Disclaimer: Several characters as well as this Alternate History were created by Naomi Novik. I'm just a fan, imitating.
The Map Maker
In which Tharkay attempts to discover the purpose of the wayward Frenchman.
Tharkay stood in his room and stared out of the window at the dark sky. Subhana was already gone when he'd excused himself after dinner though whatever entertainments Hassan had provided for his guests must have impressed, as the raucous sounds of laughter and music echoed throughout the house.
A gunshot cracked through the night sky somewhere in the city and beyond and the sound of it echoed in the valley only to be answered by another shot, and another. Tharkay scratched his temple; perhaps it was a special day after all.
"Monsieur! 'Allo!" Tharkay leaned further out of the window and saw the skinny Frenchman hanging precariously from a window, perhaps three doors down.
"You will fall," Tharkay said and left the window.
He picked up his panniers and brought them to the wooden bench set to one side in the room. He still had the few dregs of his food left in them, a wool blanket, his journal and his pot—he took everything out and surveyed the items. Some of these things had travelled a very long way. But these were practical things and Tharkay wasn't one to attach anything more to these items than whether they were going to be needed or not. He started separating the items into two groups.
He was in the middle of this project when Jean entered his room unannounced. Tharkay stiffened and crossed his arms at the sight of him, glaring.
"What do you need?" He said.
"Nothing, Monsieur," Jean said, and without invitation settled himself on Tharkay's borrowed bed. Tharkay didn't move from where he was standing.
"I wasn't expecting company," he said, dangerously calm.
Jean just frowned up at him and shrugged, "You are going to the market tomorrow?"
Tharkay turned to look at the door and then glared back at Jean.
"Monsieur, I am so very lonely," Jean said suddenly and Tharkay's brow knit.
Jean continued when Tharkay didn't say a thing. "I have been surrounded by these 'orrible people for too long now. I don't think that I will like Kathmandu."
Tharkay winced and put a hand to his temple, "You're going to—why?"
"Because I am ze map maker," Jean said sullenly.
"Right," Tharkay said, "For the Kings of France and Italy…"
Jean brightened a little, "I shall make zis map to China."
Tharkay went back to sorting his things and then repacked the panniers. The discarded items he wrapped in the old blanket and set to the side. Jean just watched him with an inordinate amount of interest.
"Ze Sultan says you are a very good traveler," Jean said, and Tharkay didn't even spare him a glance.
"How do you know English?" Jean asked, and when Tharkay didn't respond, "I lived in England—for two months. So zat is why I am so very good."
"You do realize the Revolution is over?" Tharkay said.
"Ah," Jean said, "Perhaps."
Tharkay shook his head and motioned for the man to leave.
"Monsieur," Jean started, "I only was going—"
"I would like some privacy, sir. If you don't mind," Tharkay said.
Jean pleaded with him even as Tharkay pushed him through the door and then locked it.
Tharkay woke early and secured his things. He pulled on his boots, tucking the loose legs of the shalwar in them. He put his belt on over the qamis so that he had a place to sheath his blade. It was still dark when he left the house and headed back toward the market in Kabul.
Mostly he wanted to consider his new dilemma, he hadn't expected a detour into Kathmandu at all, nor was he very eager to dredge up all of the memories of his last visit in Nepal.
Still, the money was very good and the direction more or less on his route, so certainly he could risk whatever he was worried about for a little extra profit. Hassan had given him half of his payment up front—and Tharkay had made sure to over estimate his need, as he may or may not ever see the other half.
He wondered too about the cargo. They certainly mined their own salt in the mountains, and the wood was not of a particularly rare quality that would justify so arduous—and expensive—a journey. In the end it was curiosity more than the money itself that won him over—and perhaps, the dragons.
The doctor's name was Ure, and he was short and taciturn and sometimes difficult to work for, but he never minded what Geordie looked like. The doctor had chosen him from among five young men and had made his choice solely on a sampling of handwriting. The doctor was fair and reasonable. If perhaps this wasn't what his father had wanted for him, it did not seem so terrible a consequence.
