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Love is in the hair

Chapter Text

 

 

The man heaved loudly, climbing up the mountainside. It felt steeper than the last time he was here and the pebbles on the path more eager to slip from under his feet, slowing him even further.

He had to pause frequently to regain his breath, which proved that too long time has passed since his last journey.

But the way back would be easier, he reminded himself as he looked at the remaining road. Soon, he will feel all his strength coming back, not only what he lost during the journey, but all of it spent since the last time he was here.

The man stood up and resumed the hike. It was well past dark already and he did not dare use a lantern but he kept moving forward; he knew the path well.

His persistence was eventually rewarded by the sight of a familiar clearing. Some other who would climb all the way up here might have taken a moment to admire the view which spread before his eyes – magnificent mountains framing a composition of green forests and yellow fields and even further, though now barely visible – the capital of the neighbouring kingdom.

The man paid no attention to the view, even picturesquely illuminated by the slowly appearing moon. He has been seeing it once a year for the past two centuries and it has long lost its appeal.

What did interest him was the large, wicker basket, placed upside down on the ground, covered in vines, creeping on the ground on better part of the small clearing as well.

His pulse quickened slightly when he removed the cover... But, no, needlessly, the flower was still there as always.

The fear of anyone discovering it was irrational, he knew it was. Why would anyone wander here?

However, every once in a while he lay awake at night, paralyzed by the fear of the flower perishing. It would ruin everything. Everything he has been working for so long.

Two centuries ago, when he seized the reign of his kingdom, he quickly realized that only he truly understood its needs and how it and its people ought to be governed; the kingdom needed him and he did it a great service removing his brother from he throne. But he had no way of securing the matters after his death. So he secured himself from dying.

Even though he took the crown by force, people eventually made peace with it and his long life only proved his reign to be the will of Heavens.

The man gently stroked the golden glowing petals of the flower. It was said that it grew from a drop of sunlight which fell upon the ground, and looking at the petals one had no trouble believing it. Touching them felt like putting a hand in a sunlit spot and its glow subsided only in comparison to the actual light of the sun. Only slightly – enough to allow looking at it.

The man silently intoned an ancient song which was believed to appeal directly to the sun and its spirits themselves. He had to travel far and search long to learn it; those who still remembered the old beliefs were scarce, even when he was young.

He did not have a particularly pleasant voice – too harsh, too dry, but it never mattered. The petals glowed even more intensely and the man felt strength running through his fingers and spreading around the rest of his body. He could see his hands regaining what flesh they lost since the last time, the swollen veins and vessels meting back with the skin and the skin itself growing more firm and less pale.

He stood up, gladly not hearing his joints crack - a most irritating thing he began to notice recently. Carefully, he placed the basket over the flower, checking for any holes or gaps where the light might shine through, and to his satisfaction, finding none.

The flower was safe and so was he. And so was his kingdom.

***

 

The following year has not been kind to him. It was nothing too much out of ordinary – such years happened every once in a while, one could get used to it in two centuries. Usually due to a couple of unfortunate circumstances – poor crops, insufficient fishing, natural disasters. This year the last straw was the reported birth of another descendant of the long ousted royal line – not only the first in this generation, but also a boy, a potential heir. It was said that his name was Mianning. And while not being much of a threat now, he might one day grow to be one, should he someday wish to fight for his right to the throne.

Emperor Yongxing made sure not to appear in public too much. He let his people see him every once in a while, so as not to give reason to provoke rumours of him being ill or dead or otherwise unfit for ruling. But in general, he preferred to pull the strings from concealment. It also allowed him to perform his annual escapades, the Emperor being gone for a few days not raising any eyebrows, since it was not noticed.

He had thought of transporting the flower closer to the palace for easier access, but eventually decided that its secret would be revealed too easily when kept within crowded palace walls; and the risk of hurting the flower while removing it from where it grew was too high.

Although he felt he ought to uptake some precautions soon. Decade by decade, he felt his body returning to its true age faster and faster and his journeys would soon need to be more often.

Because of the delay and his failing strength this year he travelled in haste, not only to reach his destination, but also to return.

Little did he know that while climbing up the mountain he was not, as usual, alone.

Few weeks prior, in the neighbouring kingdom of Allendale, the court was awaiting the birth of a royal child. Awaiting with delight, but not much excitement, as the child was only third in the queue to the throne, after two older princes.

However, joy turned to horror, as the Queen fell ill and within days she, and with her the baby, were on the verge of dying.

If the choice was between the Queen's life and the baby's, the King would not hesitate long, lightly sacrificing the third of his sons. He was not a particularly affectionate parent. But he was not given even that poor choice; the physicians were helpless.

Desperate times called for desperate measures and the King resolved to myths and legends and gossip in search of anything that might help his wife. Among the things repeated to him, was the legend of a flower which could heal any wound, any illness, even senility, growing high in the southern mountains.

Without much hope, the King sent out a search party. The Queen was a kind, charitable woman, much closer to her subjects than the King was, and the people loved her. Therefore even those who believed the magical flower to be nothing more than a tall-tale searched with determination.

All the determination in the world would not be enough however, if not for the very fortunate coincidence.

Upon realizing that he was not alone, Emperor Yongxing quickly concealed the flower and retreated in haste. One of the buttons of his coat got caught up in a vine growing on the basket and tugged it away from above the flower.

Yongxing hid behind a bend of the rockface at the last moment and when he saw the damage it was too late.

The flower was carefully taken away and its petals used to make a brew which would heal the Queen.

Powerless with anger, Yongxing returned to his palace, knowing that he would have to figure out a way of retrieving the magic of the flower within the next year or else his reign is done for.

Meanwhile, in the kingdom of Allendale, celebration took hold of the court – the Queen has returned to health and given birth to a boy, with hair as gold as the sunlight. He was named William and to honour him and the Queen a magnificent show of flying lanterns was held in the capitol.


***

 

The year was passing quickly and Yongxing was finally too desperate to wait longer.

He crossed the mountains, wandering into the foreign land to regain what was stolen from him. What he overheard from the men he came across in the mountains on that fateful night led him to the conclusion that the flower was transported to the King's castle.

He waited until nightfall to venture into the palace walls, beginning his search at the royal couple’s quarters, having learned that the flower was to be given to the Queen.

He did not find what he searched for neither in the King's, nor the Queen's chambers. However, in the adhering room slept a baby boy – he could not have been older than a year.

Yongxing approached him. Even in the pale moonlight, the boy's short hair had a familiar, golden gleam.

The man hummed silently, taking one of the locks in his fingers as the hair began to glow, looking like a halo around the boy's chubby face.

Still keeping an eye on the door for any sign of commotion, Yongxing took out a pocket knife and cut a strand of the boy’s hair.

Immediately, it stopped glowing and turned dim and dull, now the colour of ripe rye.

The man froze.

He could not take the hair. But... he could take the boy.

He picked up the child, careful not to startle him.

Then, as quickly as he could, he went back the route he has previously taken and out of the castle, out of the city, as far as he could before boy's disappearance is discovered. No sooner had the sky turned pale with dawn when he heard the distant sound of bells, ringing the alarm.

But he was far from it already. Giving the scarce settlements a wide berth, he travelled to the safety of the mountains undisturbed. A couple of miles further and he was already on his own ground.

Making use of his old small residence in the country – a tower which he had built for him to observe the stars and study in peace, in one of the shallow ravines not a day's ride from his palace – he created a place for the boy to live safely hidden, away from everyone.

Naturally, he had to be with him often, at least in the first years, but at least now he had the power much closer.

The child has been very burdensome, even when it finally learned to walk and talk and eat on its own. Despite that, Yongxing might have grown fond of the boy. Might have, but did not, as every look at the boy’s golden hair reminded him of the foreigners' greed and selfishness which deprived him of the flower and its magic. The boy's laughter and babbling as he played around with toys Yongxing was bringing to keep him occupied did not allow the man to forget that somewhere in his own country, there was another little boy, of same age; a boy that one day may challenge him, even if now his whole world were wooden horses and tin soldiers.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

His birthday looked the same every year.

Father would come a few days early to ask if there was anything Will wanted to wish for this year as his birthday gift. On the morning of the birthday itself he would arrive with whatever present Will had came up with. Initially, it was mostly toys: wooden swords, stuffed animals, tin soldiers. Later, it was anything that could ease the boredom of a boy coming of age. Board games, paints, various foods, clay, looms, cello, beautiful picture books (Will quickly discovered that he did not care for reading very much). On a year he felt particularly fractious, Will wished for company, wondering however Father would manage that.

He did manage, bringing him a flying lizard, not much bigger than Will's palm and pitch black.
One can imagine the boy's surprise, when the following morning, he woke up to the sight of the lizard sitting on his chest, politely waiting to ask if whether he could perhaps have some more of the sweet dried fruit he ate the previous evening, please.

Not only could the lizard talk, but also did so in a most neat manner; not in one, but in two languages.

He proved to be more valuable company than Will could have hoped for, providing the boy not only with conversation, in which he did not subside a human level of communication, but also entertaining them both with teaching the second language he spoke. Will doubted he would ever have the chance to use it, but for a couple of months the lessons kept him occupied.

The creature claimed to be a dragon and asked to be called Temeraire.

As his twentieth birthday approached fast, Will found himself looking out of the window more and more often, and he already knew what he was going to wish for this year. Or rather, he knew that this year he will finally conjure up the courage to do so.

The day before Father's arrival, Will was furiously cleaning the tower (not that it needed much cleaning, for it was the main part of his daily chores, as well as entertainments), knowing how much Father disliked the mess.

"Ought we to cook something?" Temeraire asked "Something he will like?"

'We' was rather figurative in this, since Temeraire had barely enough strength to lift a spoon. But Will gladly took up the notion, preparing a fanciful dinner and dessert, hoping to set his father in good spirits.

The next day they were both waiting at the window impatiently since the very dawn, staring anxiously at the entrance to the ravine.

"What if he says no?" Temeraire asked, crouched on the wide parapet, eyeing Will with tension.

"Fingers crossed he will not" Will replied.

"But what if he does?"

Will shrugged.

"Then I shall stay here" he said, feigning indifference "What else am I to do?"

Temeraire squinted his eyes slyly.

"Nice try, you clever beast" Will said "If he says I cannot go, he does so for a good reason"

The dragon sighed quietly.

"Maybe if we go fast and come back before he notices..." he suggested.

"I am not lying to Father"

"It is not lying if he does not ask"

Will laughed.

"It is not so bad in here" he said "If there was something out there worth seeing and worth the risk, Father would take us, I am sure

"Come on" he said, pushing himself away from the window "Let us set the table"

***

Yongxing departed from the Palace even more reluctantly than usual. The approaching birthday of the boy reminded him that somewhere in the country, another boy, equal in age, has recently celebrated his twentieth birthday as well.

Mianning's name appeared now often in the reports and people spoke of him with liking when they thought they could not be heard by Yongxing. No challenge has been issued yet, but the emperor supposed it only a matter of time.

Yongxing always tried to spend as much time with Will as he could and obey his every wish, not due to eventual development of affection towards him, nor with particular pleasure, but because he acknowledged that should the boy ever grow tired of staying in the tower, the necessity to keep him near-by by force would make Yongxing's life much more complicated.

Having departed from the palace at dawn, he arrived at the ravine in the late afternoon.

"Will, dear boy, give your old father a lift, would you?" he called, standing at the base of the tower.

He never really claimed to be the boy's actual father. One look at their faces would betray that there was no relation between them whatsoever, anyway. Will grew up convinced that Yongxing found him abandoned in the mountains and took care of him. Yongxing subtly aided the boy in developing a sense of gratitude to him as well as cautiousness regarding the world outside the tower, which so far kept him confined to his home better than any threats and bans would.

Will's face appeared in the open window above.

"Good morning, father!" he called.

A second later, yards and yards of golden locks fell down through the window, its length reaching all the way down to the ground.

Having wound the hair through a system of three flexible connection drives, where the coils of hair played the usual part of the rope or chain, developed according to Temeraire's suggestions, Will was able to pull Yongxing up without much effort.

"However do you manage to pull me up here time after time, son, I cannot conceive" Yongxing said when Will helped him climb onto the parapet.

"Oh, it is nothing, really" Will said.

"Why, then, it ought not take so long" Yongxing replied "I am just teasing you, son. Pray do not mind"

He patted Will's shoulder, displaying unusual cordiality.

"Are you hungry, father?" Will asked "You must be, surely. I have made dinner"

"How thoughtful" Yongxing said "But would you not like to sing for me first? I am so very tired"

"Oh, of course, father!"

Will hurried to pull a massive armchair towards the window where there was more light and sat cross-legged in front of it. Yongxing grabbed a comb from the shelf and sat behind Will, picking up his hair at the end where it was most tangled.

Ever since Will was little, Yongxing brushing his hair was pretty much his sole way of showing physical affection and Will has always looked forward to it; even now, when he could very well brush his hair himself.

He cleared his throat and began singing. Unlike Father, he had a soft, low voice, pleasant to listen to and enjoyed music and singing thoroughly. Maybe even too much, as then and now again he happened to spend the whole day humming and singing out loud songs he made up or learned from books; luckily there were no neighbours who could complain, so he would not know.

The room turned bright, as if filled with sunlight, not much dimmer than if it came directly from the sun itself when Will’s hair lit up, the glow quickly spreading throughout its length.

"It is getting quite troublesome, Father" Will said, recalling how a few days earlier he nearly lost all of his teeth having tripped on the hair as he was walking down the stairs and tumbled all the way downwards.

"Well, you know we cannot cut them"

"Yes, I know" Will said "But if I ever were to go anywhere..."

"But you are not, are you?"

"No, but... Well, I was thinking that maybe..."

Will turned around to face Yongxing, feeling that his heart was now beating somewhere near his throat.

"You know how every year these lights appear in the sky?"

"I have not noticed" Yongxing said, dryly.

That was a lie. He had already learned that apparently the King and Queen missed their third son so dearly that every year they set off hundreds of flying lanterns, such as those that filled the sky on the night of the prince's birth, hoping they would somehow bring their child home.

"Well, they are" Will said "And only on my birthday? And I thought, I mean if that is not a problem, that maybe perhaps you could take me to see them, please"

"You surely talk of stars" Yongxing said coldly "And one cannot be much closer to the stars than we already are, my boy"

There was a clear tone of warning in his voice and Will heard it, but he continued nevertheless.

"But they are not stars" he said, standing up "Stars do not move"

He pointed to the map of the night sky he had painted on the ceiling, copying an image from one of the books. Nearly two month's work; he was very proud of it.

"And these lights do" he said "I think they must come from behind the mountains. If I could go with you and see them..."

"Well, you cannot" Yongxing stood up as well "There is nothing out there worth seeing and it is too dangerous"

"But if you were with me..."

"No. You know what I always say of the people who live out there"

"I do" Will said, lowering his stare

"You know how they treated you" Yongxing said "You are aware it is not safe to take your gift out there"

"I am"

"Have I not said enough times that you would be hunted the very moment anyone found out?"

"You have"

"Then this conversation is over" Yongxing said "Make another wish"

"But..."

"No, son!" Yongxing snapped "Mark my words: you are never leaving this tower. Ever!"

Will hesitated.

"Yes, father" he said quietly.

For a second everything was quiet. Then he heard father's footsteps as he approached him and put his hand on his shoulder.

"I did not want to be harsh, son" he said "I am only worried for you"

"I know, father" Will said, looking up "I love you"

"And I you" Yongxing replied "Now, let us not be glum. What have you prepared for dinner? It smells delicious"

***

"What are we going to do now, Will?" Temeraire asked, curling on the pillow next to Will's head.

"You heard him" Will said "We are to stay here... Forever"

"I am certain it cannot be so dangerous out there" Temeraire replied "Besides you are strong and as tall as Yongxing. I could protect you too"

Will chuckled.

"I am sure you could, you little beast" he said "But even if we went out there, which we will not, we still would not have the faintest idea where to go"

Temeraire thought for a second.

"Yonder" he said "Where the adventure-seekers go in the books"

"Yonder where?"

"Yonder over there" Temeraire motioned his head in the direction of the mountains.

"And then?"

"Forth"

"Out, yonder and forth" Will said "Sounds easy"

"It is all about the first step" Temeraire said "When you do the brave thing, bravery with follow"

"When have you gotten so wise, little one?"

"Books" Temeraire said "And I am smart"

"You surely are" Will said, scratching the dragon's back "Sleep now"

"Sweet dreams"

Temeraire soon began to snore silently, but Will did not fall asleep for a good while yet.
With anxiety he noticed that without his will, a shy plan has already begun forming in his head.


***

Meanwhile, not so far away, another plan much more worked out in the details was being carried out. A plan, which boldness was outweighed only by the gain it was to bring its doers.

There were three of them:

Jeremy was blonde and had a carefully groomed moustache and his biggest asset was his ability to always avoid suspicion no matter what. His looks and manner often bought his way where other had to use backdoor.

The second man was usually referred to as "Boney" though definitely not due to his figure. Sometimes he was addressed to as "Little Boney" and that was much more true to the image, though one would not call him that to his face, lest they wished to be a little stabbed. He was the brains, or at least, the better part of it.

The rest took the form of a slim, tanned man with lean face and angular features, with a devious gleam to his eyes, which made him look as if he was mocking whoever he spoke to, which was inconvenient, because it was usually true. He was chosen for the job for his agility as well as his utter disregard for walls and fences and law enforcement. His name was Tharkay.

They did not trust each other, nor did they particularly like each other. But each needed the other two to get what they came for.

And they came for the crown.

To get the crown itself was not so much the problem. Getting themselves out was and none of the men were as optimistic as to hope they might leave unnoticed. The alarm began to ring as they were jumping down the palace walls. They ran through the empty streets of the already sleeping city; guards following them could be heard calling to each other, only a few turns away and other patrols were rousing throughout the streets.

Tharkay ran first, the other two behind him. The satchel with the loot was pounding against Jeremy's hip.

"Left!" Boney called, when they saw shadows on the walls in front of them cast by the wobbly lantern lights of the pursuit.

A few rapid turns later they ran into a dead end, closed by a twenty foot tall wall. While his companions halted, Tharkay did not stop. He ran to where the wall of the building on the left met the one blocking their path and jumped up. Using the irregularities of both surfaces and the momentum he moved upwards bouncing from one wall, then the other.

He crouched on the top, glancing at his companions.

"Pull us up!" Jeremy said anxiously.

The sounds of the pursuit were getting closer. Tharkay thought for a second.

"No, I am not going to do that" he said.

