest of their night in quiet conversation, meaningless small talk about mission plans and the like, and soon Granby bade him good night and retired to his tent. After a few moments, Tharkay packed away his forgotten knives and did the same.