Disclaimer: Several characters as well as this Alternate History were created by Naomi Novik. I'm just a fan, imitating.
In which Tharkay accepts a bit of courier duty and begins his journey along the Silk Road.
He sat quietly in the corner of the room while all the little lords, with their powdered wigs and brocade coats, argued in the room. The host wore company colors and styled himself as some sort of military commander—but the wars were far away from here. Tharkay knew because he'd been there and India had nearly killed him.
He took out his knife to clean his fingernails—not that they really needed it—but he was amused by the furtive looks from several of the merchants in the room. They were always going to be wary of him, why not give them something to be wary about?
Beddows, the company man, owned the house. He'd also spent a great deal of time in India, and he'd brought as much of the place with him as he could when he set up in Turkey. Many of the servants, Tharkay remembered from his dealings with Beddows in India.
Beddows had already come to an agreement with Tharkay about the job, but he'd insisted that Tharkay come for dinner. Why should one turn down a free meal—especially when it promised a refreshing break from bulgur and vegetables. At least, Tharkay thought, as he held up his hand to inspect his nails, he could count on Beddows keeping a good table.
The conversation had returned to China and the glances in his direction were steadily increasing. Tharkay put away his knife and leaned back in his chair to glare out at them. Then Beddows met his eye and everyone was looking at him. Tharkay stood and moved to stand beside Beddows while the man described his purpose in their venture.
Tharkay stretched his shoulders and then tucked one of his thumbs into his wide leather belt. Beddows told the merchants he'd be four months there and back from China and their glancing curiosity turned into awe and perhaps, he hoped, a bit of plotting.
One of Beddows' Indian servants brought in more wine and the party broke off into small groups. Tharkay took a glass, moved toward the window and stared down on the city bathed in the yellowing light of early evening. Istanbul was very fine. He might never live like a prince in Istanbul but he felt he had a place here; here was where Europe met with Asia and East and West converged.
Tharkay turned at a touch to his shoulder; it was Beddows, wearing his ridiculous red coat.
"We're going into dinner, Tharkay," He said. Tharkay nodded and followed him.
He'd dined with Beddows and his family before, but never with other guests. This particular group—gathered for business—proved to be a rather uncompromising lot. Conversation died as soon as Tharkay joined them at the table. Beddows met his eye apologetically. The women, thankfully, were not present. Mrs. Beddows having taken her daughters to England to visit relatives.
No one spoke to Tharkay, so he kept to himself. He eyed the Italian sitting across from him surreptitiously as he served himself. The man was trying very hard to avoid looking at him. Just as well, Tharkay thought, he could eat in peace. And he did.
George Drysdale entered his sister's townhome and stood in the narrow doorway and shook off his coat and hat before hanging them up. He took his case and all but ran up the stairs in his excitement. His sister was in the sitting room consoling a deeply upset little boy. George's smile faded immediately.
"What is the matter here?" He asked, "Moira?"
The boy just sat and pouted at the window with his tears still staining his round cheeks. Moira looked at him and stood to answer, "Oh George, I only took him with me to the market. He seemed so terribly bored here—"
"Da," The boy said, "I'm not like you. I'm not like anybody else."
"John Ross asked him where he was from," Moira said, "The man is simple George, he didn't think anything of it."
George frowned and knelt in front of his young son, "Now Geordie, that isn't a way for a young man to act."
"He said I looked like a China doll," Geordie said.
"What's so wrong with that?" George said, "You're a very handsome fellow. But if you pout and cry and wrinkle your brow people will think you're a troll. Come now, stop that."
"I wish I was like you," Geordie said, "I don't want to be different."
"Certainly you don't wish everyone to be the same," George said, "Variety makes our world interesting and beautiful. What a boring place it would be if all things were the same."
Geordie nodded but he didn't seem relieved. He let his father take his hand and pull him to his feet. George looked at his sister, but the woman just shook her head.
"But I had good news," George said, "and we mustn't let our sensitivities prevent us from enjoying it."
"Go on then, George," Moira said.
"Father, God rest his soul, had left me a very sizeable debt for my inheritance," George began.
"Now, George there's no need to—"
"I've been able to settle his accounts, you see I've done quite well for myself in India," George interrupted. "And," George looked directly at Geordie, "I've purchased the old house."
Moira's eyes went wide, "You did not!"
"You shall have a very nice manor to explore," George said to Geordie, "You will very much like the country there."
"Is it that place near the old Abbey?" Moira asked and George nodded.
"Can we get a dragon?" Geordie asked.
The two adults laughed and George said, "We shall see."
The horse was a small creature, little bigger than a pony, but it carried its fine head high and its stride ate up the miles well enough. Tharkay called him Khan—short for Genghis Khan—mostly because it was amusing to him that such a small, inauspicious little horse should have such an auspicious name.