Thomas, of course, found a place at the Residency. Thomas who was not quite so far along in his language studies, and hadn't nearly as fair a hand as Geordie. But for all that, Thomas was fairer of face, and Geordie couldn't wish him ill for that. The Doctor was honest and fair and Geordie couldn't complain of his treatment.
The first week he'd worked there, the Doctor said nothing to him aside from his direction. Geordie had never been inclined to idle conversation and as there'd been no invitation, he did not volunteer. He was, by title of his employment, a clerk. He managed the Doctor's records and his correspondences and beyond, as the doctor's staff was very small, Geordie found himself also burdened with the position of medical assistant.
As his father hadn't intended that he become a tradesman, medicine, in any practical form, was wholly alien to him. Geordie did find it interesting at times—if not fascinating—and he never balked when asked to assist the doctor in any way outside of his prescribed duty.
So it happened, after six days as the doctor's assistant, a man came in with a wound in his shoulder. He'd bled out for sometime and his clothing was soaked red with blood. Geordie was the only person at the door to greet him and brought him into Doctor Ure's examination room. The doctor had looked up in surprise and demanded to know what had happened.
"Honor," the man said and the doctor shook his head. Geordie had the honor of holding the fellow down during the operation. The operation was short and relatively routine but the man stayed in the clinic at his own request—though he'd lost a great deal of blood, Doctor Ure was not very willing to board a patient overnight. Geordie also had the honor of staying overnight to watch the patient—well, mostly the doctor wanted him to watch the clinic.
So it happened that Geordie was marking in his journal by the light of a sputtering candle when the patient interrupted him. The man was still wearing the blood soaked shirt, now cut where the surgeon needed to cut it and minus his equally bloody neck cloth which had bound the wound prior to treatment.
"Do you need something?" Geordie asked him.
The man stared at him agape—as if a donkey had spoken to him.
"Sir?" George said.
"You speak English," the patient said.
Geordie nodded, thinking that the observation had been adequately confirmed without the need of further elaboration. He stared at the man and was stared at in return. Finally the patient sat heavily in the nearest chair and cleared his throat.
"Where is the doctor?"
"He went home for the night," Geordie said.
The man looked around the room before giving a small cough.
"I don't suppose he keeps his medicine in here at night?" he said.
"Under lock and key," Geordie said.
The man frowned, "Did he leave anything for me?"
"No," Geordie said.
The man frowned again and leaned back in the chair and stared at the floor contemplative. Geordie went back to his journal, fearing the candle wouldn't last very much longer. He finished in his book several minutes later with the candle low in its holder and glanced up to find the patient staring at him. The man smiled and Geordie's brow furrowed.
"Perhaps," Geordie said, "You should try to sleep."
"Where did you come from?" The man said, ignoring the suggestion.
"Scotland," Geordie said.
"No you didn't," the man stood and walked up to the table Geordie was sitting at, "How old are you?"
Geordie only frowned and stood.
"You look like a girl," the patient said, laughing at Geordie's anxiousness.
Geordie moved to stand behind the doctor's desk, "The doctor will be in early this morning, perhaps you should try to sleep."
"Is there water to drink?" the man said turning away from him. Geordie's eyes narrowed.
"There was a pitcher for you in the patient's infirmary," he said.
"I drank it already," the patient said.
"I'm sorry," Geordie said, though he didn't really feel sorry in the least, "It will be morning soon."
"Won't you get water for me?"
"I'm not to leave the clinic," Geordie said.
The man glared at him now and Geordie glared back, trying to decide what he would do—he'd never had much luck standing against his stepbrother, and this man was bigger yet. Finally the man yawned and returned to the bed they'd given him. Geordie leaned back in the doctor's chair relieved. He had his journal in one hand and the doctor's penknife in the other.
"Why is he going?" Tharkay stood in front of Hassan's polished desk with his arms crossed and his dark eyes narrowed to slits.