"The crown is gone with us, you moron!" Boney hissed.

"Is it though?" Tharkay asked, pulling the crown from his breast pocket.

"You-..." Jeremy uttered, opening the satchel he carried. Of course, it was empty.

Tharkay flashed them one last smile and jumped down on the other side.

He did not feel any moral repercussions creeping on him as he ran. Each of them knew that sooner or later one will betray the rest, and only hoped they would be the first. Having gotten rid of that one problem, Tharkay still had plenty of them to deal with, as the pursuit seemed to be gaining steam.

First, he wanted to direct the search behind the border, where the three of them were supposed to contact their buyer, whose whereabouts would be known to the guards as soon as his ex-companions are caught. When the hunt is behind the mountains, he will be able to return and contact the person he had made the deal with back in the country, of what his friends were not aware for obvious reasons.

He reached the rendezvous point just behind the city walls, where hidden in the bushes their horses awaited their arrival. Tharkay took two, letting the other one go free. The animal made use of its newfound liberty standing right where it stood and nibbling at the grass.

He rode for the whole night, changing horses to let them rest a little bit and keep a good pace; he paused for only as long as it took to switch them. When it started getting light he figured it was the right time to go off the road and set the fake trail. Tharkay hurried the horses, leading them into an extended gallop and let the spare horse’s reins from his hand, allowing the animal to outrun his own horse. As they rode down a mild slope, which made it easier for the horses to uphold the pace, Tharkay took his feet out of the stirrups, pushed himself away from the saddle and leapt to the side of the road, landing behind the bushes growing on its side.

The horses would soon slow down, but Tharkay hoped it would be enough to obscure the place where he left the highway.

In a half an hour or so he reached the part of it where the dense-leaved upper branches of the trees obscured almost all of the light, so that one could barely tell what time it was. Every once in a while, Tharkay searched beneath his jacket for the cold metal of the crown.

The thing was almost too simple and modest to be a crown – a plain silver band with a few jades adorning it. Luckily, the person he was supposed to deliver it to do not care for the actual value of the object, and merely for the object itself.

But first he had to find a place to wait until the main part of the chase has passed him, so he can begin his journey back.

He lost track of time and the still dimmed sunlight was no help; it could have been midday, or shortly before, when he finally came across a promising hiding spot. In front of him a giant rockface rose up. At a closer inspection one could see that it was not one solid stone massif, but rather a heap of huge boulders; their surfaces flattened by water and wind, and the gaps between them filled with moss and at places even extremely determined seedlings. Its lower part was obscured by a hurst of bushes and small trees dominated by blossoming laurels, but above their tops one could see a larger fissure opening up and widening in the lower part.

Hoping to find a comfortable immersion or maybe even a cave, Tharkay made his way through the bushes. Instead of a cave, he found himself in front of a passage twice as wide as his shoulders. Tharkay made sure once more that the crown was still securely hidden and walked into the dark opening.

What he expected to be a tunnel ended almost immediately after the first turn and he walked into bright sunlight. He stood still for a while, waiting for his eyes to adjust and when they did, he still had to blink a couple of times to make sure he saw right.

He found himself in a small, bowl-shaped ravine, one part of which must have been opened once, but at some point collapsed, closing it. Most of the trees growing there were not nearly as tall as the ones growing outside, and while among the taller ones the species were more or less the same, with a predominance of the evergreen laurels growing at their feet, the younger ones were mostly fruit trees; apple trees, apricots, and pear trees. From the other side of the ravine, a soft noise of a stream or a pond could be heard. But that was not what made Tharkay stare.

It was the fact that in the middle of the ravine stood a lone tower.

No other buildings attached, no path towards it and, as he learned after closer examination, no doors as well.

How was it built here, seemingly with no way to transport materials for construction? Did it use to be a part of something bigger once upon a time? Did anyone live there at present? How could anyone even get inside?

All these questions flashed through Tharkay's mind as he stared up at the tower. It could not have been inhabited, surely. He finally spotted a window almost at the top of the tower; seemingly the only way inside.

"Well, when life gives you oddly opportune hideouts" Tharkay muttered to himself, shrugging.

The stonework of the tower was old, the stone blocks forming them rough and uneven, with plenty of crevices and protrusions providing convenient foot and hand holds and in a matter of seconds, Tharkay was at the top of the tower. He reached the open window and slid through the wide wooden parapet.

The room he found himself seemed as if someone might actually live there. He caught a glimpse of a large, stone stove embedded in a wall opposite him and stairs leading up and other going down. There was a table with two chairs and a comfortably-looking armchair next to it.

That was about as much as Tharkay managed to see before a powerful blow to the back of his head sent him into darkness.

 

***

 

He felt himself slowly floating back to consciousness as the dull, throbbing pain in the back of his head was growing more and more nagging. Grunting, Tharkay opened his eyes. He realized he was sitting in a chair. Also, he was tied up.

"What the..." he murmured, taking a closer look at the ropes.

They were not ropes. Tied around his wrists and forearms and ankles, fixing him securely to the chair were yards and yards and yards of golden-blonde hair.

"What" Tharkay repeated.

"Resistance is futile!" a shrill voice called from the darkness on the other side of the room, followed by a quieter and deeper voice, saying:

"Temeraire, he is already tied up. He cannot resist"

"He might try" the first voice said in a hopeful tone.

Tharkay stared into the darkness, where the hair stretching from his chair disappeared in the shadows.

"We need to demand answers!" the high-pitched voice called "We must question him!"

"Yes, Temeraire, we will, be at peace"

Tharkay saw a silhouette move in the shadows and into the light stepped a man. The blonde hair ended in his head, which was not too surprising, considering that this was what hair usually did, but the certainty that his bounds actually have a person attached to them at the end made Tharkay flinch.

The man was dressed in a loose shirt and knee-length trousers and was barefoot. He could not be much older than twenty years of age and despite being tall and rather firm-built he did not appear too threatening, if it had not been for the massive frying pan in his hands, wielded like a cudgel or a broadsword. Tharkay was quite certain there was a matching bump for it at the back of his own head.

"Who are you and how did you find me?" the man asked.

Not to Tharkay's surprise, for a change, he turned out to be the owner of the deeper, calm voice.

"I... beg your pardon?" he asked.

"We shall ask questions here!" said the tiny black lizard sitting on the man's shoulder.

"Speak, now" the man said, stepping closer "How did you find out my whereabouts? Who else knows?"

"Uh... no-one, I gather"

"So you wanted to have the prize for yourself" the man said "Figures. What were you going to do with the hair?"

"The hair?"

"Cut it? Sell?"

"What? No"

"So what do you want with my hair?"

"To get away from it if you please"

The man blinked.

"You are... not here for my hair?" he asked uncertainly.

"I have my own, thank you very much"

"Then why are you here?"

"Look, I was just passing by, came across this tower and... oh no"

The familiar weight of the crown in his pocket was gone.

"Where is my crown?" Tharkay asked angrily.

The man crossed his arms.

"I hid it" he said "That is what you get for stealing"

"The pot calling the kettle black" Tharkay said "You stole it from me, Goldilocks, so you can hardly criticize me"

"Look, thief, I do not know or care what malevolent business you have with stolen crown" the man said "So I will give it back to you"

"I sense a 'but' there"

"But, I have one condition"

"There we go"

"You will take us to see the flying lights!" the black lizard demanded.

Tharkay glanced at it. With everything that has been going on, he forgot to be surprised by the fact that the creature talks.

"You mean the King’s and Queen’s lanterns..?" he asked.

"The lanterns! Of course" the man said "I knew they were not stars"

He cleared his throat.

"Fine then, thief. Here is my offer: soon, thousands of these lanterns will set off. You will take us to see them close and lead the way back here. Then and only then, you will get your crown back"

"Alright, Goldilocks..."

"Will"

"There is this tiny issue of local authorities on either side of the border not being too fond of me. So, I think I will pass"

Will glared at him.

"Should I bite him?" the lizard offered.

"No need. Yet" he said.

He took one step closer and leaned down so that his eyes were on the same level as Tharkay’s.

"If you presume that you can convince me in any other way to give you the crown back, you are very, very wrong" he said in a low voice "Just as when you think that you can hope to find your prize without my help. I am willing to go ahead and trust you..."

"Unadvisable"

"...just as you can go ahead and trust me when I say that you may take this tower apart brick by brick and you shall not find your crown"

Tharkay stared flatly into Will's eyes. More threatened by the possibility of losing the crown rather than Will's glare, he knew he could hardly decline the offer.

"Have we got a deal, thief?" Will asked.

"Tharkay, if you please" he said "And how polite of you to give me an illusion of having a choice. We have a deal"

"Splendid!" Will exclaimed, all aura of threat vanishing as he smiled widely.

"Now I would be much obliged if you could get your hair off me" Tharkay said.

His afternoon just reached a whole new level of difficult.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

"Are you coming, Goldilocks?" Tharkay called from the base of the tower.

Will stood on the parapet looking down with uncertainty. He could still resign. He could still avoid hurting Father and angering him with his childish folly.

"Let us go, Will, oh please, let us go at once!" Temeraire said, flying excitedly around his head.

Will chuckled. At least one of them was free of doubts.

"Alright" he said, tying his hair on the hook above the parapet.

He glanced around the room and all he was leaving behind one last time and stepped off the parapet into nothing, sliding down on his hair with practiced ease. Tharkay stepped to the side, as Will landed on the ground.

Will wiggled his toes experimentally, feeling the sun-warmed ground beneath his feet and the long strands of grass tickling his ankles. For the first time ever his feet touched something that was not the cool stone of the floor. He felt his lips forming a smile, simultaneously growing aware of a cold hand closing around his heart.

There was only one rule. And he broke it.

"May we go now?" Tharkay asked "It is not that far, but at this rate..."

"We may go" Will said.

He forced himself to take one step and then another and then another, slowly closing the distance to the exit from his ravine.

Just two more steps and... good God what was he doing? He disobeyed Father. He betrayed him. The only person who cared for him and he does something like that. He had to go back. Right now, this instant. If he comes back now, there was still no harm done. He will... just never feel the wind on his face again or the grass beneath his feet; he will never know what the lanterns mean.

No, he could not let go of that. He had a dream to chase and a world to see. He will not be a coward.

Step. Step. Step.

Father will be furious and heartbroken. Will did not know what was worse. What was worse was the fact that he was deliberately breaking the rules set only for his safety.

Will stopped walking.

"Oh, dear" Tharkay muttered and sat on a near-by stone.

"Forgive me, Mr. Tharkay, I did not know you were in such a hurry to go back near the local authorities" Will said coolly.

"I am not" Tharkay replied "But if you seeing the lanterns close is the condition of me getting my crown back then I fear I may not have it too soon, since we are bound to be late for this year's celebration"

"You can save your bitter remarks for yourself, thank you very much"

Said remarks however helped Will to make the last few steps he needed to walk out of the ravine. Just as he was about to step out of the shadows of the stone passage, he felt Tharkay's hand on his shoulder, stopping him.

"Wait" the man said.

"Oh, now you want to wait?"

Tharkay carefully slipped out of the fissure and looked around. The forest seemed empty.

"Alright, all clear, Goldilocks" he said.

They made their way through the bush. Tharkay found them a trail to follow and Will managed to push back all his doubts and pick up his pace. They walked mostly in silence for the first few hours. Tharkay proved to be a reticent companion and either way Will was far too occupied with looking around to see every detail of his surroundings to engage in conversation.

Every once in a while he had to make an effort and remind himself that he ought not to enjoy everything so easily, forgetting his fault against Father. But then he saw another giant fallen tree or a polypore-overgrown trunk or a herd of deer in the distance and all his qualm was gone.

However as his stings of remorse about disobeying Father have not so much faded, but at least got pushed away for a while, he soon found another reason to worry, as he began to feel bad for the way he treated the stranger. After all, he blackmailed him. True, the man was an outlaw, a thief, but that hardly provided an excuse for such treatment on Will's behalf.

They had to walk single file, one behind the other, and that did not really provide them with much opportunity to start a conversation. The first chance of doing so Will got when they stopped to rest. Despite years of living in a confinement Will was not a weakling – physical exercise took up a good part of his daily routine, certainly favoured over the reading – but a few hours' march proved to be enough to tire him, since it was the longest distance he has ever walked.

They stopped on a small clearing; Will sat in the warm spot of sunlight in the middle, enjoying the warmth on his skin and seeing the clear sky above his head, while Tharkay retreated to the shadows beneath the treeline, leaning against a large boulder and staying alert.

Will could not read the man's expression, even if it had not been concealed in the shadows. Ever since leaving the tower Tharkay's face betrayed nothing, save maybe for those moments when Will stalled for too long - only then a hint of a mocking smirk appeared on the thief's face. Will decided that this seemed like a good moment to start making amends, however fruitless his efforts may prove to be.

He approached Tharkay, taking out two apples he had packed as provisions and offering one to the man. Tharkay flinched, as if Will pulled him out of deep thought, which he probably did.

"Er... thank you" he said awkwardly, taking the fruit.

Temeraire landed on Will's shoulder. So far he has been flying above them, exploring the treetops area and only landing somewhere on Will when he got tired.

"I am hungry as well" he informed them.

Will reached into his bag again, taking out a handful of peanuts and raisins and dried apricots.

Tharkay frowned.

"Is that all you feed him with?" he asked.

"Yes?" Will replied "What else would I feed him with?"

"Well, I am no expert on dragons" Tharkay said "But I should think he ought to get a fair share, if not mostly, meat, as well, if he is to grow any bigger"

"Bigger?" Temeraire asked with his mouth full "I do want to be bigger, Will! Pray may I have some meat?"

"Of course, my dear, but we do not have any at present" Will said.

"How did you know he is a dragon?" he asked, looking at Tharkay with curiosity.

The man shrugged.

"I have seen one or two in my life" he said "He talks and can fly and I bet he is rather good at mathematics, is he not?"

"I am!" Temeraire said proudly "How big do you think I will be?"

"I cannot tell. As I said, I am no expert" Tharkay replied under Temeraire's intense stare "I suppose one cannot predict that unless they know what species you are"

"Oh, I hope to grow very big" Temeraire muttered, climbing up Will's shoulder and settling himself comfortably between Will's neck and the collar of his shirt "When I am big, I can protect you and we can have all... kinds of... adventures..."

He muttered a few more unintelligible words, before yawning widely and finally dozing off.

They ate their meal in silence. As they resumed they journey, Will finally brought himself to speak:

"Mr. Tharkay" he began "I am aware how our acquaintance began... unfortunately. I can only assure you that I would not have acted in such manner if I was not... well, you are the first and quite possibly the only chance I might ever get of going out and seeing... anything. I hope this may excuse my approach, to some degree, at least"

Tharkay glanced at him, but offered no further reply. After a short while he spoke:

"'Tharkay' is enough" he said "No need for 'Mr.'s, Goldilocks, we are past that point"

"Well, then you may start calling me 'Will'"

"As you wish, Goldilocks" Tharkay said and this time Will could swear he caught a glimpse of a smirk on the man's face.

They once more walked in silence and Will could not help but wonder how someone can spend hours in another person's company without feeling the need to exchange a word with them. His own head was currently full of questions: about the land they travelled through, about the lights and the kingdom and about the quiet thief himself, but regarding the latter he forgo any hope of being answered, since Tharkay did not come across as a person who would freely share even the tiniest detail about himself.

Will glanced at the sun and estimated they had about two hours of daylight left.

"Ought we not find somewhere to spend the night?" he asked.

Tharkay nodded.

"I know a place not far from here" he said

"What kind of place?" Will asked with interest.

"Oh, a primary sort of establishment" Tharkay replied "Though it may not appeal to an overly sensitive traveler"

"Then how fortunate we are, not having such in our company" Will said dryly "If you presume I can be scared off that easily, you are gravely mistaken"

"Would not dream of it, Goldilocks"

Tharkay still led them through the forest, avoiding even the less traveled paths. They walked onto the highway only when the forest grew too sparse to provide any cover and after a few minutes their destination was within their sight.

The building was clunky but solid-looking and with warm glow shining through the windows. Above the entrance hang a wooden sign with a crookedly painted cracked egg and a barely legible inscription Snuggly Hatchling.

"You had better gather your hair" Tharkay said "The floor inside is not one you would want it sweeping across"

"Primary sort of establishment indeed" Will said, coiling his hair and hanging it on his shoulder.

"Well, the cook is decent" Tharkay said and opened the door.

Will had to wait for a moment before his eyes adjusted. Even before they did, however, his nose was already overwhelmed with the atmosphere. Alcohol was the dominant smell, which Will recognized from his arsenal of cleaning supplies, except here it certainly did not serve cleaning purposes. He could also smell roasting meat, which made his stomach growl miserably and Temeraire sniff in his sleep. Yet there was also an unsettling note to this mixture – a metallic smell which Will could not quite name.

Eyes did not tell him much more beyond what he has already gathered. The inside of the tavern was illuminated mostly by the fireplace in the back and the irregularly placed candles rather than windows, with their glass so dirty they could barely be told apart from the sooty wooden wall around them; Will wondered however any of the light could be seen from outside. Some twenty people were present in the room, sitting on and by furniture as clunky as the building itself.

A couple of heads turned as they entered and Will nodded politely, despite the suspicious glares they received.

"How usual it is for people to carry weaponry around with them, if you permit me asking?" Will asked quietly, as they made their way to an unoccupied table "Ought it not be left outside or something?"

"What use is a weapon left outside?" Tharkay replied.

"Surely, they do not imagine they might start a brawl here?" Will inquired

"Better safe than sorry, I suppose" Tharkay said

"Hey!" a voice called after them.

A young man in a threadbare military uniform approached them.

"Aren't you the fellow they're searching for?" he asked, looking at Tharkay.

He did not use the same language that Tharkay and Yongxing spoke and with a mild surprise Will realized it was the second language spoken by Temeraire; the one he himself learned from the dragon. However he had to put off wondering how come the little dragon had acquired it for later.

"Is there a point in denying?" Tharkay replied coolly.

"It's him, alright" said a thin, red-haired woman, sitting at the near-by table "The soldiers were looking for him at the western passage today"

"Augustine, be a dear and fetch some patrols here, would you?" the first man asked, to which another one stood up and hurriedly left the room.

"Gentlemen, and, uh, miss" Will began, standing up as well "We do not want trouble. If our presence here is a problem, we will gladly be on our way"

Everyone in the room was on their feet now, Will and Tharkay with their backs almost pressed against the wall and the dense crowd of people around them. Will moved forward to stand in front of Tharkay, which earned him an intrigued look from the man.

