Disclaimer: Temeraire and all characters were Created by Naomi Novik. I'm just a fan, imitating.

This story is set in the beginning of Victory of Eagles; SPOILERS

Chapter 1

In which Mr. Tharkay returns from Turkestan.

Admiral Jane Roland left Excidium to sleep after he had been fed. As was her habit since Laurence's trial, she distanced herself from the muttered assumptions of the other aviators and retreated to her rooms. She poured herself a brandy, startling a little when the bottle clinked against the glass, and stared out of the window at the movements in the covert below.

Jane's latest patrol had been uneventful, but the general feeling was that the situation had come to a head and any day now the French would be upon them. Jane frowned at her glass. She blamed him of course; the tension permeating the covert was due in no small part to his recent actions in France. As far as their intelligence told, the French position hadn't changed; and though she believed wholeheartedly that his only endeavor in this matter was to save the dragons, the actions of the Admiralty and the whispers about the covert and among the messes seemed to tell otherwise.

And the letter he had left as an explanation—did he mean to ruin her? But then maybe if she had said yes perhaps the whole ghastly situation might have been avoided. Jane put down her glass after a long draught and her eye caught a flash of movement from the window.

A little way out from the building stood a lank dark-haired figure in a garishly decorated coat. Frette was just leaving him, running toward the building, but Captain Granby waved up at her when he noticed her in the window and then pointed toward the Eastern horizon. Jane squinted into the gray skyline and after a few moments of confused searching she found what he was pointing at—a few small figures flying in close if rather haphazard formation.

Jane turned immediately and ran for the door. She nearly toppled Frette on the stairs.

"Admiral Roland," he said, catching his breath. She didn't wait for him to speak, only steadied him with a firm hand and continued outside to meet Granby.

He had already started back toward the covert and she was forced to run to catch up his long-legged stride.

"Captain Granby!" She shouted. He stopped and waited for her to meet him and then offered a casual salute.

"Admiral Roland, sir," He followed her gaze toward the approaching figures in the sky. He chuckled and said, "Not to worry sir. It's not the French. Mister Tharkay has returned with another dozen ferals."

"Not a moment too soon, dare I say," Admiral Roland replied.

They walked together over the rise and into the covert where Iskierka stared anxiously toward Granby while his ground crew removed her harness.

"Granby!" She said, and a wave of warm air rolled over them as she spoke, "You shouldn't have run off like that!"

"I only went to fetch Admiral Roland, Love," he said leaving Jane's side to offer a hand to Iskierka's muzzle. She nosed him affectionately.

"You should tell me where you go. You just ran off and didn't tell me, so I worried."

Jane looked past them to where a motley assortment of dragons was now settling on the far edge of the covert. She left Granby to his dragon to approach the newcomers. She frowned up at the violent sound of their hissing and shrilling Durzagh tongue. Tharkay's figure, small and dark in the distance was already repelling from the neck of a red dragon. The red dragon was the largest of the group and yet he was barely the size of a Winchester.

Tharkay was walking backward towards her motioning and shouting to the dragons. And Jane stopped in surprise as they formed a line for review. Tharkay turned and jogged up to her smiling a little.

"Admiral Roland," he said and touched the dark fur at the cuff of his domed hat. Jane took his hand and shook it heartily, trying mightily to suppress a grin.

"Mister Tharkay," she said, "You really couldn't have arrived at a better time."

"It seems I am only just in time," he said, and Jane conceded a nod at that. She studied his face for a moment but the black on black irises held no expression.

"Perhaps you might tell me about these fellows that we may correctly place them among our lines." Jane said. Tharkay nodded.

"Most of these fellows are of Arkady's band. Those eight on the left. The other four—those standing a little ways apart are Persian. The red fellow, Simorgh, claims to be descended from Zahhak."

"What is Zahhak?" Jane asked and Tharkay shrugged suddenly bemused.

"A monster in a story. Like Grendel; if you will," He scratched at his beard thoughtfully and looked toward the dragons.

"What is Grende—"

"Arkady's band are willing and quite satisfied to be here with Arkady, and they should work well with whatever plan you have for them. The Persian dragons," Tharkay shrugged, "They have Samandar blood and may prove more useful to you in the breeding grounds."

"Samandar?"

"One of the oldest pyrogenic breeds in the world. Where the Kazilik descends from."

"Mister Tharkay, I didn't realize you were so familiar with Near East Dragon breeds," Jane smiled and Tharkay's face fell into a slight look of horror before he turned away from her.

"I consulted," he said.

"How did you manage to bring in the Persian ferals?" Jane said studying them in awe.

"Our course was further south this time to avoid the cities and we met them crossing the Zagros. I speak some Persian and they seemed intrigued by our story so they came along. I offered them the same recompense," Tharkay offered a meaningful glance at Jane. She was still studying the row of dragons though the line they had formed was now very much in disarray.

"We'll do what we can, you needn't worry over that," Jane said she turned to walk back toward the building almost giddy with the thought of receiving more dragons. Tharkay's stare hardened to a cold glare, but he was calm when he spoke.

"I was also hoping to settle my account here quickly so I may be off this doomed island before the French arrive."

Jane frowned. Tharkay's brow rose indignantly.

"You'll get what's promised," Jane said, "But things have gotten quite a lot more complicated than last you were here. I no longer have the same authority in the Corps as when our agreement was made."

Tharkay continued to glare at her, and when he didn't say anything, Jane said, "Mister Tharkay, I will do everything I can to see you properly compensated. It's just going to take longer than I had ho—"

"Did you doubt my return?"

"Not for a moment, no. Laurence spoke highly of you. I had no reason to doubt…" Jane trailed off in a sudden note of uncertainty. Tharkay's eyes narrowed.