Hassan just shook his head ambiguously, "He is paid by Ibn Masoud. It is his affair. You are going to watch my merchandise."
Tharkay didn't move and though the fat man pretended not to see him standing there, Tharkay's patience won out and Hassan looked up at him ruefully.
"I cannot change it. Masoud contracted the dragons."
"What are you transporting?" Tharkay said.
Hassan startled and hesitated before saying, "I cannot in good conscience speak of this here."
"Of course," Tharkay said, "the walls have mice… Will you need me to deliver anything to Staunton?"
"My dear," Hassan laughed, "You are getting greedy."
Tharkay shrugged, "Suit yourself. I have one other request."
"At your service, my friend," Hassan said.
"Will you board my horse?" Tharkay said, "I don't think he is very fond of dragons."
Hassan hesitated again, "My friend, horses are expensive to keep and I don't know when you are coming back."
"He's not a big horse," Tharkay said.
"I don't know," Hassan said dismissively.
"You can take the board out of my fee," Tharkay said.
Hassan pursed his lips contemplative, and then he nodded, "I will care for him like one of my own stallions."
Tharkay went back to his room inventorying his supply in his head and hoping to himself that Hassan would not try to ride Khan. He found his journal among his scant personal baggage and thumbed through it—pushing the leaf of rice paper back into its hiding place when it made itself known—until he found a blank page. He was still writing when someone entered the room unannounced. He looked up once to see whom it was and then returned to his writing.
"Where have you been?" It was Subhana and she stood over him peering into the book. Tharkay didn't stop to look up at her.
"I had business," he said, "I'm leaving in the morning."
"But you just got here!" She said.
"I'm sure you'll have others to occupy your time," He said.
"I was waiting for a long time yesterday," Subhana said, "Then it was time for supper."
Tharkay paused and glanced up at her, a smile playing on his lips.
"I don't need a report," he went back to his writing, "It's no consequence to me what you do with your time."
She glared at him and he stopped again to stare back, grinning outright. She was beautiful when she was angry, with her full mouth gathered in a lovely pout and the glint of her dark eyes like coals.
"You are making sport of me," she said her voice lowered in anger.
"I am not," he said still smiling as he returned to his journal.
"I'm not stupid," she said, "I can tell when you are making fun."
Tharkay made a small noise and turned the page in his journal and continued to write. Subhana crossed her arms livid at his disinterest. He paused again to dip his pen without acknowledging her.
"You can finish that later," she said.
"I'm doing this now," Tharkay said simply, "I'd rather do this while I'm thinking of it and not later when I may forget."
Still Subhana refused to leave and she watched him for several minutes more before smacking the book out of his hands. Tharkay stood to retrieve his book and laid it open on the bench. He turned to her.
"Get out," he said.
She started to laugh and he looked down at his hand blackened with ink and then he saw the streaks and splashes that had dripped onto the white shalwar and qamis he was wearing. Subhana covered her mouth with her hands still giggling.
"Get out now," Tharkay said.
Subhana fled and Tharkay stood looking at his ink-stained fingers rubbing them together. The book was unharmed; a few droplets of ink on the binding, but the inkwell had emptied itself into the threadbare carpet. Tharkay frowned, annoyed.
Jean was sitting on his bed reading from a scroll while eating from a bowl of nuts. He only glanced up casually when Tharkay entered and gave him a small nod of greeting.
"'Allo, Monsieur," Jean said.
Tharkay had done his best to scrub the ink from his fingers, but they would be black for a while yet.
"Sir," Tharkay said, "I'm sorry to disturb you."
"Oh, non, monsieur," Jean said and smiled, "I am very pleased to see you."
Tharkay paused, unsure how to respond to that. He decided to ignore the comment, and said, "Do you have black ink?"
"Blank ink?" Jean said.
"L'encre," Tharkay said, "noire."
"Oh," Jean said and grinned, "non."