"You might want to retreat, Goldilocks" he said quietly.

Will glimpsed a glimmer of steel as a short blade appeared in Tharkay's hand.

"There must be another way, certainly" Will replied.

"Step aside, friend" the uniformed man said "We've nothing against you"

He took a step forward. Only now Will noticed that his left hand was replaced with a rusty hook. Will raised the frying pan and the man blinked in surprise, staring at his weapon of choice.

"I am sorry, I do not believe we have been introduced" Will said calmly "My name is Will, this is Temeraire" he gestured at the still sleeping dragon "and Tharkay you already know. What is your name?"

"John" the man said, too taken aback not to reply "John Granby"

"A pleasure" Will said "Now, I kindly ask you to reconsider your claims regarding my friend"

"Why should we?" the red-haired woman asked.

"Excellent question, madam" Will bowed towards her "I will be happy to answer if you allow me"

"Ha! Nobody has called me 'madam' in years" the woman snorted.

"I call that a shameful display of ill manners then" Will replied "Now, regarding your question, I believe you may understand our situation better than anyone else. I dare say at least some of you know what it is like to be imprisoned or otherwise locked out from the world and if you do, I presume you can imagine how it felt if one spent their entire life in confinement"

An impressed murmur went around the room.

"How come?" a tall man with a washy red beard asked, crossing his arms "Do they lock up wee kids now?"

"No, sir" Will said "I was born locked away. And while I am certain that anyone serving the sentence usually has something to look forward to, knowing what awaited for them outside, whether it was family or home..."

"Revenge" hook-handed John said.

"Oh. Yes, I suppose, if that works for you" Will said "Well, I had none of these things to wait for. Going outside could have been nothing but an impossible dream, until this man helped me"

Tharkay glanced at him, now almost as curious how the situation might turn out as the crowd surrounding them.

"Because all my life, I wished for nothing, but to go out and see the world and especially the flying lanterns. Can you imagine how it felt?" Will asked and turned towards John Granby.

"Have you ever dreamed of anything so badly, John?" he asked.

The man tightened his lips, but then sighed heavily.

"I suppose I did very much like playing the piano back in the day" he said "Was damn good at it too. Still am. Thought I could be a professional pianist once"

"I used to work in a flower shop, you know" the woman said, sitting on one of the chairs and leaning against the table "You should have seen my bouquets with lilies. They were masterpieces, each one"

"Then why did you stop?" Will asked.

"The shop burned down, taking my father with it" the woman said impassively "I had to make do on the street on my own, until Berkley found me"

She nodded towards the bearded man, who smiled fondly at her.

"I couldn’t ask for a better company, little one" he said "I lost my bakery in the same fire"

He sighed heavily.

"If I'd got my hands on a proper stove... Cakes, muffins, buns, cookies and bread... I would give up this in a second" he said, gesturing towards his sword.

With a relief, Will noticed that the rest of the weaponry was lowered as well.

"I would sell my arm – forgive me, John, it's a figure of speech – for a proper vessel" another man joined in "And nothing more but the open sea ahead of us"

"Are you a sea-captain then?" Will asked lively.

Books concerning sea voyages and naval battles were the only ones he read without much coercion.

"I was a freelance privateer" the man replied.

The red-haired woman snorted.

"You were a pirate, Tom" she said.

"Funny, they said the same thing in the court of law" Tom replied.

"It must be truly magnificent to sail the open seas and see distant lands" Will said, not concealing a hint of longing in his voice.

"This is the life, my friend" Tom said dreamily "This is the life"

"What about you?" John pointed his hook at Tharkay.

"I am sorry, me?"

"Any dreams?"

"Hardly" Tharkay replied "They tend to disappoint"

"Come on, lad" Berkley exclaimed "everybody looks forward to something; otherwise one would not get out of bed in the morning"

"Think big, Tharkay" the woman added "if you could dream of anything what would it be?"

Tharkay was quiet for a second.

"Money and solitude" he finally said.

"Sounds lonely" Will said.

"Sounds peaceful" Tharkay retorted.

"That's a rather lame dream" Granby said, putting his sword back to its sheath "Although I do like the money part"

"Different strokes for different folks, John" Tom said "Only when one is truly alone at sea with not a ship in sight he has the ability to think in peace and focus on important matters in life"

The main door to the inn burst open with a thud and Augustine ran in, breathless.

"The patrols are here!" he announced.

Everyone in the room turned around. Will and John Granby exchanged quick glances and a spark of understanding jumped between them. Behind a dense wall of people, Granby urged Will and Tharkay to stay low and led them to the bar. They crouched behind it, as Granby ran his hand through the wooden floor, apparently searching for something.

They could not see what was going on in the room, but from the sound of loud footsteps, they gathered that the guards must have entered the room.

"We received word that you found a wanted criminal" a female voice said.

"Good afternoon, Captain Roland!" Berkley replied "And what pleasant afternoon it is now that you have graced us with your presence"

Granby used Berkley's loud speech to drown the sound of opening a massive wooden trapdoor revealing narrow stairs descending into the darkness.

Tharkay glanced through the gap between the planks of the bar. He saw a couple of guards in uniforms of both Allendale and the Empire. One of the guards moved and Tharkay muttered a curse under his breath as he saw Jeremy and Boney led by two imperial guards and looking even more dogged then the entire patrol. Their presence here could bring about nothing but trouble, as if Tharkay has not already got a fair share of it, since this morning only.

"Go straight ahead. You'll find lamps on the way" Granby whispered "Go see your lights and you are welcome to drop by on your way back"

"Thank you, John" Will said, shaking his hand "We are in your debt"

"Careful with that" Granby said, flashing him a smile "Now go!"

They slipped down about ten feet, followed by the sound of the conversation from above, until Granby closed the trapdoor, cutting it off. They found themselves in the darkness, but not complete; a faint glow could be seen some fifty feet ahead. It turned out to be a small oil lamp behind the first turn of the corridor. Tharkay took it off the cast iron hook and walked first to light the way.

This was the moment Temeraire chose to wake up. He yawned widely, climbing from behind Will's collar onto his shoulder.

"Are we there yet?" he asked "I dreamt of meat. May I have some now?"

"You have corrupted him" Will said accusingly to Tharkay, before he replied:

"I fear you will have to wait for a little while longer, we are sort of on the run now"

"Oh, will we have to fight?" the dragon asked lively.

"Hopefully not" Will said, glancing at Tharkay.

"We would certainly want to avoid that" Tharkay said "But it is not at all unlikely if they find the tunnel before we get out"

They fell quiet for a few minutes.

"It was quite impressive what you did there" Tharkay finally spoke.

"You think so?" Will asked.

"I do. It is rather unusual, I suppose, that a man of your stature should resort to words rather than fisticuffs. And I had not thought it possible to get out of there without smashing a few skulls with that pan of yours, if we managed to get out at all. And, I suppose..."

He broke off, shaking his head.

"Suppose what?" Will asked.

"Nothing" Tharkay said "I am just surprised you decided to stand up for me the way you did at all. I had not presumed you would do that"

"Well, of course I did" Will said simply.

Neither of them said a word for a while after that, but this time the silence seemed less tense, less awkward to endure. When Will spoke again it was out of curiosity, not the need to break the silence.

"Can I ask you something?" he said.

He half-expected to hear an ironic reply from Tharkay, but the man just nodded.

"What are the lanterns actually?" Will asked "Why do they appear only once a year?"

"It is to commemorate the lost prince" Tharkay replied "I think the King and Queen are hoping they will help him find his way back home or something of the sort, though however they imagine it would work, I cannot conceive. But who can understand royalty?"

"You do not seem very fond of them" Will said

"I am not a big fan of monarchy" Tharkay said “Why do you want to see the lanterns so badly?"

"Well...” Will hesitated “It may seem... silly, but... you know, they always appear on the night of my birthday. And ever since I was little I wanted to believe that they are, in a way, for me... And now, I suppose, I want to find out. When I...”

He broke off as he heard distant voices and tramp of many feet, approaching fast.

"They found the entrance" Tharkay said "Run!"

They dashed forward, Will desperately clutching his hair to his chest; he tried not to imagine what would happen if he tripped over its length. Mindful of Granby’s words they ran ahead not turning into any of the sideways branches of the tunnel which could save them from the pursuit as well as lead to a dead end and doom them. At some point the tunnel began ascending and shortly after that Will saw light marking the end of it, which turned out to be a partially blocked entryway.

They ran out of it and almost immediately had to halt to a rapid stop as they found themselves on the ledge of a cliff with a sharp drop they nearly stumbled down.

Will looked around. They were in a canyon of reddish, sandy rock. A part of its walls was taken up by a looming wooden structure and various smaller constructions and equipment were scattered across its bottom and sides.

"What is that?" Will asked, looking at the massive wooden wall.

"A dam" Tharkay said, searching the bottom of the canyon twenty feet beneath them with his eyes "There"

He pointed to a black rectangle of an entrance to a tunnel across the canyon.

They turned around hearing the guards approaching.

"Go first, Goldilocks" Tharkay said "We cannot handle them all"

"But what about you?"

"I will be right behind you"

They heard hollow rumbling from below and saw another entry, closed and boarded, at the bottom of the canyon bursting open and two man jumping out of it, momentarily focusing their glares at Tharkay

"Do you know them?" Will asked

"I may have stolen from them once" Tharkay said.

A bunch of guards in dark uniforms finally ran onto the ledge.

"Did you steal from them as well?" Will asked

"Yes. And them also" Tharkay said as the soldiers in Allendale military uniforms ran behind the former group, slightly more out of breath

"Now go!" he said, standing between Will and the guards.

Will pushed the frying pan into Tharkay's hands, assuming it will be rather more effective against swords than the small dagger. With a practiced movement he whipped his hair over a wooden beam sticking out of the stone above, looping the hair around it and without any hesitation due to dangling a dozen yards above the ground with nothing but hair to keep him up, he jumped.

Tharkay turned back to face the guards just in time to parry the first few attacks. The frying pan proved to be an efficient, even if unhandy weapon serving well as both a shield and a melee weapon, though even Tharkay winced when it crushed against the guards helmeted heads with a resonant bang! knocking them unconscious.

"Oh, enough, for goodness' sake!" the captain said, taking out her sword.

Will has just finished looping his hair around the vertical beam attached to the wooden platform he stood on and was ready to toss its end to Tharkay when a sudden movement from the two man below he had already managed to forget about caught his eye. Just as he glanced at them, the shorter one tossed some small object at the ledge.

Tharkay noticed it only when it landed between him and the approaching woman with a metallic clink, but before he could react in any way, the captain kicked it aside.

The useless cry of protest died on his lips; knowing he only had a couple of seconds, Tharkay ran towards the edge of the cliff and leapt. At the same moment Will tossed him the hair and no sooner had Tharkay closed his hands tightly around it, a deafening explosion filled the air.

It blew Tharkay off his course to the side. The hair slipped from his grip and he went flying through the air, luckily not much of it left between him and the hard landing. He hit the ground, the momentum sending him tumbling a few yards further. A second later Will landed near-by in a similar fashion, having jumped at the last moment from the platform he had stood on as it collapsed to the side.

"Temeraire?!" Will called anxiously, staggering to his feet and looking around.

"I am here!" the dragon flew down to him.

Will let out a sigh of relief and turned to Tharkay.

"Are you alright?" he asked

"Not for long" Tharkay said quietly.

He was looking at the dam. As was, Will realized, everyone else and only now he noticed the short sharp cracking sounds coming from the wall of wood.

Then everything slowed down for a few seconds and everyone stood frozen as the first stream of water shot from a crack in the dam. It grew more and more powerful until finally the dam began to give up, unable to hold the pressure.

Tharkay was the first one to snap out of the stupor.

"Will, quick!" he said sharply, picking up the coils of hair and pushing them into Will's arms "The tunnel"

They ran, hearing the deafening roar of the dam bursting open behind them. Glancing back, Tharkay saw the enormous mass of water chasing them and slamming into a massive stone pillar on its way, knocking down the whole structure.

No sooner had they ran into the tunnel when the rocks hit the ground, one of them blocking the entrance to the tunnel, leaving them in complete darkness. Wading through shallow water, they blindly stumbled forward, climbing up the uneven, ascending stone floor.

And then the tunnel ended.

***

 

It has been a long, vexing day for Yongxing, and being a monarch and having raised a little boy, he has had a fair share of long, vexing days in his life. So far, this one surpassed them all.

Will's birthday wish forced him to go back to the palace and have the royal painter travel to the seaside province to paint an image of the eastern shore and had Yongxing considered the boy capable of being spiteful, he would assume that this was his manifestation of it.

He was saved the effort, however, when on his way to the palace, at the gates to the city, he nearly ran into a forming troop of twenty men – as he later learned, one of the several search troops sent from the capital that day.

Yongxing hesitated. He could not just approach them and demand answers – after all how would he himself explain his presence away from the palace and without an escort of his own?

He crept towards the troop. With increasing confusion, he noticed a pair of foreigners among them; one tall and with fair hair, the other much shorter, his complexion and hair darker. Both were cuffed.

Mianning, was his first thought after he has learned what happened. But that was absurd. There was no proof to support the boy's engagement in the affair. Furthermore, the thief ran north, this confirmed both by the soldiers and the two captured foreigners, whilst Mianning's family's reported whereabouts were said to be somewhere near the south-eastern border.

A couple of minutes of listening to the guards, which, to Yongxing's initial surprise, involved the foreigners to some extent as well, told him everything he needed to know.

A terrible thought paralyzed him.

Troops searching the forest near the mountain border...

But no, there was no reason for them to go off the trail, now that they knew exactly where the thief was headed.

What if they did however?

The tower was hidden safely...

Yongxing forced back a curse.

He could not just call off the search or forbid his men from wandering into this specific part of the forest.

They will not find him. They cannot find him; Yongxing made sure that no-one could.

But just to be sure...

Cursing the thieves, the soldiers, the boy and most of all, Mianning (as a rule), the man headed back to the tower.

Only to find it empty.

He called Will's name a couple of times, and searched through every room, despite knowing it was pointless. Will was gone.

Yongxing came back to the main chamber.

The sun has already passed its noon zenith and now appeared directly in the window. As Yongxing paced across the room to sit at the table, a reflected gleam from the other side of the room caught his eye.

Beneath a loosened plank of the lowest stair some small object was shining in the dark. Yongxing walked towards the stairs and without much effort tore the plank off.

He let out a sharp breath of surprise when in the hollow space under the tread he saw his own crown. His very own, stolen crown.

Yongxing drummed his fingers on the cold metal, as he tried to conceive the intelligence that its presence here brought.

So the thief was here at some point; now he and Will were gone. What twisted fate could possibly have united Will and the insidious outlaw? Yongxing dismissed the notion of anyone hurting or kidnapping Will – the boy was certainly not of the weak ones and there were no signs of any struggle in the room.

The conclusion was simple – they went together. But where? And why was the crown left here?

His eyes wandering around the room rested on the table where they dined the previous day, right after the boy angered him, babbling about the lights.

Yongxing froze. It could not be. He would not dare...

Or would he?

Lights. The damned lights.

***

Tharkay slid his hands over the wall; nothing. Not a single hole, not a tiniest crack.

"Bloody hell" he muttered.

Will was now beside him. After a few fruitless attempts at finding some way through, he began pounding the heavy pan against the rocks, hoping that whatever barrier stood between them and safety was only a thin layer of stone.

The water was now reaching to their hips and rising fast. Tharkay took a deep breath and dived in. He opened his eyes underwater but in vain. He could as well be swimming in tar; when he reached forward, he could not even see his own hands.

He came back to the surface, feeling the cold water already numbing his body. Will helped him up to higher ground and Tharkay attempted once more to find a weaker spot in the wall. All he got however was a cut palm as it slid over a sharp rock and Tharkay hissed, more due to frustration than pain.

"It is pointless" he said angrily.

Will glanced at him. This time he took a deep breath and went underwater, but Tharkay caught his arm and pulled him up.

"You are wasting your breath, Will" he said, brushing the wet blonde hair form his face "It is pitch black down there"

Will stared at him for a few seconds. Temeraire sat shivering on his left shoulder.

"So this is it" Will said flatly.

"It would appear so"

Will hid his face in his hands.

"God, I am such an idiot" Tharkay heard his muffled voice "This is all my fault"

"To be fair, you were not the one who brought a damned explosive to a swordfight" Tharkay said

Will lowered his hands.

"I am so, so sorry, Tharkay" he said "I never should have made you take us here, I am so sorry"

His tone was enough for Tharkay to feel the last shreds of his resentment towards Will melting away.

"Tenzing" he said quietly.

Will looked at him.

"What?" he asked.

"My full name is Tenzing Tharkay. The introduction is slightly untimely, but you might as well know" he said, shrugging.

Will smiled. Meaningless though it was, since they had minutes of life left at best, a pleasant warmth appeared in his chilled chest, when he knew that Tharkay considered him worth sharing that information with.

"A pleasure to meet you" he said "My hair glows when I sing, it has magic"

Tharkay stared at him.

"I beg your pardon?" he asked.

"Oh God, it glows!" Will exclaimed. “It glows!”

The water was already reaching their faces. Will began singing hurriedly, raising his head as high as he could; his nose was already touching the rough ceiling of the tunnel:

Flower from above,

Lend me power thine,

Mend the...

At the last moment he took a deep breath, before the dark water filled the whole world.

A second of total darkness... and then a warm, bright glow appeared around Will's head and travelled down through the length of his hair. Will glimpsed Tharkay’s astonished face illuminated by the light and then he saw what he hoped to see: the hair was drifting, pulled by an otherwise unnoticeable current, towards a pile of stones a couple of yards below.

They swam to it and began frantically pushing the stones away, hurried by the supply of air in their lungs running thin. Will's head was already growing dizzy when he felt the current around him strengthen and he saw light shining through the gaps between the stones.

Feeling that if this is not their salvation, he will not have the strength for another attempt, Will made one last effort and pressed at the stone.

It gave way; Will, Temeraire and Tharkay and the mass of water around them flew forward. Will barely managed to feel the breeze on his face before he fell headfirst into water once more and for a few seconds he was terrified that they did not manage to get out after all. He could not tell where was up and where was down and the cloud of golden hair around his face blinded him now as effectively as the darkness before. But then Tharkay's hand found his and pulled him up to the surface. Will gasped and felt the precious air filling his lungs and saw the beautiful, beautiful open sky above his head and the green forest on both sides of a wide creek they landed in.