He'd purchased the little horse when he'd passed through Behshahr almost two years ago. At the time, he'd had very little money and the animal was bought at such a dear price, he took much care in his keeping. There where times where Khan was quartered better than Tharkay was. If Khan was spoiled it didn't show, he was a willing little horse and trusting.
Khan, without much coaxing, kept a quick a steady gallop and Tharkay could already see Mt. Hassan in the distance. Khan had tugged steadily at the bit for the last day and a half since they'd left Istanbul and here in the fields of Anatolia, Tharkay saw no reason to keep him from it now.
Khan slowed suddenly as a large shadow passed overhead; Tharkay looked up. It was a small yellow dragon, a Turkish courier, probably. Khan stopped completely, ears twitching and he turned twice in a circle before Tharkay could coax him into continuing on. Tharkay patted his little horse on the neck.
"If you were a dragon, we'd be there already," he said into the wind. Khan's ears twitched at the sound of his voice. Tharkay wouldn't give up his prize little horse, not even for a dragon.
It was already dark when they arrived at Sultan Han and a few Aqche bought Tharkay fodder for his little horse and some lavash for himself. He saw to Khan's needs and left in horse hobbled before taking his lavash and joining a few other men at the fire.
Here no one seemed alarmed at the sight him and one or two recognized him from previous travels or from other caravansaries. He was content here among muffled voices—some in languages he didn't recognize—the warm smells of camel and horse. Some of these people were headed East into the orient, some West to 'civilization' and still others South into the southern reaches of the Ottoman Empire.
He awoke in the cool stillness of dawn and busied himself checking and re-checking his panniers with a fastidiousness learned in another lifetime with the East India Company Army. He pulled off his jacket, a short wool coat in the style of most European Cavalry—though he'd let his fade into an inconspicuous brown. He stripped to his waist and washed in one of the niches in the stonewalls left for that purpose, he was soon joined by several Arabs, stoically conducting ablutions before their morning prayers.
Refreshed, Tharkay returned to Khan and took the little horse by the bridle to water him before the next leg of their journey.
"Tarkay Agha!" It was a woman's voice ringing along the walls of the courtyard. Tharkay had pulled his shirt back over his head but when he saw her coming he worked quickly to tuck the tails back into his pants. He was still tucking his shirt when she neared him.
"Firuz Khanum," He smiled abashed at her sudden appearance and his state of undress. Firuz smiled back, she was missing one of her premolars, but the smile brightened her sun-dark face nonetheless. "Are you going to Istanbul?"
She spoke to him in court Farsi, a language Tharkay was familiar enough with from his time with the caravans. "I just left Istanbul," he said, "going east."
Firuz frowned but she fixed him with her bright hazel eyes earnestly. She was an older woman—maybe ten years his senior—but every time he ran into her Tharkay found himself wishing that he'd been born ten years earlier.
"Tarkay Agha," she said determinedly, "Take me to Istanbul first, then you come back."
"I cannot," Tharkay said, "I have wazifeh."
She made a derisive noise and waved her hands at him dismissively, "Come to Istanbul first."
Tharkay smiled at her in frustration. He'd met her and her camels the first time he'd gone through Esfahan, a woman merchant alone with five children. He was in a bad way and needed help and she offered it freely, he in turn had provided her and her small caravan the male protection she'd needed. She'd made an amiable travel companion and Tharkay did not have to fake his remorseful look when he said, "I'm sorry, Firuz Khanum, I cannot."
As compensation, Tharkay stayed to help her water the camels. They said nothing to each other while they worked. Tharkay put on his jacket and made his farewells before leading Khan toward the main portal out of the caravansary. They were nearly outside when Khan jerked his head up and made a high-pitched whinny.
"Whoa," Tharkay said. He tugged on the bridle forcing Khan's head into his jacket. He saw the shadow slide toward them along the dirt and then bounce up as it slid along the walls. He pulled Khan forward and only uncovered his head when they had parted the high stonewalls.
They were not so far away that the screams and protests from inside the caravansary could not be heard. Tharkay's brow furrowed as he managed to calm Khan enough to put the bit back into his horse's mouth. "They can water a dragon some other place can't they?"
Khan only snorted, quivering slightly. Tharkay mounted and urged the little horse to put Sultan Han far behind him. Khan, who was still very agitated about the dragon, willingly complied.
A/N: So it's finally come to this. I need to stop writing for Temeraire and explore a new world. Unfortunately, this story is the one that's been playing in my head and it just won't die. This is the story I've been working up to.
Yes, it's a Tharkay back-story. If you don't like Tharkay, I'm sorry. But I do hope you give him a chance.
Reviews/Comments welcome—especially if I stray too far off track. Except for the flashback portions in the middle of each chapter, the intent is to keep this in his POV. So I'd really appreciate it if let me know if there are discrepancies in POV.