"Was he captured in Africa?"

"Well, yes he was Mister Tharkay. But that incident has little to do with the current problem we are now faced with." Jane's brow furrowed in frustration. Of course he wouldn't know, but she wasn't quite ready to relive the whole ignominious drama just yet. Not when she was in a deserted end of the covert surrounded by twelve hungry dragons and Laurence's now disgruntled Chinaman. "Let us go Mister Tharkay, and let these fellows be fed."

Jane started toward the buildings surrounding the covert, where the usual crowd of aviators and the necessary attendant crew and service staff were gathered more closely. She saw to it that Dunne and the other young officers assigned to work with the ferals were made aware of the new arrivals; and in spite of his surly demeanor, she managed to convince Tharkay to agree to start working with a few of them on learning the necessary commands in Persian.

Granby joined her in the officer's mess an hour later. His face was ruddy from running about in the winter chill, but he smiled as he sat. Jane thought she caught a whiff of rum when he did so, but perhaps it came from some other in the establishment. This was a difficult time for all of them, and in spite of the easy flow of alcohol the atmosphere in the mess was rather somber.

Granby said little to her aside from pleasantry but she asked if he had invited Tharkay.

"Tharkay put up his tent near the trees. He took tea and bread and a bowl of whatever slop they're serving in the mess tent, but he declined the invitation to join us." Granby said, "I imagine the poor fellow is quite exhausted, it is a long way to travel with only feral dragons for company."

"I'm going to have to introduce him to Admiral Sanderson," Jane said, hoping Granby was too foxed to hear the note of disdain in her voice. She wasn't sure how the Admiral would react to meeting Laurence's Chinaman—a man who looked as feral as the dragons he'd recently herded. But hopefully the Admiral would agree to pay him and let him be on his way.

Jane said little during dinner and though a few more officers joined them they seemed reluctant to engage with her. Oh Laurence, she thought to herself, see what your actions have wrought? She finished her dinner and left the Officer's Mess with no thought of the directions she wanted to go. She cursed Laurence over and over in her mind while her feet led her to Excidium's clearing. He roused as she drew near fixing an orange eye on her. Jane smiled and he lifted his head so she could put a hand on his muzzle.

"You're doing that again, my love," He said. There was a roughness to his voice now, since the illness. The beautiful resonance was now punctuated with a gravelly rattle. It was a sad reminder that led to another sad reminder. She pushed back her dark thoughts and leaned forward to kiss him on the nose.

"Whatever are you talking about dearest?" She said. Jane sat in the warm enclosure of his forelegs, reveling in the simple pleasure of it. She was only a girl when she'd lost her mother and was raised to his Captainship, and he would always be her one true love.

"That horrible frowning," he said, "You'll get wrinkles."

"I think it's a bit late to worry about that," Jane said laughing.

"The young one was here," Excidium said, "Making a fool of herself too."

"What did she do now?" Jane knew he meant Lily; he always called her the young one. But Jane didn't recall seeing Catherine in the mess, and Jane started to say so but Excidium spoke instead.

"Lily was here," he said, "And she asked the Chinaman to cook her cow for her…" He shook his great head somberly. Jane looked confused and he started to laugh. "But you see, love, the Chinaman is not really a Chinaman at all!"

Jane was puzzled; it took her a minute to work out whom Excidium was talking about. It seemed Lily had mistaken Tharkay for Gong Su.

"That young one," Excidium said, still laughing.

"What did he do?"

"Who? The Chinaman?" Excidium turned his head so he could look at her, "He told her he was not a Chinaman and also that he was a terrible cook. He told me that he's been asked to cook four times since he's been in the camp."

Jane looked appalled. The man was already heated about not receiving his pay and it dismayed her to realize that he was already receiving insult only hours after his arrival. "That's Mister Tharkay, he was Laurence's guide across the continent. Did he come speak to you?"

"Yes, very interesting fellow," Excidium said and stretched his neck out wistfully, "Reminds me of the lad your mother brought to meet me when she was—Jane, dear, you are frowning again."

"I don't understand why he would approach you," Jane said, "What is he playing at?"

"Is the fellow a villain? I did not know," Excidium turned his head to look at her again, "Shall I squash him if he comes around again?"

Jane laughed, "It would only satisfy a small care, but I do feel it suspicious that he should choose to approach you—and rather daring of him. What was he about, then?"

"Well," Excidium said rather guiltily, "I saw him and asked him to come to me. He has a very strange coat and a swarthy look to him and I know he is the man that herds the feral dragons. They are a raucous bunch and I don't appreciate the things they shout at me, so I asked him to explain some of these terms to me, that I at least can weather the insults without ignorance."

Jane's eyes widened in surprise and then she laughed, "Really dear, you've become sensitive in your old age."

"I'm hardly old, Jane," Excidium said curtly, "Any road, the swarthy fellow asked me if I was the dragon you Captained, and I said yes unfortunately."

Jane slapped a hand against his foreleg, "What has gotten into you?"

"We were two fellows having a laugh at you silly girls—you and the young one," Excidium said.

"Was there anything else?" Jane said.

"No nothing," Excidium said, "But he asked after Temeraire, so I told him what happened."

"Good, I suppose I've been spared the bother," Jane said.

"I'd really rather not squash him Jane, he is rather more likeable than that Laurence fellow you're always on about," Excidium sniffed haughtily and lay his head down to doze."

"I can't say I can agree with all that," Jane said. She stood and walked out to pat his muzzle again, "But it's better that you don't squash him—for the time being. I will see you in the morning dear."

"Good night Jane."

A/N: Updated 7-7-12. Very sorry for the loooooong hiatus. Thanks to everyone who read my silly stories and especially those who reviewed (I don't think I'd have come back if not for you).