He and Tharkay swam to the low, sandy bank and held onto it, laying their faces on the warm ground; they did not have the strength to climb out immediately.

"We made it" Will said as soon as he regained his breath "Oh, thank Heavens, we are alive!"

He pulled himself up and climbed onto the wonderfully solid, blessed dry land, walking a few steps away from the bank to pull his hair out in its entirety.

"I do not think it is the Heavens we ought to be thanking for this" Tharkay muttered, staring at the wet mass of golden hair, sliding through the sand next to him and appearing so normal; so harmless, that Tharkay was almost ready to blame the brain hypoxia for the image of it glowing, still vivid in his dazed mind.

Because if it was real, than he would have to assume it was magic; he very much did not want to do that. The world was complicated enough without magic and Tharkay always took pride in his scepticism when it came to this sort of fiddlesticks.

Temeraire also climbed out of the water and shook off, sending drops of water into Tharkay’s face. He spread his wings and waved them a couple of times to dry the membranes. He glanced inquisitively at Tharkay, who was still staring at Will.

"Are you not coming?" he asked "The water is awfully cold"

"Tharkay, come here!" Will called "I have something to show you"

Will was standing by a fallen tree, waiting for Tharkay to join him. The man walked to him uncertainly, still eyeing the hair in suspicion.

"You have not seen the best part yet" Will said, sitting on the tree, inviting Tharkay to do the same.

Warily, the man sat on the trunk next to Will.

"Come on, give me your hand" Will commanded, reaching out to him.

"What for?"

"Just trust me"

"I would rather.... fine" Tharkay laid his hand on Will's.

"The other one" Will said "The one you cut"

He took Tharkay's hand which had a thick red cut across the palm and carefully wrapped a strand of hair around it. Tharkay winced slightly. The numbness caused by the cold water was already fading, replaced by an increasingly painful stinging. Temeraire climbed onto Tharkay's thigh and watched the process with interest.

"What if it falls off?" he asked.

"I beg your pardon?" Tharkay said.

"He is not being serious, pray do not mind him" Will said, glaring at the dragon, who looked very pleased with himself.

"Alright" he said when he has finished and now held Tharkay's hand in his "This is going to be fine, I promise"

Tharkay did not cease to look suspicious, so Will sighed, closed his eyes and started singing:

 

Sunlight from above,

lend me power thine,

mend the broken piece,

turn back the course of time.

 

His hair lit up once more, the glow spreading from its roots along the entire length and despite the lack of initial surprise, Tharkay still felt a prickling sensation around his brain at how otherworldly the sight was. The glow has reached his hand but apart from slight heat coming from it, Tharkay could feel no change.

And then his palm began to tingle. It was not an unpleasant sensation, even if odd, but Will tightened his hold on Tharkay’s hand as if he feared the man might tear it away.

 

Find what has been lost,

salvage the undone,

dry the tears of pain,

turn back the course of time.

Turn back the time.

 

Tharkay was so focused on the unknown sensation in his hand that only belatedly he realized that Will has already stopped singing and was staring at him unsurely. He slowly untangled the now dim hair from his palm.

The cut was gone. Not only the cut; all the small scratches, grazes and calluses all over his palm disappeared as well.

"I mean alright" Tharkay said flatly, staring at his hand.

"You are not... startled?" Will asked.

"Well, your hair is magical" Tharkay replied still in the same tone "Why, what else is new. How, ehm... how long has it been like this?"

"Uh, forever, as far as I can tell" Will said crumpling the fabric of his shirt between his fingers "Father told me that when I was little, some people wanted to cut the hair for themselves"

He pulled back the hair from his neck to reveal a shorter strand, dim and of lighter, as if faded colour.

"But then it loses its power" he continued "So you understand now. Such a gift must be protected. This is why Father never let me... you know, why I was not allowed... Well"

"This is why he locked you up, you mean"

"Yes" Will shrugged.

"This is why you said what you said back in the tower" Tharkay said, frowning "Because your father warned you that other people might try to take the power for themselves "

Will nodded.

"Yet so far" Tharkay continued "The only person who can be accused of taking the power for himself is your father"

"Yes-... what?"

"Forgive me, never that mind" Tharkay shrugged "it is none of my business. I am sure he locks you up because he cares for you very much"

"You are being ironic"

"Cannot help it"

Will opened his mouth to reply, but there was nothing in Tharkay’s words to argue with.

In the fading light of the day they gathered some firewood and Tharkay even managed to catch a couple of birds and a rabbit with a slingshot he had with him.

"Thank you, by the way" Tharkay said when they sat by the joyfully cracking fire; meat was frying on the pan fished out from the bottom of the creek.

"Anytime" Will replied, glancing at him "Tenzing"

"Oh, dear, no. This is much too personal now that we are no longer in mortal peril. Let us stick to last names"

"This is unfair; I do not have a last name"

"Well, then, make one up"

"Invent a name?"

"Everybody does that" Tharkay shrugged "it is almost a tradition; every proper outlaw must have a name of their own invention"

Will laughed.

"And how do I do that?" he asked.

"There are no rules, I think" Tharkay said, rubbing his chin "Sometimes it is based on one’s distinguishing traits; like Blackbeard or... Goldilocks"

"I am not calling myself Will Goldilocks. It is enough that you call me that"

"Well, some folks take a name from a place they live in. Or, were born. Does that ravine of yours have any name?"

Will frowned.

"I do not think it does, no" he said "What would you call it?"

Tharkay thought for a second and instantly recalled the abundance of particular species of plants, growing both outside and filling the ravine.

"The Laurels Ravine" he said, quite satisfied with the outcome "That could make you Will Laurence"

"Oh, this one I like" Temeraire said.

"Yes, it does have a nice ring to it" Will said "Will Laurence"

They ate in silence, their appetites already quite sharpened by the eventful day and the inviting smell of the fried meat spread in the air.

"So, what does 'Tharkay' mean?" Will asked when the worst hunger was already satisfied .

"Nothing" Tharkay said "it is my own name"

"But you said every proper outlaw has an invented name"

"Indeed, but, you see, I am a quite improper anything"

"Why do you use your own name?"

"I hardly mind the implications of me being known by it might cause" Tharkay replied "To me or to anyone sharing it"

Will looked at him with interest. This sounded like a prelude to a story – a story he has grown increasingly curious about over the course of their acquaintance.

He assumed Tharkay was a thief, because he could think of no other reason a man would be wandering around a woods with a single crown in his pocket and he did not appear to be of royalty, which Will pronounced after comparing Tharkay to the illustrations in his old fairytale books.

But when he saw him among the outlaws at the inn, he could plainly see that Tharkay does not entirely fit in that company either.

Seeing Will's anticipating stare fixed in his face, Tharkay snorted silently.

"I am not really too keen about letting on about myself" he said

"So I gathered" Will said, undeterred "Come now, you already know everything about me"

Tharkay shrugged. Will realized the man has been doing that quite often as if to express his lack of interest or care for what is happening around him.

"It is not the interesting story you probably hope for" he said.

"Bear in mind, since you are the second person I have ever met, I have no real basis for comparison actually"

He almost said 'friend', but he supposed that this was a term implying too much familiarity for Tharkay's liking.

"No, I suppose, you do not" Tharkay said, staring at the fire "There is not much to tell, truly. My mother was from the nomad tribes of the east and my father was a merchant from the isles behind the Southern Sea. He managed to set up a business in one of the towns on the coast. When mother died, he took me in and when he died, he burdened his relatives with me. They never really considered me anything more than a stray, so at some point, I decided that I will be better off on my own."

"You left your family?"

"I do not find that merely being related makes a person your family"

Tharkay glanced at Will and caught his thoughtful stare.

"You think I ought not have done that" Tharkay said.

"No" Will replied "I think they ought not have treated you badly and I think how difficult for you it must have been. How old were you when you left?"

"Thirteen"

"Thirteen? And you were all by yourself since then? Were you not scared, all alone?"

"Why, I do not say it was all easy since the beginning" Tharkay said "But I found that there was something infinately better than to live in the security of a sedate domestic life, especially in a place that is hardly your home"

"And what would that be?"

"To be free" Tharkay replied "I could mind nobody's judgement or rules but my own"

"It sounds ever so lonely"

"You can be much more alone with other people than you are by yourself" Tharkay replied "And I do not mind being alone"

Will sighed silently. He thought he did not mind being alone as well; at least that was what he told himself. Now that he experienced what it is like to be in company of other people (for Temeraire was quite a different matter) he knew what he has been denied so far. And what he was going to miss, if – when – he returns to the tower.

"Well" he said "I know that you would rather be far away now, with your crown and no tag-alongs... But I am glad that of all people you chose to break into my tower"

Tharkay glanced at him.

"Yes" he said "All things considered, I suppose I could have picked a far worse place to hide"

Will chuckled, and willy-nilly Tharkay finally allowed himself to smile.

Will decided that it was a very pleasant sight, even if unusual; though maybe its rarity (because ever since they met, Tharkay appeared to him as someone who has long lost the habit of smiling genuinely, and the only shreds of that expression that he displayed were smirks and mocking half-smiles) was what made it so valuable.

He allowed his eyes to linger on Tharkay’s face a little longer as he noticed that the flames gave a peculiar gleam to the few tiny scars on the man's face. Following these traces, his eyes rested on Tharkay's, in which the sparks of reflected firelight looked like embers glowing softly in an extinguishing hearth.

Tharkay cleared his throat and looked away, only now noticing that he leaned slightly towards Will. Will got the feeling that something has passed, even though he was not sure what and realized that maybe he ought not have stared like this.

Tharkay stood up

"Well, we should gather some more wood if we want to keep the fire going" he said.

He went to search for brushwood beneath the trees marking the border of the clearing and further into the forest. Will began his search at the opposite side. It was already difficult to see anything among the trees, where the light of the fire did not reach and Will felt his heart slide up to his throat when a cloaked figure emerged from one of the shadows.

"Good evening, Will" a familiar voice said.

Will felt Temeraire dig his talons into his shoulder in distress.

"Father..." he said "How did you find me?"

"Why, it was not at all difficult" Yongxing said "I merely followed the trail of lies and the scent of guilt"

"I can explain"

"You do not need to. Let us go home and forget all his"

Will took a deep breath. He did not expect the confrontation to take place so soon, but he did not intend to turn back now either.

"I cannot" he said "Not now. I have already seen so much and learned more than I ever thought I would... and I... I found a friend"

"Oh yes" Yongxing said, his lips twisting with contempt "A thief and a burglar, some friend you have"

"He is a good person" Will said "I trust him entirely"

"Of course you do. You know nothing of people, you would trust anyone" father's tone now betrayed slight irritation " I hope you are not so foolish as to assume he might actually care for you. This is what he wants."

From beneath his cloak he took the silver crown, jades reflecting the distant firelight, and tossed it to Will .

"How... how did you..." Will stuttered.

"Why do you not try giving it to him?" Yongxing asked "See how much a friend he is then"

Will frowned. Father's words cut him painfully. Was he really fooling himself thinking that the events of the previous hours actually forged their unlikely alliance into something more? After all, he had little experience in making friends. Has he been too optimistic letting himself develop this attachment? Has he been too quick to put his faith and trust in Tharkay?

In Tenzing.

Will tightened his lips. No he has not, he decided. He was certain.

"I leave the choice to you" Yongxing said and in a generous tone added:

"But when he is gone and you are hurt, I will be waiting for you. At home."

And melting back into the shadows, he disappeared.

"Father" Will said, straining his eyes in vain, trying to find him.

"Will? Is everything okay?" Tharkay called from the clearing.

Will quickly concealed the crown and walked back to the fire.

"Yes" he said "Yes, everything is fine"

"I thought you saw something"

"No... I thought I did, but it was... just some bird, I think"

"We ought to keep watch over the night nevertheless" Tharkay said "The chance of anyone spotting use here are slim, the forest is so dense, but still"

"Alright"

Will laid his pile of brushwood next to the fire so it would dry sufficiently before being used.

"I will take the first watch" he said "You cannot have gotten much sleep lately"

"Wake me past midnight then" Tharkay said and was asleep within seconds.

He really cannot have slept much, Will thought, sitting next to him. Tharkay must have arrived at the tower directly after stealing the crown and despite not knowing where the nearest places with crowns available were, Will guessed that the preparations, the theft itself, and the escape must have taken at least a day or so.

He sat with his back towards the fire, so that the flame would not blind him. Sighing quietly, he took the crown out from his pocket and put it safely in the bag, wishing he could forget it was even there and hoping Father's word's would disappear from his memory as well.

***

Yongxing has parted with his crown easily, knowing it will return to him eventually – either the boy will come back wilfully or with some encouragement, but come back he will.

"What are we waiting for?" one of the man accompanying him asked "Let us go get them at once"

Yongxing winced at how loud his voice sounded in the quiet forest. The company of the two man who had had their part in robbing him was unwelcome, but necessary for bringing the boy back to him.

"Patience" he said "he will come to us on his own. Eventually."

  

 

Chapter Text

 

Tharkay stopped adding to the fire when the sky started turning pale in the east. With the light of the day approaching fast, he judged that the risk of anyone spotting them now was rather low, since the fire no longer stood out in the dark and he could leave the camp for a few minutes to find something to make breakfast of.

When he came back with a couple of rabbits he managed to catch and a handful of blueberries he found in the light of the day, Will was still sound asleep, not even slightly uncomfortable laying on the hard ground. He quickly adapted to living in the wild, Tharkay thought with amusement. Unusual for someone who had not spent a single day out of his home and a single night out of his own bed.

He put the rest of the brushwood into the dying fire, rousing it enough to fry his prey. While preparing the meat he found himself glancing at Will from time to time; something he would never allow himself to do, could Will notice it. The man's features softened in his sleep; not that there was much to be softened in the first place, since Will's face appeared to be made either for expressing deep reverie or smiling. And yet, there was a firm character and a good deal of fortitude underneath the harmless exterior, which made Tharkay think of a sleeping lion he had once saw exhibited in a cage on a fair.

Tharkay felt an odd need to brush his fingers against Will's hair, just to feel them once more; to check how something so supernatural can be so soft and ordinary at the same time.

He flinched and forced himself to look back at their future breakfast. Well, Will certainly would not be grateful for brushing your fingers against any part of him right now, Tharkay thought, seeing his hands covered in blood and fur.

Where that thought even come from anyway? He did not perceive Will in such way, why would he?

His eyes however were sill drifting to Will’s face every once in a while and Tharkay felt his lips form a soft smile. He made sure he wiped it off his face when Will finally woke up, probably pulled from his sleep by the smell of fried meat.

"Good morning" Will said, stretching his arms and yawning widely.

Tharkay hid a smirk as Will once more reminded him of a tame lion. Temeraire jumped from Will's lap to the ground and stretched in quite a leonine fashion as well, spreading his wings wide.

"Oh" said Will.

"Oh, well" said Tharkay

"What?" Temeraire asked.

"My dear, you are... longer" Will said "You have grown bigger"

"What? Already?" Temeraire turned his head around, trying to see his body from every angle "I think I have, yes! Can I have some more meat?"

"A whole foot during the night, if not better" Tharkay said, as they ate their breakfast, giving Temeraire a whole rabbit for himself "Extraordinary"

"I intend to grow even more!" the dragon announced between two bites.

"I am sure you will, dear" said Will.

"Oh, Will!" Temeraire raised his head "Happy birthday!"

"Thank you" Will replied, laughing "And I believe it is going to be the happiest of all"

"If we hurry, we can reach the city in less than three hours" Tharkay said "There is always plenty of activity in there before the actual celebrations, if you want to see"

Will did want to see. The decampment, if one could call their accommodation in the wild a camp, did not take much time, as all there was to be done was to douse the fire and pick up their humble belongings. Moving forward, they still chose the forest trails unfit for movement of less determined travelers.

In the light of the day, it did not feel quite fitting to pick up the conversation on personal topics, which they touched on the previous night, yet Will decided he was not going to spend another day walking in silence, especially since it was quite likely the last day of their acquaintance. He was happy to notice that Tharkay seemed more eager to talk this day as well, though Will tried not to get his hopes high as for what that might mean.

"You have to admit" Tharkay was saying, as they have already been walking for solid two hours "That the idea of putting all power in the hands of a person who is altogether the most isolated being from the issues of the common people, is a ridiculous one"

"But, surely, the kings must be trained in ways of governing the country" Will argued "Are they not taught in politics and economy?"

"No amount of training will help an idiot" Tharkay said "And no amount of intelligence will replace understanding of the people’s needs, one cannot acquire being raised as far from them as possible since birth"

"Do the kings not listen to the people?"

"When it suits them" Tharkay said, shrugging "When it does not, well, they can grant life or death; decide peace or war. No-one ought to have that kind of power"

"Well, I suppose..."

Will broke off as they have walked at the top of a treeless hill and the capital appeared before their eyes out of nowhere.

Monarchy may be unjust, Will thought, but it cannot be denied a beautiful setting.

The city was located on an island surrounded by what could have been a lake or a huge bay, Will could not tell. Directly in front of them a wide bridge of white stone allowed passage from the land and to the east and west Will could glimpse similar bridges a couple of miles away. The central part was surrounded by high wall, shielding the palace itself. Around the wall, hundreds of smaller buildings were scattered in no apparent order, looking like wooden bricks which fell from an overloaded toy chest. Their roofs in various shades of red, orange and brown, created a picturesque contrast with the monochromatic, pale mass of the palace and the wall, dominating the island all the space it took up; both in height and area.

Will breathed out.

"Oh" was all he managed to say.

He felt his heart pounding with excitement. That was it. Well, not it it, but almost, and closer than ever.

"Frankly, I think it looks better from afar" Tharkay said, but sans any genuine virulence.

"Oh, do not be a killjoy" Will said "Come on, I want to see it"

None of them forgot about the ongoing threat of soldiers who were still searching for them. The good thing was, Tharkay knew, that whatever lead they might have gotten from his ex-companions, it would not lead the search to the capital and he hoped that they might perceive the idea of him heading straight to it as too reckless, not to say dumb, either way.

Because it was too reckless and dumb, for certain; to walk right into the city stuffed with guards, securing the celebration and the royal family. Although that might perhaps work to their advantage as the soldiers would be too busy to look for one of many wanted criminals. Tharkay was not even sure if the imperial guards would be let into the city; despite their common aim, they were still on alien, even if allied in his case, territory.

But they encountered no guards as they walked into the town and with growing ease – more on Will's behalf than on Tharkay's – they made their way to the city square, yet uncrowded, but the first merchants and entertainers have already arrived.