Tharkay's brow furrowed. Jean smiled again and pointed at the splotches of spilled ink on his clothes.
"Did you have a problem?"
"Yes," Tharkay said.
"Oh, quelle horreur!" Jean said shaking his head sympathetically.
"I thought you said you were a map maker?" Tharkay said.
"Ah," Jean said, "I am a map maker."
"And you don't have ink? N'avez pas d'encre?" Tharkay frowned.
"Ah," Jean said flapping his hands at Tharkay, "Close the door, monsieur. Come look at this!"
Tharkay only wanted to leave, but he humored the man and approached the bed. He came only as close as was necessary to see the scroll up close. The map was crude with wavering proportions and labeled in poorly scrawled Arabic.
Tharkay almost told him out loud that it was terrible. Instead he did his best to feign interest and leaned in to study it more closely.
"It is—comment dites—ah—paint," Jean said.
"I see," Tharkay said.
Jean waved a hand toward Tharkay's ink stained clothing, "It is cleaner."
"But it shan't last very long—it will fade," Tharkay said—slowly, so that Jean could understand him. "And your lines aren't very fine." Or accurate, he thought.
Jean frowned and shrugged, "Monsieur Ibn Masoud likes my maps."
"I'll bet he likes more than that," Tharkay muttered under his breath as he started for the door.
"Heechi," Tharkay said and opened the door.
"Monsieur," Jean said, "Will a dragon eat a man?"
Tharkay turned to look at Jean, "I dare say one might. If it's hungry."
"How long will it be to Sarikol?" Jean said.
"A few days—it depends on the train," Tharkay said.
"Oh? Train?" Jean said.
"Caravan," Tharkay said, "I think Hassan has hired camels. Some prefer mules."
"Did you travel once to Sarikol?"
"I've been a few times," Tharkay said.
Jean's thin shoulders drooped and he stared at his map looking rather pathetic. Tharkay closed the door and walked back to him. Jean sighed plaintively.
"Do you know what they're bringing to Kathmandu?" Tharkay said.
Jean threw him a puzzled look and took a moment to work out the English, "It is wood and salt and some oils, maybe. But inside it is gold."
"Oui, inside. It is—secret," Jean said.
"Hidden?" Tharkay asked.
"Eh?" Jean said. Tharkay wondered why Hassan wouldn't tell him, but Ibn Masoud had no problem sharing this with Jean.
"Your man, Ibn Masoud," Tharkay said, "Where is he from?"
"Monsieur I am not certain," Jean said, "I only just met him."
"Where?" Tharkay said.
Jean shrugged, "Quelque part en Perse… I am not certain."
Tharkay frowned at his boots. Jean must have deserted in Africa and somehow ended up in the care of the Arab merchant. Unless, perhaps, he was still working for Napoleon. Tharkay glanced up to find Jean staring sidelong at him. Jean smiled.
"Where are you from?" Jean said.
Tharkay gave slight bow; "I shall see you in the morning, sir."
Jean was saying something in his grating Frenchy English when Tharkay stepped out and closed the door.
A/N: Just to clarify for both of my readers—you know who you are ;)…
Anywho… below is the timeline being used in the story. This assumes that he is older than Granby and somewhat younger than Laurence. (Which might explain why he tries so hard to impress him)
b. 1779~ or thereabouts
1785- removed to Britain (approximate age 6)
1794- went back to India (approximate age 15)
1797- Army (approximate age 17)
1799- went crazy (approximate age 20)
1800- ran off into the world (approximate age 20)
1801- Arrival in Istanbul (approximate age 22)
1803- the dragon train (approximate age 24)
1804- Return to Scotland (approximate age 25)
1805- Istanbul again (approximate age 26)
Summer 1806 – meets Laurence (approximate age 27)
Late 1807- Return to England (28-at this point he tired of approximating)
1808-New South Wales (29)
1809-Bombay (30) (Though he should've hung around for South America IMO)
As always thanks for reading! (Both of you)
Minor edits in Jun2015.