"Well, we have almost the whole day until the lanterns set off" Tharkay said "What would you like to see?"

"Oh, you know" Will said, looking around, unable to keep his eyes fixed on just one thing "Everything"

Tharkay chuckled.

"Maybe let us start with something to eat" he said.

Will nodded absently, currently staring at a fish trader, setting up his stand and displaying on the countertop all kinds of water creatures; some of them too fantastical-looking to seem real.

Taking Will by the sleeve, Tharkay gently pulled him across the square to the inn. But before they reached it, a problem they had not considered before arose, as Will got his head nearly tugged away from his neck when another merchant's cart rode just behind his heels and across his hair, which, as they belatedly realized, stretched the whole way across the square. Tharkay ran to pick it up from the end; Will snatched up the coils nearer to him.

"We ought to do something about them" Tharkay muttered, walking back to Will cradling coils of golden hair in his arms.

They looked around. There may have been a barber's shop in town, but walking in there with twenty yards of hair was bound to raise suspicion and that was the last thing they could allow themselves to do.

Then Temeraire nudged Will's leg, pointing to a near-by fountain, on which toeboard sat three kids. Two of them had skin the colour of bitter chocolate and short, curly hair, while their friend was the exact opposite, his skin pale and freckled and his hair straight and yellow as wheat. All three of them were occupied with weaving complex plaitings with straps, braiding colourful beads into them.

Tharkay approached the kids.

"Good morning, fellows" he said, crouching before the boys "I was hoping you could be of assistance to me perhaps; I need someone with skilled fingers and artistic flair such as yours to help out my friend"

He gestured towards Will and the kids' eyes widened to the size of saucers as they saw the shiny locks coiled in Will's arms. They jumped up.

"Come here, sir!" the yellow-haired boy called in a commanding tone "Sit here!"

Will smiled and obediently sat in front of them, as the kids straightened his hair, running their fingers through it and being amazed by the amount of material to work with.

"They're as golden as..." the smallest boy began and then hesitated, trying to find a suitable comparison.

"...as gold" he finished, not entirely satisfied.

"But a bit tangled" the other one added critically "Do you have a comb, sir?"

Will fished the fatigued comb from his satchel, where among the breadcrumbs and now dried flowers he had picked on the way, laid the crown, its sight briefly reminding him of Father and his visit the previous night. The whole conversation almost merged with the dreams Will had when he later went to sleep, to a point when in the morning Will was not even sure if it really took place. The sight of the crown hidden right where he put it in a hurry before going to sleep definitely ended the uncertainty.

However the day bid fair to provide a lot of distractions and better and more enjoyable things to think about. He said what he said; he still stood by it and will be happy to face the consequences. But not to-day.

Will was pulled – literally – back to the present when the boys began furiously brushing his hair and he had to do his best not to wince.

Temeraire and Tharkay sat on the toeboard, watching the process with interest. A few sharp words from the boys banned Will from doing the same, as he tried to look behind his shoulder and disturbed the work.

When more people began to flood into the square, Tharkay got up and left, only to return a few minutes later with a wide-brimmed hat he could lower on his face to conceal it.

The square was already fully stacked by the time the boys finished. Their work was completed when the smallest one brought an armful of colourful flowers, which the boys skillfully woven into the thick, complex braid, reaching almost to Will's ankles.

The sight was oddly charming in its peculiarity and Tharkay felt a spark lit up in his chest and a soft warmth spreading around it as he watched Will, who was smiling unsurely; visibly content but for some reason unsure of how he presented himself.

"You look splendid, Will!" Temeraire piped.

"It does look quite neat" Tharkay added and immediately lowered his head to hide beneath the brim of the hat when Will turned to him, beaming.

"I do hope you didn't take these flowers from Mr. Wellington’s garden, like last time" the light-haired boy said "Mother would be furious if she found out"

"I didn't!" the boy said, but Will made a mental note to himself to avoid any houses with blossoming flowers in the area, just in case some owner recognizes their property in the decoration of his braid.

They thanked the boys and rewarded each of them with a giant muffin with walnuts and chocolate from a near-by stall. That reminded them of their own now almost forgotten second breakfast.

"I fear I have no way to repay you" Will said, as they waited for their order in the inn.

"Think nothing of it" Tharkay said dismissively "Any idea where you would like to go?"

Will smiled.

"I would very much like to see the port" he admitted in a wistful tone

"Port it is"

When they filled their – and, more importantly, Temeraire's – stomachs they set off in the direction of the slim, tall masts rocking in the distance behind the rooftops of the town houses. There was no direct, straight route connecting the square to the docks, but so much for the better, as Will had the opportunity to see more buildings of various shapes and sizes and functions; people in all kinds of clothing hurrying in every direction taking care of daily chores in the town; stores exhibiting their products; smells and sounds were pouring onto the street from bakeries, shoemakers, blacksmiths, bookshops, tailor’s...

Will was growing noticeably more at ease with his own fancy coiffure as among the people that they passed in the streets he could glimpse various festive attires and adornments, flower decorations and chaplets not being the least common by far.

Tharkay followed Will with his head bowed slightly so that his face was concealed in shadow, and a slight smile wandering around his lips, as he observed Will marvelling at everything around him. The warmth in his chest grew with every gesture, every remark, every time Will turned around, asking:

"Tenzing, have you seen this? It is extraordinary!"

They managed to convince Temeraire to lie inside Will's bag, so as not to scare the passersby, but after the solid breakfast, the dragon could barely fit in it. He fell asleep right after devouring a pound of ham, so he did not complain at present, but as soon as he wakes up – presumably already bigger than when he fell asleep as well – he was bound to demand to fly freely and they both hoped the docks will be a better place to let him out than the city square.

Having passed the last houses, they finally saw the quayside in all its glory. It was not the biggest port Tharkay has seen in his life, but the rows of ships with their sails carefully trimmed and their sides polished and their names in golden letters shining in the sunlight made an impression even on him. The view of the open sea, its waves shimmering in the sun did not leave him unmoved either.

Will stood frozen. At least half of the ships in the port had masts two times taller than his tower, some even more. And as noble as they looked merely standing anchored in the port and rocking smoothly on the waves, it was beyond his imagination how they must look at sea with their sails full spread, glowing white and their decks busy with people. Looking at them was as thrilling as it was dwarfing.

"Would you like to see them closer?" Tharkay asked.

"Oh God, yes" Will uttered.

They walked to the gangway. On one of the ships, not one of the smaller ones in the least, they saw a man, carefully tidying the deck.

"I have an idea" Tharkay said "Give me a minute"

He walked to the man and exchanged a few words with him. Then he turned to back towards Will and waved his hand. Will came closer, intrigued.

"Will, this is captain Lenton" Tharkay said "He agreed to give us a tour around his ship"

"You would, sir?" Will asked, looking up at the man "We would hate to be a burden"

"Nonsense, lad" the captain waved his hand and threw down a rope ladder "It's is not as if I have much to do. Climb on"

When they were already on deck, Will looked around, remembering every detail of the illustrations in his books and coming to the conclusion that they had nothing on reality, failing to capture how the vessel seemed almost like a living organism, everything in it connected and harmoniously corresponding to work together as one.

"She is truly magnificent, captain" he said

"Is she not?" the man replied, stroking the side of the ship affectionately "I've been to Hell and back with her and she come out with barely a scratch. I’m telling you, son, you shan't find a more reliant ship in the whole kingdom"

He sighed.

"It will be a damned shame to see her moulder in the docks" he said quietly.

"Moulder?" Will asked "How come? She seems to be in perfect condition"

"She is. Peak condition and make no mistake" the captain replied "It's her captain who started rotting first. While I'd love nothing more than to drown with her, I know when to set course to homeport. I have folks waiting there for me, you know"

"You could always sell her" Tharkay suggested.

"You think I haven't tried?" Lenton said "But I've yet to find a man I would entrust with her. Now...”

He rubbed his hands.

"Enough with the wallowing" he said briskly "I thought you wanted a tour"

And a tour they got. Captain was over the moon, having found in Will a kindred spirit; although lacking in practical experience, then at least being able to tell the fore-royal mast and the fore-topgallant mast apart.

Tharkay contently retreated to the back in the narrow passageways, carrying Temeraire in his arms. He was impressed by how Will seemed to have a natural way with people, despite not having encountered many of them until the day before. Although maybe that was what made him so genial and open, seeing every interaction as an opportunity, rather than nuisance, as Tharkay did. Tharkay was able to make deals with people; but Will had an incredible ease of making people like him.

Maybe it was partially due to his straightforwardness and candour that exuded from his every word, every gesture. This was a quality of a man who has never told a lie, who has never pretended to be anything he was not, who probably even would not be able to do that if he tried.

Perhaps it was his ridiculous sense of decency he never quite managed to stifle for long before it resurfaced and let itself be known. Tharkay suppressed a smirk when he recalled how Will was not even able to blackmail him properly without feeling the need to apologise later.

When the captain led them back on deck it was early afternoon already, as Lenton, encouraged by Will's lively interest showed him every single corner of the ship.

"You staying for the celebration later, lads?" he asked.

"Indeed, sir" Will nodded "We came here especially to see the flying lanterns"

"Oh, that is a sight alright" Lenton nodded "Tell you what: why don't you come here before the show and I'll give you one of my boats so you can get the best view from the water?"

Will glanced at Tharkay.

"This is very kind, sir" he said "We would be ever so grateful"

"It is a sight worth seeing, truly, my boy" the captain said "Since the first celebration twenty years ago, me and the fellows from the other ships join in as well"

"We are looking forward to it then" Will said, jumping down to the gangway to join Tharkay.

"Take care, lads" the captain said, waving them goodbye, before disappearing behind the side of the ship.

On their way back to town, Will was noticeably quieter; his gaze was absent.

"Did you enjoy it?" Tharkay asked silently.

"Enjoy it?" Will replied, staring at him "It was magnificent. It was... beyond my comprehending how something this grand can be made by human hands. I cannot even begin to imagine how it must feel to sail one of these"

Tharkay shrugged.

"Everything is ahead of you, Will" he said.

Will sighed. Tharkay made it sound so easy.

"You cannot possibly still think of going back?" Tharkay asked, frowning "Surely not, after everything you have seen?"

"I... I do not know" Will said.

Tharkay decided not to pressure him, even though all he wanted to do was to argue that Will has been abused and made use of his entire life; that his commitment to his father was based on manipulation and lies; that he was made for living outside, travelling the world and being among other people and being free.

Tharkay has never had a wish for company; never had much use for it either. But, looking at Will, he realized that he would not actually mind someone like him to share his wanderings with.

The dragon would certainly be an asset too, Tharkay thought with amusement, glancing at Temeraire. They eventually let him fly, on condition that he will keep above the rooftops and not on the street level so as not to scare anyone. None of them was too surprised when the not-so-small-anymore dragon flew down at last and announced that he is hungry.

"He has never been quite so ravenous" Will said, as they sat on a bench and watched Temeraire devour an entire roasted chicken in a matter of minutes.

"Naturally" Tharkay replied, unconcerned "He is growing, after all"

They were not nearly as starved as the dragon, but allowed themselves to be tempted by the inviting smell of freshly baked cupcakes from one of the stalls and enjoyed them walking around the market, admiring all the exhibited goods, ranging from various foods one would need ten stomachs to try at least a bite of each, through colourful trinkets and frippery and fabrics, to services of all kinds; from fortune-telling to portrait making.

"I was convinced this was a rather grim occasion" Will said, when they passed a small crowd of amazed onlookers around a flashy-dressed juggler "Does it not commemorate the memory of the lost prince? Wherever is there a place for all the festiveness?"

"Grim or not, it is an occasion. It is also a celebration of the prince's birthday, so that provides an excuse" Tharkay said, with an ironic smirk "The traders hardly need anything more. Where there is a crowd, there are always folks eager to get rid of a few coins"

"Maybe so" Will replied.

They stopped before a scarce empty space where a duet of musicians was playing some joyful melody. There were about twenty people around them and in the middle of the crowd a small group of children, including the three they have already met, was dancing to the music.

"Or maybe they choose to be hopeful, rather than grim" Will said.

He tapped his foot to the rhythm of the melody and appeared as disappointed as the people around him when the music stopped. The man playing the cello wiped the sweat from his forehead, while his companion with a violin massaged the aching arms.

"They seem really exhausted" Will said "Must have been playing for a couple of hours now"

He approached the two musicians, who quietly exchanged a couple of words, glancing apologetically at the children, which stared at them in expectation.

"Pardon me" Will said, smiling politely "You two look as if you could use a break. I will be happy to replace you, if you like, so you can rest a little"

The two men frowned at him.

"You play?" one of them asked.

"Aye, sir. Cello"

The musicians exchanged glances; Will thought he understood what might concern them.

"You can sit over there, by the inn" he said, pointing "That way you will be able to keep an eye on your instruments"

"That sounds fair, alright" the cellist said.

"I can take the violin, if you like"

Will turned towards Tharkay, who unnoticeably appeared by his side. He raised his eyebrows.

"I did not know you play" Will said.

"There was hardly an occasion to share that fact" Tharkay said, shrugging "I may be a bit rusty, but I can manage"

The musicians looked at each other once more, and then nodded to themselves in agreement. Applause from the audience could be heard as they handed over their instruments.

"Try not to scare them away, lads!" the cellist called as they left.

Tharkay and Will tuned their instruments and played a couple of chords to warm up.

"You can start, Will" Tharkay said "I will try to match you"

Will nodded. He was always drawn to music and never had Temeraire ask him twice to play for him. The difficulty was he has only learned a handful of melodies; he knew them by heart and could perform them with his eyes closed, but nonetheless his repertoire was limited. He was no stranger to improvising – he has happened to spend many a day just strumming whatever came to his head – but never with an audience. At least not one that exceeded one dragon.

Will glanced at Tharkay, who caught his eye and nodded in encouragement.

Luckily, one of the melodies Will knew could serve very well as a dancing tune, if only the tempo was sped up a little bit. Tharkay listened to him for a few seconds with his head tilted, before he joined in, partially mimicking Will's melody, partially coming up with tunes of his own, matching and complementing the sound of the cello with the violin's.

The children gladly resumed their dance and after a few minutes even some of the older listeners began to sway to the rhythm.

"Are you sure this is a good idea?" Will said quietly, moving his instrument closer to Tharkay "You are rather in the open here, should any guards come"

"People hardly ever see what they do not expect to see" Tharkay said, unperturbed "And what they do not expect to see is a wanted criminal, entertaining the crowd in the middle of a square"

Will was not entirely convinced, but as time went by, he noticed that the guards did pay barely any attention to them and even when some stopped by to listen for a while, they never expressed the slightest suspicion and so far, Tharkay's words proved true.

Will has long wandered from the known melody into an improvisation to which Tharkay adapted effortlessly, when finally the owner of the cello tapped his arm, letting him know that he was ready to resume playing.

"Not half-bad, son, not bad at all" he said "Wouldn't you agree, Stephen?"

The two men began playing once more; a lively folk tune this time. Will and Tharkay intended to make away quietly, but instead they found themselves among the crowd of dancers which suddenly filled the heretofore empty space – the melody must have been well-known and liked – and before they knew it, they were pulled into the twirling and gambolling file of dancers. Will laughed, not in the least discouraged by the fact that that he did not know the steps of the dance, gladly allowing himself to be led by the surrounding people.

He could glimpse Temeraire sitting on a near-by roof, observing the spectacle from above, successfully resembling a cat-like gargoyle when he remained motionless. Will also caught sight of Tharkay's hat among the crowd, the man either unable or unwilling to leave the file and Will very much liked to think it was the latter.

At some point the single line of dancers split into smaller circles of six, which matched the slight change of the melody. Then in turn people from each group formed three pairs that resumed following the trail of the original file.

Will found himself led by a pretty, blonde girl with two long braids and a chamomile chaplet.

"I liked how you played!" she said, leaning in to him, so that he could hear above the music, as they swirled around the pavement "What's your name?"

"Will!"

"Oh, like the lost prince!" she said "I'm Edith! And now: switch!"

Having said so, she twirled away from Will's hold and moved towards the next dancer in the circle, while another person took her place.

The routine was repeated a couple of times more, each change of partners now coming sooner after the previous one, up to the point where the switching dancers had to nearly run between their partners, while the ones that remained at their places barely managed to hold them for a second.

There was laughter, as people began to get dizzy and almost fall into the arms of the next partner or into each other and when Will thought that the dance was bound to end with everyone on the ground, after the last switch the music abruptly stopped.

He found himself standing before Tharkay, so close that his own face was below the wide brim of the man's hat; he could see the slight blush on Tharkay's face from the effort and bright sparks in his eyes, glimmering in the shade.

The crowd around them disappeared; standing face to face, shielded from the world, they might have as well been the only people in the world and both would have been fine with that.

 

 

Chapter Text

They both let go of the other's hand and took a step back, smiling with abashment.

"That was nice" Will said.

Tharkay murmured affirmatively, bowing his head, to conceal his face beneath the brim of the hat. Will felt an irresistible need to see the man's expression, perhaps hoping to get a clue as to what he himself felt. It was joy, certainly. To a degree due to pleasant course of the day so far, but there was also a different kind of it that sparked whenever he saw Tharkay nearby and sent his heart fluttering when he found the man so close to him. He wanted to know if Tharkay shared those impressions. And what on Earth were they in the first place.

Tharkay lifted his head and Will quickly looked away. He has been staring; again.

Temeraire flew down from the rooftop to a narrow, shady alley between two buildings. They walked closer to him.

"I would very much like to see the palace closer" the dragon said "May we?"

"I am not sure" Will said "It must be guarded. It may not be the best idea to get close to it"

"I could fly over the wall!"

"That certainly is not advisable" Tharkay said "The entrance inside the wall will be guarded, but soon everyone will gather there to wait for the opening. We shall have no problem to go unnoticed"

They headed in the direction of the palace using the narrow alleys which allowed them to travel in pleasant shade as well as avoid the more used streets, where the guards would be also more numerous.

"Have you been here before?" Will asked.

"In the town? Of course"

"Not in the town. In the palace" Will said and added: "Inside"

"Oh" Tharkay smirked "Yes, I have"

"You stole from the king?" Will asked quietly, his tone half-impressed, half-disbelieving.

"Only a little bit" Tharkay said "You would be surprised how many valuables just lay about the place and no-one cares for them, unless someone tries to take it, then everyone loses their minds"

"What did you take?"

"A painting. Some cutlery. A vase"

"You broke into the palace for cutlery?"

"Exactly. How many people in the world can say that about themselves?"

Will laughed.

"It is not as if they would notice" Tharkay said "But when someone is so rich they do not even know what to gild next, it is none too short of a challenge."

"Have you been a thief ever since you ran away?" Will asked.

"I have been what the situation called for at the moment"

Will glanced at him with an impish spark in his eye.

"And what situation called for taking this crown?" he asked.

"The situation of it not being heavily guarded enough and me being around" Tharkay replied swiftly "By a lucky coincidence someone desired it badly enough to pay me for it"

"Who?"

Tharkay only smiled mysteriously.

"Alright then, keep your secrets" Will said.

"Why, I hardly have any more secrets from you, Will" Tharkay responded.

He realized that he did not mind that much. He learned very early to keep his affairs private; no one really cared for him or his affairs much either. Tharkay could not even remember the last time he talked with another person about anything besides strictly business matters. To talk about his past to someone who was interested in it and in him, yet judged neither was quite a change; a nice change, Tharkay came to realize. He never even considered he could wish for it.

Around the walls ran a wide street, creating about ten yards of empty space between the wall and buildings nearest to it. They walked by the walls of the buildings, Will and Temeraire gazing at the soaring towers, visible above the walls, Tharkay still looking around warily.

"Oh, what is that?" Will asked at some point.

They stood in front of a large mosaic near the western gate. It was almost as tall as the wall itself and depicted a man and a woman in richly decorated robes. In front of them stood two young boys dressed in similar fashion; and it took Will a while to notice that there was also a third child, held in the woman's arms.

"The royal family" Tharkay explained "That little boy is the lost prince with whom you share your birthday"

Will tilted his head. Of course, the extent to which a handful of coloured glass pieces could convey the likeness was probably limited, but Will could not get rid of the impression that the King was a stern, austere man; he immediately made Will think of Father and he felt ashamed of seeing that comparison in a pejorative light.

The Queen somehow managed to appear a much warmer person, whether it was something in the shape of her lips or a soft gleam in her eyes, as if the maker placed just the tiniest bit of yellow glass among the green pieces.

The two princes were dark-haired like both of their parents; they had dark eyes inherited from their father, but the youngest one had his eyes composed of the glass pieces the same colour as the Queen’s and had golden-blonde hair, unlike the rest of his family.

On the pavement under the mosaic laid numerous flowers, sometimes entire bouquets and memory lights, some already long burned out, some still burning and not sooty yet so they must have been left not long before.

"For the lost prince" Tharkay explained.

"I see" Will said.

He took out a couple of flowers from his sophisticated braid and laid them among the others.

A couple of minutes later they reached the western gate and it turned out they indeed need not have worried about being recognised; a crowd has already gathered at the closed gate.

"It will be opened in a hour or so" Tharkay said, as they made their way through, so Will and Temeraire could see more of the palace "The King and Queen inaugurate the celebration and everyone wants to have the best spot inside the walls to watch"

When Will and Temeraire already saw as much as they could wish for, they left the crowd (not without struggle) and slowly headed in the direction of the port. Only now could Will truly see just how many people there were in the town, now that everyone began pouring into the streets, awaiting the celebration. The musicians were now surrounded by a crowd of dancers, filling almost the whole square and Will and Tharkay carefully avoided them so as not to be pulled into the dancing procession once more. Exiting the square they grabbed one last snack for Temeraire and walked down the already known way to the docks.

The sun has almost begun to set by the time they reached the port and numerous lamps illuminating the decks were currently being lit by the crews of the ships.

"Right on time, lads!" captain Lenton called from the deck of his vessel.

He lowered one of the smaller rowboats onto the water.

"Thank you once more, sir!" Will called, as they scrambled inside it.

"You'll thank me when you see it!" the man said "Oh, and..."

He reached down and picked up a thin parcel wrapped in oilcloth. He tossed it to Will. Inside were two folded paper lanterns.

"Enjoy the evening!" the captain called, as the rowed away from the port.

Will and Tharkay sat in front of Temeraire, who arranged himself comfortably on the stern thwart. They rowed together, arm in arm while the sun gradually disappeared behind the treetops on the eastern side of the bay, slowly enwrapping the world in darkness.

It was an unusual feeling to row through the dark water under the dark sky, with only a slightly darker shape of the shore standing out; almost as if they moved through the space that belonged neither to the sky, nor to the land. It was not the same blinding darkness they have endured in the tunnel; this one felt spacious and anything but stifling. Will could hear the noise of the tree leaves rustling in the wind and the poppling of water as their oars dipped in it and the creaking of the wooden construction of the boat. He could feel the cold breeze blowing from the land and Tharkay's arm brushing against his from time to time.

"I think we are far enough" Tharkay said quietly.

Will turned around to take a look at the island. He saw the illuminated streets and lights on top of the wall. Much lower, dozens of shining points were rocking slightly on the water, marking the area of the port.

Tharkay took off his hat and put it aside; Will felt almost as if the man was taking off a mask – the whole day felt so otherworldly that he could scarcely conceive that he had spent it with the same person he had knocked unconscious with a frying pan the previous day.

Because, Will realized, it was not the same person. In a way. It was not the same Tharkay; although he did not change a bit. How Will perceived him, however, did change entirely. Gradually, step by step, he got to know the man, and it was not what he could have expected after first impression.

Neither were most of the things he has seen. The world? Not as cruel and uncaring as he had feared. The people? Taking a while to get used to, but not fundamentally ill-willing. And so far his flawed estimation has only provided him with pleasant surprises. But what if it could go the other way around as well? What if what he had imagined as beautiful and special was, in fact, nothing of the sort?

"You seem troubled" Tharkay remarked.

Will sighed heavily. He realized he very much wanted to voice his concerns to Tharkay in hopes he would have a smart answer for tchem, as he did for everything else.

"So far, nothing has been what I expected it to be" he said "Because I did not expect much of it. But what if what I was looking forward to for so long this whole time... what if it disappoints me?"

"It will not" Tharkay said "I promise"

"You said dreams tend to disappoint" Will pointed out.

"Well, yes, but perhaps I was just having the wrong dreams" Tharkay replied "Or the wrong attitude"

"Alright, but what comes next?” Will insisted "What am I supposed to do next?"

"Oh that is the easy part" Tharkay replied "You find yourself a new dream"

Will smiled unsurely. New dream? Another dream? He could no longer think of how he will be able to go back to the tower and be content living there. It hurt him awfully to be ungrateful like that towards Father, but the prospect of leaving everything he saw and experienced came across even less appealing. The idea of never seeing Tharkay again seemed well-nigh painful.

And if Father truly wanted what was best for him, he would understand.

"Will, look!" Temeraire said.

He stared fixedly at the castle and when Will did too, he felt his heart almost leap out of his chest.

A single bright light was slowly flying up from the island.

"Oh" Will uttered, when a soft glow appeared among the buildings, as if the sun was going to rise from behind the rooftops and then not one, but a thousand tiny suns began soaring from the island up to the night sky, their light doubled by the reflection in the water.

Tharkay carefully lifted himself from the bench and sat opposite Will.

"Look at the port" he said silently.

When Will lowered his gaze to the ships he could trace the lanterns from the moment they were lit and gently soared from the decks to the moment when they joined the stream of lights flowing from the streets above and filling the sky.

"Are you ready?" Tharkay asked, taking out their two lanterns.

"Yes" Will said "But first, I have something for you as well"

He picked up his bag and took out the crown.

"I should have given it to you earlier... I wanted to give it to you earlier" he said "but, I guess, I was not sure. I feared you might-... But you know what? I am over it. Do you... understand?"

Tharkay took the crown. He almost forgot about it.

"I think I do" he said, putting it aside and handing Will one of the lanterns.

They let them fly and kept their eyes fixed on them for as long as they could. The boat rocked slightly when Temeraire took off and followed their lanterns for a while, before they joined the rest. Then the dragon began manoeuvring between the lights and soon disappeared within their glow.

One would not be able to say whether it was day or night as everything around them seemed to take the colour either of approaching dawn or the setting sun. The surface of the water was perfectly still and reflected the lanterns so clearly that seemingly nothing separated the sky and the earth; the boat floated through some other dimension which consisted of nothing but pink void and soft lights.

"Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?" Will asked.

Tharkay glanced at him and saw his face lit up by the lanterns and the emotions and his eyes, shining with awe and said:

"Yes. Yes, I have"

He reached to Will's hand resting on the side of the boat and intertwined his fingers with Will's.

Will glanced at their hands and then looked at Tharkay; the smile that appeared on his face was brighter than all the lights around them.

He reached for Tharkay's other hand – the same that got badly cut the previous day – and this time the man gave it to him with no reluctance.

Recalling that event, Will rubbed his thumb against Tharkay's palm, glancing down at it.

"As good as new" he murmured.

"Indeed" Tharkay said "you have improved me"

"There was nothing to be improved in the first place"

There were a thousand things Tharkay wanted to say at that moment, more than he ever wanted to say to anyone, maybe even more than he ever wanted to speak out loud in his entire life. How perfect Will was in every way; how much he deserved the world and happiness and someone better than him; and how astounded it made Tharkay to know that - apparently, against all odds - he was who Will wanted nevertheless. He hoped at least some of that could be seen when Will looked into his eyes.

They both felt an electrifying spark jumping between them when their gazes met and, as if pulled by an invisible string, they slowly leaned towards each other.

Tharkay was slightly dizzy with amazement when their faces were only inches apart; he felt the moment was too perfect, too unreal to be true and was about to close his eyes to let whatever it was: a dream, a fantasy or by some miraculous chance, actual reality just take him wherever it may...

...when his eyes caught sight of a light at the beach they had floated quite close to, and it turned out that it was, indeed, too perfect to be true.

A pale light of a lantern illuminated two men standing on the rocky beach. Two awfully familiar men. They retreated into darkness when they were certain Tharkay has noticed them.

Tharkay froze and after a couple of seconds Will realized something is wrong as well. He opened his eyes.

"Tenzing?" he asked unsurely "Is everything alright? Did I do-..."

"No! I mean yes, everything is alright" Tharkay said "I just... There is something I have to take care of first"

They rowed to the shore and pulled the boat out of the water. Tharkay could see the worried looks Will cast him, but he heard no questions coming from him and if there was still some part of his heart that was not Will's already, his silence and trust, which made him follow Tharkay without a word, conquered it entirely.

Because of that Tharkay was even more determined to settle the matters properly. So long as the crown was with him he would be on the run and even when he gets rid of it, it will not be forgotten; he will have meddled with the affairs far bigger than him and running from the law and these two complicated his life a lot. Which he would have dealt with, certainly, but being with Will, he dragged him into this as well; something he would never forgive himself.

But there was a simple solution, one that ought to satisfy almost everyone and maybe even not get him killed.

The choice was between Will and the fortune and it was the easiest choice Tharkay has ever had to make.

He picked up the crown from where he put it.

"Everything is alright, I promise" he said to Will "I just have to take care of one thing and I will be back shortly"

"Should I come with you?" Will asked.

Tharkay hesitated.

He hoped this could be resolved without violence, in which case Will's help could certainly be useful. And his presence might only unsettle those he wanted to speak with.

Besides, he realized, he did not want Will to encounter them. These men were like Tharkay, or rather like Tharkay used to be; he did not want Will to see that part of his life he was not too proud of and intended to put behind him.

"No" he said "No, it is fine. Wait for me here"

Will nodded.

"Alright" he said.

Tharkay put the crown in his pocket. He looked at Will one last time with what he sincerely hoped was a reassuring smile and walked in the direction he saw the light.

He found them sitting at ease behind a pile of huge boulders that obscured the light of their lamp from the side of the water.

"Good evening" he said, not really expecting a reply.

He was not disappointed.

"I assume we all have better things to do with the rest of it" Tharkay continued "So I will not take much of your time. Here is the crown"

He tossed it at Jeremy’s feet. The man did not move.

"Along with my sincerest apologies" Tharkay continued "I do hope that the directions to a buyer who is willing to pay twice as much as we were promised may serve as a retribution for all your trouble"

"Fool me twice, shame on me" Boney said dryly. "You are holding out on us again, Tharkay”

"Cannot blame you for thinking so, if I am being honest, however wrong you are this time" Tharkay replied in a tone equally congenial "I am truly a changed man"

"We know you are in possession of a much better prize" Jeremy said.

"The fella with the magical hair" Boney added, standing up "I wonder how much people will pay for staying young and healthy forever. Oh, there he comes"

He looked above Tharkay's shoulder and Tharkay instinctively glanced in that direction as well, before he realized his mistake.

Once again in an unreasonably short period of time, a powerful blow to the back of his skull knocked him unconscious.


***

Will stood leaning against the boat, drumming his fingers against its side and trying to convince himself that he was relaxed.

Tharkay would come back, why would he not? It was odd for him to storm off like that and Will really tried hard to believe him when he said everything was alright... except he knew it was not.

This is what he wants.

Will tried to push Father's words away. A few minutes ago he thought he was certain that he was what Tharkay wanted. Did he flatter himself too much, allowing such assumption? His actions, his words; there was nothing but candor in them, or so Will thought. But what if he was wrong and Father was right?

What did he know of the world anyway? What did he know of love? It would not be much of a lie to say he was born yesterday.

He knew his feelings; was he too optimistic to hope Tharkay shared them?

Will took a deep breath.

Worrying will get you nowhere, he told himself. To chase away the grim thoughts, he forced himself to glance at the island once more.

The lanterns were flying high now; a swarm of tiny lights, fading in the distance and the darkness was taking possession of the bay once again.

Will hoped Temeraire would find his way back. He did not even try to find the dragon in the sky; with his scales as dark as the night, he might as well be invisible.

Will finally heard footsteps rustling on the stony beach, coming from the spot where he lost sight of Tharkay and he let out a silent sigh of relief, seeing his vague silhouette walking towards him.

"I was worried" Will said "I almost thought you took the crown and left"

His smile faded when he realized he could hear too much footsteps for just one person and then the silhouette which emerged from the mist split into two.

He tensed as the two men approached him. One of them was much shorter than Will, the other much thinner, but neither of them appeared feeble and, the fact remained, there were two of them.

Will realized he has seen them already; at the dam, from afar and he felt he did not particularly wish to get acquainted more closely.

"You were right" the short, corpulent man said.

"What?" Will frowned.

"We made a deal" the stranger replied "Crown in exchange for the magical hair"

"One can make a fortune offering folks eternal youth" the other one added "Maybe we'll even give you a small share"

Will's heart was pounding madly.

All his fears came true in a span of few seconds.

Tharkay left. Tharkay left him.

And these men were everything Father warned him about.

They stepped closer; Will glimpsed a flicker of steel as they took out their knives. One of them was holding a thin rope as well.

He clenched his fists. He was unarmed and outnumbered, yet he was anything but about to go down without a fight.

However before either of them delivered the first strike, the shorter of the men let out a painful grunt and collapsed to the ground, clutching his side. The other one spun around, trying to see what knocked down his companion.

Will used this moment to jump forward and strike him, aiming his punch at the man's jaw. His opponent staggered. A shadow moved behind him and swept the man's feet from beneath him. The man fell, hitting his head against the rocks; he did not move again.

Will looked away from him, searching for whoever floored the man, ready to defend himself. His eyes widened when in the dark-robed figure standing behind two men rendered harmless he recognized Yongxing.

"Father?" he said.

"Will, son, are you alright?" Yongxing asked anxiously "Did they hurt you?"

"I-... No, I am alright"

Yongxing closed the distance between them in three long strides an embraced Will in a tight hug. Will buried his face in Father's shoulder.

"I am sorry" Will said "I should have believed you"

Yongxing graciously did not answer.

"Let us go home" he said, after a short while.

Will nodded dully and stepped away from him. The man headed to a narrow path, barely visible between the trees. Will followed him, but stopped after a few steps and looked back.

This was just a dream, he thought. A beautiful dream, and it ended more quickly than he thought it would.

The lanterns were no longer visible in the sky. Will heard a flutter of wingbeats above his head; Temeraire was back.

"I tried to warn you, son" Yongxing said, waiting for him "I tried to tell you what people are like. They are nothing but deceitful and uncaring. To give them your heart means to get it broken"

Will lowered his head.

"Yes" he said impassively "you did"

 

 

Chapter Text

The floor shuddered violently, painfully battering Tharkay's head, which already felt like a fractured egg shell, ready to give up and fall apart at any moment now. He has been drifting just below the surface of unconsciousness for the past few hours – or was it days? – sometimes putting his head above it in short flashes of awareness, though when he recalled them now, he was not certain if they really happened or did he just dream them up in this poor excuse of sleep.

He vaguely recalled being dragged through a stony beach by armed men; he was pretty sure he was yelling something then. He tried to warn them... Someone was in danger...

Tharkay made the effort of pushing himself back to reality. He found himself in a small, dark room which shook mercilessly and creaked; the sound piercing through his skull. Upper parts of the walls were replaced with bars, behind which blurs of blue and green passed by.

He sat up and immediately had to put his head between his knees, as a wave of nausea washed over him. He took slow, deep breaths, until the world stopped spinning and he could slowly try raising his head once more.

The shapes flashing by outside were treetops and behind them, the blue sky. Tharkay slowly dragged himself to his feet, all the time leaning against the rocking wall and clutching the bars as soon as he could reach them, to keep himself upright.

They were passing through a forest. Right in front of Tharkay's eyes rode two guards; and as he looked around he saw that every side of his moving prison was similarly secured.

How did he end up in a convoy? The why part was not much of a mystery, it was the how that remained somewhat vague.

Tharkay rested his head against the cold bars, forcing himself to recall the last thing he could remember. He was at the beach. It was dark, apart from the flying lights high above the water. He had the crown with him and he talked to someone. Boney. Boney and Jeremy; they were at the beach as well. He gave them the crown and then... what happened then?

They said something about the hair.

Hair. Magical hair!

Will.

Everything came back. The lanterns, the boat, the crown. They wanted to get their hands on Will; he wanted to warn him... and then darkness.

Guards dragging him through the beach and him desperately calling Will's name to warn him of the danger.

Did Will make it? Two armed men against one with no weapon or fighting experience, only considerable strength to his advantage...

A silent grunt from a corner of the cart caught Tharkay’s attention. Only now he realized he was not alone; two more men were in there too. One was clutching his head, breathing heavily; the other one did not move at all: a dark stain spread around his ribcage.

He did not think it possible to be surprised by anything at this point, but once more he was proven wrong, when in the silently moaning man he recognized Jeremy himself.

Fury blinded his vision for a second and before Tharkay knew it, he was in front of Jeremy, clutching his collar and pulling the man up, forcing him to look him in the eye.

"Where is he?" Tharkay drawled through gritted teeth "What have you done to him?"

"Who?" Jeremy asked weakly.

"The man I was with!"

"The other fellow got him"

"What other fellow?!"

"I dunno, one of them" Jeremy motioned his head towards the guards "He tricked us. Said we can have the crown and the one with the hair if we get you out of the way"

"Where did he go?"

"How should I know, he knocked me out"

Tharkay looked around. Will was in danger and he had no way of reaching him. Even if he managed to get out, he would still have to deal with the guards, and even if he did manage to do that, he still had no idea where he was and where Will was and how to get there.

"I do not suppose you have any more of those explosives on you" he said.

Jeremy shook his head weakly.

Tharkay let go of the man's collar, allowing Jeremy to slip back to the ground, where he landed with a silent grunt, but not a word of complaint.

Tharkay sat in his corner. So that was it. Will gone, he himself probably about to be executed... and the last Will saw of him was his depart with the crown, never to come back.

He would probably think he had been lied to all along; that all Tharkay said and done was only meant to deceive him. And he could not be blamed for it. Will was good-natured, but not daft and Tharkay’s behaviour could lead him to only one conclusion. It should not matter, since Tharkay had a few days of life left at best, but it did.

"That man" Tharkay said "Did he have a name or something?"

"Not one he shared with us" Jeremy muttered "He was your friend's father or so it sounded like"

Tharkay jerked his head up and regretted it momentarily, as the world went spinning once more.

He did not really require more reasons to dislike the man; the man who locked up a child, raising it in fear of the outside world and blind trust in himself, using him in the very same way he warned Will about, and now he tried to have Tharkay gotten rid of, probably aware that this must at last convince Will to come back. Now, it was also personal.

He closed his eyes.

And there was nothing he could do about it.

Suddenly, the wagon halted. Tharkay did not look up, half-interested in the reason of the layover at best, until he heard a familiar voice from the front of the convoy:

"Oh, thank God, the soldiers!" a woman cried in a weeping tone "Please, you must help us! We were robbed; my uncle is injured!"

Tharkay stood up and watched the most peculiar scene that took place before the convoy.

Two people in ragged, unmatched garments were in the middle of the highway: a woman in a dress clearly made for someone at least two heads shorter than her and an older, thickset man in a straw hat, leaning against her.

It was not until Tharkay saw the woman's fiery red hair, carelessly tied into a bun, when he realized why their voices sounded familiar.

The two leading soldiers cautiously approached the pair on the road, and the woman lapsed into an elaborate story of their misery.

Tharkay heard silent, muffled grunts from the back, and when he turned around, the horses of the rear guard were now without riders. He turned around a second too late to see the moment the guards on his left were yanked out of their saddles.

But when he turned to the pair on the right, he did so just in time to see two dark-clothed figures jumping out of the bushes from behind the farther horse, pulling one of the soldiers down from his saddle, wrapping his arm around his throat and dragging him back to the side of the road; the second guard shared his companion's fate a second later.

The woman was still wallowing loudly, now sounding almost on the verge of hysteria, quite successfully drowning out any sounds of struggle around the carriage. The man, in which Tharkay recognized Berkley the baker, now joined in as well, adding loud moans of pain to the spectacle.

But the front guard have at last noticed that something was amiss and the alarm was finally raised; except too late. The soldiers were already outnumbered when the rest of the ambushers joined in, jumping from concealment at the side of the road. Berkley and his "niece" swiftly dropped their act, taking out their weapons and engaging in the skirmish as well.

Because of the hullabaloo, Tharkay almost missed the sound of the lock opening, coming from the back of the carriage; when he turned around, he stood face to face with John Granby smiling nonchalantly, and behind him – freedom.

"Well, ain't this cosy" Granby said, looking around the inside of the wagon "Can see why I never liked prisons"

"What are you doing here?" Tharkay asked, scrambling out from the wagon and jumping to the ground beside Granby.

The sound of wingbeats forestalled the man's answer and a second later, Temeraire landed on the roof of the wagon, where he sat appearing very pleased with himself.

"You brought them here?" Tharkay asked.

"That little guy has a gift for persuasion" John said.

Tharkay looked at the dragon.

"Thank you, Temeraire" and turning back towards Granby, he added:

"I owe you"

"Careful with that" Granby replied, smirking.

"We have to go" Temeraire said urgently.

"Indeed we do" Tharkay replied "Lead the way"


***

 

Will walked the entire way with his eyes fixed on the ground and the hem of Yongxing's robe sliding over it.

Maybe he ought to be content; his quandary was at an end after all; he had a clear path ahead of him. He did not have to question whether he would return home or not; and if not, what he would do then. He could go back to the simple life; safe, certain.

Dull.

Well, maybe it was dull, but at least he knew he belonged there; he knew he was wanted. Unlike here, in the world he did not understand, the world he had been too quick to trust. Father was right; there was nothing there for him.

They reached the tower and Will was too indifferent to even wonder how they were going to get inside or be even mildly interested in the fact that there was a secret door, concealed behind the stones that built the tower.

He did not see Temeraire; that, at last, roused his concern. He realized he had not seen the dragon ever since they left the beach. He assumed Temeraire was following them in the air, but now he was not sure.

"Go upstairs, and get yourself in order. Take these ridiculous things out of your hair" Yongxing said "I will fix us some meal"

Will nodded dully and climbed up to his room. He began to pull the dried flowers from his hair, tossing them to a small heap at his feet.

He smiled, seeing some of the species; they clearly did belong in somebody's garden. A couple of chamomiles appeared in the heap and reminded Will of that amiable girl he danced with; Edith.

He looked away from the flowers, pushing back the memory of joyful music and happy people and Tharkay's eyes glimmering in the shade of his hat.

Fool. Idiot. Will tugged the remaining flowers from his hair. Naive as a child.

He then began pulling the ribbons holding together the complex coiffure, only now fully impressed by how three small children managed to come up with such a sophisticated design.

Will ended up with a basket full of dried flowers and a couple of colourful ribbons that seemed too pretty to be thrown away, which was probably what Father would want him to do if he knew. Instead, Will took the basket and put it at the bottom of his wardrobe.

He hesitated for a few seconds as he closed the door.

He had painted the wooden piece of furniture a nice shade of green a few years back; he remembered spending hours mixing together the paints, adding blue and yellow in turns in different measures until the result satisfied him and when it did, the amount of paint was far more than enough to use it just for the wardrobe, so he painted the bed frame and the window shutters as well.

What made him stop and look at it now was the fact that he realized he saw this green not long ago. It was the colour of his eyes; that he knew, of course. But it was also the same colour of the glass used for Queen's eyes in the mosaic on the wall around the Palace.

Well, many people can have green eyes, I suppose, Will thought. So the Queen and I have them.

And the prince, he recalled. The lost prince. He had eyes of that colour too. And golden hair...

...golden hair, unlike the rest of his family...

Will felt tingling at the back of his head.

...Will ...like the lost prince...

 

 

...first celebration, twenty years ago...

 

 

...to commemorate the lost prince...

 

 

...you share birthday with...

 

 

... I wanted to believe that they are, in a way, for me...

 

 

...they will help him find his way home...

 

 

Will felt dizzy and staggered back, tripping over a chair; he fell, knocking his back against the desk.

"What is that noise, son? What are you doing in there?" Yongxing called from downstairs.

Will did not reply. He tried to make sense of the thoughts that were running through his head. It could not be; it was too inconceivable.

And yet, it made perfect sense. He felt drawn to the lanterns, lanterns that appeared on the prince's birthday... his birthday. And he knew that Yongxing was not his father that he found him... found him? Or stole him?

...the only person who can be accused of taking the power for himself is your father...

The last piece of puzzle fell into place.

Will stood up. He did not feel lost anymore, or dulled, or weak. For the first time in his life, he was angry.

He walked out of his room and stood at the top of the stairs.

"Well, that took you long enough" Yongxing said, not turning around "Come down, let us dine"

Will tilted his head. Has he really thought of this man as his father all this time? There was never any love, any affection in his approach. It was him, Will, who so desperately strived for every sign of a warmer feeling, be it even mere approval or an empty smile; he used to take them as an evidence of love. He has taken all the warnings and bans as a sign of caring and fear for his safety and interpreted it as Father's harsh way of expressing love...

Well, Will smirked; in this at least I was right. It was a sign of caring and fear. Just not for him. And now that he had a basis for comparison, he could not imagine however he has thought he was the one Yongxing wanted to keep safe.

Will walked down the stairs.

"I am leaving" he said.

That finally made Yongxing turn around.

"What in Heaven's name are you talking about?" he asked with irritation.

Has this distaste always been in his eyes? Will wondered. Has he always looked at me as if he blamed me for something?

"I am leaving" Will repeated in a strong voice "And I am not coming back"

"You are being ridiculous, son" Yongxing snarled "Sit down and let us eat"

"I am not your son" Will said "And I am not going to listen to you any longer"

Yongxing did not reply.

"I am the lost prince" Will said, unable to resist the satisfaction of seeing Yongxing's reaction "Am I not?"

He was not disappointed. A twitch went through the man's face, before he regained his cool composure.

"Are you well, son?" he asked dryly "You are talking nonsense"

"Am I?" Will repeated "maybe so. As I said, I am leaving"

He took a few steps towards the window, but Yongxing's voice stopped him:

"And where do you imagine you will go?" he asked "Your friend is rather unavailable now"

"What have you done to him?" Will asked, turning around.

Yongxing smiled grimly.

"I can hardly take credit" he replied "For all his crimes he had already been sentenced to death"

All shreds of satisfaction fled from Will's mind.

"There, there, now" Yongxing said, regaining his confidence as Will was losing his "We can now forget about him and this silly whim"

He walked towards Will.

"Now everything is how it is supposed to be" he said, lifting his hand to clutch Will's shoulder.

Will's hand caught his wrist before Yongxing managed to reach him. He could not help but smile with grim satisfaction when he glimpsed a flash of anxiety in the man's eyes as he realized that Will was not to be easily dismissed as an opponent.

"No" Will said "You are wrong, you have always been wrong. You were mistaken about the world and the people; you misjudged me as well. Now, I am leaving to find Tharkay and never come back and never let you near my hair again"

Yongxing yanked his arm free and Will let it out of his grip, causing the man to lose his balance and stumble back.

Will then made the mistake of turning his back towards the man, assuming that they have cleared everything up between themselves. He was almost at the window when something golden flashed in front of his eyes and then tightened on his throat, cutting off air. His back was pressed against something, and at some point Will realized that this something was Yongxing.

At first he tried to get his fingers underneath whatever he was being choked with, but the thin line was buried deep in his skin. Will felt the already familiar surge of fear as his lungs began crying for air; the edges of his vision were getting black. He tried to swing his arm back to strike Yongxing, but he could not reach him; his hand knocked down a tall mirror standing near-by, which fell to the floor, shattering into pieces with clink. Will's moves were getting weaker, slower; he almost could not see.

Slowly, he slipped into darkness.


***

"Do you know where Will is?" Tharkay asked, making his way through the dense undergrowth. Temeraire did not bother to waste time seeking trails suitable for human walking.

The dragon flew as close as he could, manoeuvring between the branches.

"Yongxing took him back to the tower" he replied, to which Tharkay halted rapidly, staring at the dragon in disbelief.

Temeraire turned around and hovered in mid-air, flapping his wings impatiently.

"Yongxing?" Tharkay asked "Like the emperor Yongxing?"

"Yongxing like Yongxing" the dragon said "I do not know whether he is an emperor of anything"

But it fitted so well. Everyone knew the legend of the immortal emperor. Tharkay has always took it with a pinch of salt, assuming that maybe the emperor just lived long, but within human restraints or maybe that it was a mystification with subsequent men placed on the throne to uphold the fiction of the undying emperor, marked by the Heavens (who can understand royalty, after all?). But if he had Will, he could indeed live as long as he pleased.

"When did he find Will?" Tharkay asked.

"I do not know, I was not there" Temeraire replied "I met him when he was a boy"

"But Will is not... two centuries old?" Tharkay asked uncertainly "Is he?"

"No, of course not" Temeraire said impatiently "Why did we stop?"

"Right. Let us go"

His thoughts were flying wildly in all directions. So the father Will spoke of was not actually his birth father. That partially explained why Will never mentioned his mother as well.

Furthermore, his guardian was also the most powerful man on this side of the border and one in whose bad books Tharkay has gotten more than once already, which was quite an achievement, considering he has never even met the man.

Tharkay briefly wondered how the emperor kept himself from dying before finding Will. He could hardly believe that healthy diet and exercise alone got him this far.

All he knew of him now: how he wanted to protect Will, and had Will stay away from the world, and warned Will of people; all of it acquired a darker, more threatening quality, because now Tharkay had the certainty that the man was not securing his son, he was securing his key to immortality and that meant he could go far to keep it to himself, which in turn meant that Will was safe only as long as he obliged the emperor.

He could be hurt, imprisoned and go through all kinds of misery as long as the hair stayed intact and, which Tharkay realized with a shiver of terror, that could go on literally for eternity, since Will himself shall be kept from aging by his very own gift.

With that conclusion, Tharkay dropped all thinking and focused only on running; running and not fainting, since the aftermath of the last blow to the head still let itself be known from time to time.

Every once in a while Temeraire had to fly high above the check their azimuth. Tharkay did not even try to guess where they were; he could only tell that they were on the imperial side of the border, since they were heading east and had the mountain range marking the border on the left.

They had to pause a few times to rest and despite Temeraire's initial complaining at the delay, it soon turned out that the dragon was growing weary as well, even though he tired slower and recovered faster than Tharkay.

"I suppose I could carry you" he said, swallowing quickly a fish he had managed to catch himself.

Tharkay regarded the dragon dubiously. He was much bigger than the last time Tharkay saw him, which, considering it was probably the previous evening was rather impressive, but Tharkay was not sure a dragon the size of a badger would go far carrying him, however that would work.

"We will keep that in mind as a last resort kind of solution" Tharkay said.

And then back to running and running and feeling his lungs burn with every breath and his muscles cry for a break, but that was good; the pain was good, it kept him from worrying; it kept his brain from going numb with fear, because if it is too late and something has happened to Will...

Will can take care of himself, Tharkay repeated in his thoughts. It is rather unusual that a man of your stature should resort to words rather than fisticuffs, he told him once. He only hoped that Will would not resort to words this time.

Finally, when he thought he would have to ask Temeraire to carry him after all, the familiar hurst of scrub appeared before their eyes.

The tower looked exactly the same as it did – was it only? – two days ago. Which was unsurprising, yet oddly unsettling, seeing how everything else has changed so dramatically.

"Will!" Tharkay called, as he stood at the base of the tower "Goldilocks, are you there?! Will!"

Nothing.

"I can lift you up there" Temeraire offered.

Considering his current physical condition it was hardly more risky than climbing fifty feet up with his own strength to keep him from falling, but Tharkay nevertheless felt more inclined to rely on his own limbs.

"I would rather..." he broke off as he heard a knock of wooden shutters from above.

For a second nothing happened; and then the familiar coils of golden hair flew down, glimmering in the red setting sun, appearing almost copper. Tharkay and Temeraire breathed out a sigh of relief.

Tharkay grabbed the hair, still feeling kind of awkward doing it, rested his feet on the rugged stone wall of the tower and began climbing. Temeraire circled a couple of feet beneath him, apparently ready to slow down Tharkay’s eventual fall.

Fortunately it was not necessary, and with the last effort Tharkay heaved himself onto the parapet and jumped to the floor of the chamber.

"Will, thank God, you are alright" he began "I was worried you-..."

He broke off.

Will was kneeling on the other side of the room, his hands tied behind his back; he was gagged and looking at Tharkay, his eyes widened in fear. He tried to shout something, but his words were muffled by the cloth.

And then sharp pain shooting through Tharkay's ribs filled the world; he instinctively reached with his hand to find his jacket wet with something warm and he knew it was blood even before he saw it; and then the ground finally slipped from beneath his feet as he fell on the floor.

Yongxing stepped over his body, casting him a disdainful look.

"Well, I mean, you were to be executed anyway, were you not?" he said.

He walked towards Will, picking up his bounds from where he was tied to; Tharkay heard a cling of chains. He tried to lift himself up, but, strangely, his body did not seem to obey him.

"Let us go" Yongxing said, opening a trapdoor in the floor with a kick, holding Will's chains with both hands "Now that the gentleman has already agreed to take our secret to his grave, we have nothing to concern ourselves with any longer"

Will tugged away from him as soon as the chain loosened.

"Come now, we are going where you will finally be truly safe" the emperor snapped "For Heaven's sake, boy, behave! Stop fighting me!"

"No!" Will yelled in a hoarse voice, managing to get rid of the gag and pulling at his bounds, causing Yongxing to falter "No I will never stop fighting you, never! I will do anything within my power to get rid of you!"

Yongxing's eyes flared dangerously.

"I am strong, stronger than you!" Will continued "I will fight you every second, as long as I live! I will never surrender to you again! Unless..."

He glanced back at Tharkay in despair. Tharkay wanted to tell Will not to worry about him, that he was going to be fine, but his strength was draining. The room seemed to be getting darker at the edges of his vision.

"...unless you let me save him" Will said, looking back at Yongxing "I will never run away; I shall not even try. Everything will be just like you want it. Just... let me save him"

The emperor squinted his eyes.

"Promise" Will repeated, painfully aware that the time Tharkay had left was slipping through his fingers.

"We have a deal" Yongxing said coldly.

He unlocked the cuffs from Will's wrists and moved to Tharkay, locking them on his instead.

"In case you are foolish enough to follow us" he said quietly.

"Tenzing!" Will cried out, falling on his knees beside him. Tharkay lifted his head and offered him a reassuring smile, or at least, that was what he hoped he did; he could hardly feel his face.

"Hi, Goldilocks" he said weakly.

"It is going to be fine, everything is going to be fine, I am here" Will said, glancing at the wound; the scarlet splotch spread on a big part of Tharkay's ribcage by then.

But it did not matter. He took a wide strand of his hair and pressed it against the wound.

"No" Tharkay conjured up the strength to protest "No, I cannot let you do that"

"It is fine, trust me"

"No if you do this... you will be prisoner...forever" Tharkay said "I cannot have it"

"And I cannot let you die" Will said.

Tharkay's hand budged and slid through the floor; his fingers found a cold sharp edge: a piece of broken mirror. The last idea shone in his fading mind. He closed his fingers around the piece of metal and with the other one he reached to Will's cheek.

"Will..." he whispered.

Will leaned down to him, and when he was close enough, Tharkay made his final effort. He lifted himself up, grabbing Will's hair just below his shoulders and slashing through it with the mirror piece. He fell back on the floor, smiling with satisfaction.

"No!" Will cried "No! But-...."

His hair turned dim and pale, like the strand he had shown Tharkay; the same thing happened to the golden coils spilled throughout the floor as well.

"No, NO!" Yongxing screamed, desperately snatching the useless hair from the floor "WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?!"

He threw himself towards them. Will held Tharkay close, shielding him from the emperor's reach, but before Yongxing came close to them, Temeraire appeared out of nowhere, landing on the floor in front of him; he spread his wings and bared his teeth, causing the man to stumble back.

And then, right before their eyes, the emperor started falling apart. His skin turned pale and dry and cracked; it began to fall off. His robes went loose when the flesh disappeared from beneath them and then the emperor was only a cloud of dust. The dark robes fell down along with something metal, which landed on the floor with a cling.

Will stared at what was left of Yongxing for a couple of seconds, until he heard Tharkay's hoarse breath.

"Oh, God, no" Will whimpered "No, no, no, come on, look at me, Tenzing, do not close your eyes, look at me"

He desperately clutched Tharkay's hand, pressing it to his hair.

"Come on" he said "Sunlight from above... Salvage... the undone"

"Will" Tharkay said weakly.

"Mend the broken... piece"

"Will!"

Will looked at him, his vision blurry.

"What?" he uttered.

Tharkay's hand slipped from his grip and brushed against Will's cheek, before it fell limply.

"You were my dream" Tharkay said, almost inaudibly.

Will smiled; tears were already rolling down his face.

"And you were mine" he said.

The corners of Tharkay’s lips twitched; his eyes were fixed on Will's face, but after a couple of seconds, Will realized they no longer saw. He lowered his head, resting his forehead on Tharkay's. He felt the salt taste of tears in his mouth; they were dripping on Tharkay's face as well.

Temeraire nudged his shoulder lightly and Will raised one hand to stroke the dragon's head.

"Mend the broken piece..." he croaked "Turn back the course of time... turn back the time"

Will let the tears flow freely. It was not as if there was anything left for him to do in the world ever. He felt his shirt slowly soaking with blood, but it did not matter; nothing did. Tharkay was gone.

Everything went unusually quiet; Will could hear neither the wind, rustling the leaves, nor the birds chirping; as if everything stopped. Very well; what was the point of the world keeping on turning if Tharkay was not in it?

Something glimmered at the edge of Will's blurred vision. It must have been the ray of setting sun, reflected in a mirror piece.

But the glimmering did not stop; quite the opposite – it intensified. It was not until Temeraire nudged Will once more, this time with more strength, when Will finally looked up.

The light did not come from the mirror; it came from Tharkay. More precisely it came from his wound, making it look as if a sun of its own was shining there, so powerfully it lit up the whole room. Will had to close his eyes for a second, light still shining through his shut eyelids, before it slowly began to dim.

Will opened his eyes. Instinctively, he glanced at the place of the wound, pulling away the bloodstained shirt. The wound was gone. Will's heart pounded madly. He looked at Tharkay's face, no longer sickly pale and as he did, Tharkay gasped loudly, opening his eyes wide and coughed a couple of times; he blinked with confusion and then his eyes found Will.

"Oh" he said "Hey, Goldilocks"

"Tenzing" Will breathed out "Tenzing!"

He pulled Tharkay close, nearly pushing the freshly regained breath from his chest when he locked him in a tight embrace. Tharkay, still unsure how come he can move again, wrapped his arms around Will's neck, burying his face in Will's shoulder.

Will pulled back after a few seconds, feeling the need to once more look at Tharkay's face to make sure he was really there and he was alive, and as he did, he felt he had to do something else he was denied to try the last time; he pulled Tharkay close once more and pressed his lips against Tharkay's.

When Tharkay returned the kiss, Will decided that among all the things he tried for the first time in the last few days, this definitely placed itself among the top ten. Maybe even top three.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

"So, a prince of Allendale, huh?" Tharkay asked, glancing at Will from above his cup of tea.

"So it would seem" Will replied, rolling his already empty cup in his hands "I know it sounds ridiculous, but... I also feel it is right"

Tharkay shrugged.

"The world is not so big a place after all" he said "Stranger things have happened. And less likely men have become kings"

"Why, thank you" Will chuckled "Luckily, I hardly have a chance of ever becoming one"

"That can always be arranged"

Will laughed.

They were sitting by the kitchen table in the main chamber of the tower. Neither of them had felt entirely at ease with staying at a place that bore witness to so many awful events, including more than one death, but, as the night found them there, they decided to wait until morning with departure.

Temeraire and Tharkay took upon themselves the task of cleaning the pile of dust that used to be Emperor Yongxing from the floor; Will could not bring himself to interrupt something that was essentially a corpse: he felt it bore a semblance of disrespect. Temeraire and Tharkay had no such restraints. Thus, Will took care of clearing the pieces of broken mirror and the scarce traces of blood from the floor. He also was the one to unceremoniously tuck the coils of hair into the trash bin. That he felt no pity about getting rid of. With the combined forces of two men and one dragon, the room was perfectly clean in an hours' time, with nothing but bad memories to disturb their stay, especially after they lit the fireplace, which filled the room with warm glow, chasing the shadows away.

Despite, or maybe because all that happened, sleep found them easily as Will and Tharkay and Temeraire solicitously circled around them rested on the bed, none of them too keen on letting the other two out of his sight and spending the night alone.

The morning was bright and clear, as if urging them to go outside. The supplies in the pantry were more than enough to prepare an abundant breakfast, even for Temeraire's increased appetite; what was left, they packed carefully as provisions.

Tharkay was forced to borrow Will's clothes, since his own shirt and jacket were cut and stained with blood; Will's shirt hang on his skinny frame like on a scarecrow, but Tharkay did not mind.

Will, in turn, was trying to get used to having been taken a significant amount of weight off his shoulders, in more ways than one. Again and again he would run his fingers through his wavy, blonde hair each time slightly taken aback by the fact that they suddenly ended just below his shoulders.

In spite of realizing how the place has been essentially a prison for the last twenty years, Will could not help but feel wistful when he thought of all the things he left behind. This used to be, after all, his home. He knew no other and the thought of leaving it forever did have a bittersweet taste, softened considerably by the prospect of all that awaited him.

After finishing breakfast and packing up the last of the things they might need on the way, Will and Tharkay left the tower the ordinary, short-haired people way – the stairs – leaving the window to the winged part of the company.

Yet again, they aimed their footsteps towards the capital; it went without words that the prince ought to return to his family and his home and Will could not deny feeling elated that the place he felt so content and where he truly enjoyed himself for the first time in his life was actually the place he belonged after all.

The road went much faster than before, despite Will's honest wish for it to last longer, since, although he has already thought himself perfectly happy a couple of times in the past few days, he realized that if true unsurpassable happiness was ever given to him, it was right now; with road ahead of him and those he loved most beside him.

Temeraire seemed to be the one most excited about the prospect of living in a place, almost as if he was the one to be crowned after their arrival. It quickly turned out that what interested him exclusively was whether the King and Queen of Allendale have a lot of gold and if Will, as a prince, was going to have free access to it whenever he pleases.

Tharkay in turn fell more and more quiet as they were getting closer to their destination. It was not that he did not feel happy for Will; if anyone deserved a loving family and a palace for a home and all the riches he could dream of, it was definitely Will. Tharkay was sure this world would welcome him warmly. Will shall make a great prince; even if he was never going to be king, he would still have the chance to do something good for the country and the people.

But the same certainty that made him so sure about Will's future left him disillusioned about his own as well. He was perfectly aware of his place in the world; relinquishing his family bonds and becoming a thief, he chose it himself, after all. He was also perfectly aware of his place in the world that Will was about to enter. Or, rather, the complete lack of it.

He did not allow his misgivings to show; there was no need to spoil Will's joy from reuniting with his family.

Upon having reached the bay they made a detour from their course to retrieve the pinnace they had left on the beach when they parted. They found it intact, in the same place it was pulled on shore.

"I never asked you, Temeraire" Tharkay said "How did you know where to look for us?"

"I saw Will and Yongxing going to the forest when I returned to you" the dragon replied "I was going to follow them, but then the guards arrived and dragged you away and you were shouting Will's name, so I figured you need my help most"

"Right you were" Tharkay said "Although I still cannot imagine however did you manage to convince our friends to help us"

"Well" Temeraire said, shifting his weight form one foot to the other on the thwart of the boat, as Will and Tharkay pushed it onto the water "I assumed that when you will have sold the crown you will have the money to repay them"

Tharkay smirked. Sly beast. Obviously, that did not lessen his gratitude for the rescue in the slightest and he would be ready to give up a good part of his worldly possessions as a means of repaying the debt, but the fact that Granby did not offer even a slightest hint of awaiting payment led him to suspect that the outlaws from Snuggly Hatchling were even more benevolent than they wished to show.

"We need not make haste" Will said suddenly, when they rowed halfway to the harbour.

"Are you not in a hurry to be home?" Tharkay asked, raising his eyebrows.

"I mean, I am" Will said, quickly "But I have grown to enjoy the journey as well"

"That is a good quality for a wanderer" Tharkay replied quietly.

A wanderer, not a prince, the unspoken words hovered in the air and Tharkay momentarily regretted opening his mouth. They fell silent. The boat moved forward slowly, by the power of momentum. Will's gaze was absent as he looked at the island. Tharkay took his hand.

"I know you will do great there" he said "You are a bit too selfless for royalty, but you will get the hang of it"

"I am no fit for politics" Will said "Another proof that monarchy is a dud. I ought not to have any more right to take part in it than a randomly chosen citizen"

"My word" Tharkay said, corners of his mouth twitching as he tried not to chuckle "Allendale will have its first antimonarchist prince"

"I like the sound of it"

They reached the harbour. Manoeuvring between the docked vessels they struggled to find captain Lenton's ship and when they finally did, it was already late afternoon. Will feared the man may not be present on the ship anymore, but needlessly – his head appeared above the side of the ship at their “ship, ahoy!” when their boat drew up to his vessel.

"Please accept our sincerest apologies for the delay" Will said, with a look which sincerity even the Devil himself would not question.

Captain Lenton was apparently finishing the arsenal of liquor leftovers from the celebration and cordially accepted the apology. Upon being asked how did they find the spectacle, Will could offer no other reply but:

"Well, I will not lie if I say it was a life-changing experience"

They walked through the streets of the town, still quite busy, but almost deserted in comparison with the last time they saw them. Will felt his heart beat faster and faster as they neared the end of their journey and then finally the palace surrounded by the high, white marble wall appeared before their eyes. They stood in the shade of a near-by building, the gate already within their sight, but they themselves obscured from the view of the guards.

"I will wait here" Tharkay said.

"What? I thought you would come with me" Will said, frowning.

Tharkay shrugged.

"I am still a wanted criminal, you know" he said "My presence would not aid you. And I believe Temeraire should remain here for now as well"

"But I want to see the palace!" the dragon protested.

"You will get the chance" Tharkay replied "But it is quite likely the guards would not let you in anyway. You do look rather threatening now"

"I do?" Temeraire asked.

"Definitely"

"Well, then, I suppose I do not want to scare Will's family too much" Temeraire said graciously "I can wait"

Will looked at them unsurely. He was no prepared for walking into the palace and facing the royal family – his family – without their reassuring presence.

"Go, Goldilocks" Tharkay said, giving his hand a short squeeze "You will be fine"

Will took a deep breath.

"Alright" he said "I will see you soon"

He turned around and marched towards the guards, telling himself that it was entirely his place to do so. They eyed him dubiously when he stood before them.

"Good afternoon" he said, raising his head high "I have information about the King's missing son I have to deliver"

He did not know why he did not simply say 'I am William, the lost prince' which would probably open his way inside the palace much easier.

"Do you now?" one of the guards said.

"Yes"

The two men glanced at each other. The one who spoke to Will shrugged.

"You know the orders" he said to the other one.

They briefly searched Will, making sure he was not carrying any weapons. Not that there were many places he could hide them, still wearing his loose shirt, knee-length trousers and no shoes, except for maybe his satchel where he still had an apple and a couple of biscuits left from their provisions for the way.

Having decided that none of this can be used as a tool for a coup d’état should Will try to undertake one, the guards called another armed man to lead Will to the King and Queen.

As they walked into the palace Will's jitters immediately gave way to a powerful feeling of being very much out of place here. His bare feet made a sound very distinct from the smart and orderly patter of the guard's black, polished boots and the sound echoed in the tall corridors, their walls laden with tapestries and paintings.

They stood before a large, wooden door.

"Wait here" the guard ordered and after knocking loudly three times and hearing an invitation, went inside.

Will stood awkwardly, unsure what to do with himself. He tried to focus on the paintings decorating the walls, but he could not stop glancing at the door, knowing that his actual family and the life he was meant to lead were just a couple of steps away from him. And yet he could not help, but feel unwelcome and the impression only intensified when he finally got asked in and stood before the royal family.

The King was standing when he entered; the Queen stood up as well and took a couple of steps towards him. The two princes were also present, looking up from their books with moderate interest.

Will bowed slightly. The King's lips twitched minimally, and Will realized that maybe he was supposed to bow lower. Or maybe he should not have bowed at all; he was a prince after all. Or maybe he ought to have worn boots, he realized belatedly.

"My men tell me you have news of our son" the King said, doubt clear in his voice.

It did not scare Will. It did however consolidate his conviction that the King was not a pleasant man.

"I do, your Majesty" Will said, looking the King in the eye.

"What is your name?" the Queen asked.

Shifting one's gaze from the King to her felt like looking away from an arid, looming rockface to a sun setting behind a calm sea.

"Laurence, Your Majesty" Will said "Will Laurence"

"You know something about my son?" she asked hopefully.

"Yes, Your Majesty" Will replied "I..."

He hesitated. And then he finally knew why he did not introduce himself properly at the gates or upon entering the room; and he knew what he should say now.

"I..." he began once more "...was sent... to tell Your Majesties that he is well. He is safe and happy and wishes you all the best, but he cannot return home yet"

"What is that supposed to mean?" the King snapped.

"Do you know where he is?" the Queen asked at the same time "Do you know where my William is?"

"That is difficult to say, Your Majesty" Will said "But the lanterns have helped him find his way home once already"

"And I imagine you would like a reward for that groundbreaking piece of intelligence?" the King asked.

Will turned his stare back towards the man.

"The ability to serve the royal family is rewarding enough, Your Majesty" he said, unable to keep the hint of irony from his voice.

Not overly keen on waiting to find out whether that would or would not cost him his head, Will bowed once more.

"Your Majesties" he said and had sense enough only not to turn his back on them, but to walk out of the room half-bowed, still facing the astonished royal family.

As he walked back he no longer felt overwhelmed by the splendour of the palace. The tapestries now seemed overabundant and heavy, people in the paintings stiff and sour and their clothes quite uncomfortable-looking at best, ridiculous at worst. The windows were small and barred and provided little light, and even less air. He regretted nothing.

He heard quick footsteps behind him.

"Mr. Laurence!"

It was the Queen, hurrying after him at a pace probably rather incongruent with her dignity.

Looking at her kind, concerned face Will realized he did maybe regret one thing; he wondered what it would be like to have a mother.

He bowed his head once more; it seemed easier to bow to her than the King.

"Might I trouble you for a few more minutes, Mr. Laurence?" she asked.

"I am certain nothing Your Majesty does can ever be a trouble for anyone" he said, easily finding the respectful tone.

"You are very polite" she said "Walk with me, please"

She took him by the arm and led him through the corridors. Will could not help but glance at her from time to time, moved by finding more and more features of her face that he shared.

"The King is a good man, even if stern at times" the Queen said suddenly "Partially that is what makes him a good ruler"

"I do not doubt that, Your Majesty" Will said "I do hope I did not show any disrespect and I am sorry to have disappointed him and all of you"

"But you did not" the Queen said.

She stopped walking and turned towards Will.

"You were so very little when we lost you" she said "But I would recognise my son anywhere"

Will froze. Part of him wanted to deny everything and keep playing dumb; but another part felt that he could trust the Queen and that she would not insist on him staying, even if he confesses.

"I..." he uttered, still unable to choose what to say.

"I accept your choice" the Queen said "Even if it hurts me to let you go a second time. But I can see you have found happiness"

Will nodded, his throat clenched.

"I spent my entire life in confinement" he said finally "Now I am free and I have to use it the best I can before I give it up. I am sorry"

The Queen nodded. Slowly, hesitantly she lifted her hand and touched Will's cheek. She smiled.

"My little William" she said.

"Mother"

With a strength one might not suspect in woman of her size and stature she pulled Will into a tight hug. Will had to hunch to return it.

"Be careful" she said "Be safe and write to me, please"

"I will" Will replied "I will, I promise"

It definitely would be nice to have a mother.

 

***

 

When Will disappeared inside the palace, led by a guard, Tharkay waited for a few moments before he brought himself to stand up.

"Are you going to get us something to eat?" Temeraire asked lazily.

"I am afraid not" Tharkay said "I... I have to go, you see. Leave. There is no place for me in there, Temeraire"

"I am certain that is not correct; look at how big the palace is"

"This is not what I had in mind" Tharkay replied "The royalty may not have whoever they please, but rather who is chosen for them. Besides, I am a thief and a foreigner; I cannot hope to be accepted among the royalty"

"But... you cannot go away. What about Will? I thought you love him; and he loves you too"

"And I do not want to stand between him and his family, which I surely would if I followed him there"

"But..." Temeraire said, tilting his head; visibly perplexed "We are his family too"

Tharkay winced. He wished the dragon had not spoken those words; it did not at all help him, even though he was prepared for the parting, ever since Will told him of his discovery. It hurt him to leave without a goodbye, but this way it was better for Will.

"Goodbye, Temeraire" he said "Take care and look after him"

Temeraire sat miserably on his hindquarters, watching Tharkay as he walked away. He felt he ought to do something, but he had no idea what, apart from maybe flying after Tharkay and dragging him back.

He did not think it fair if Will's family told him whom he can fancy and whom he has to marry, since they were not there to care for him his whole life. And even if they were, why should they? Besides, they had no reason to dislike Tharkay in advance. Or at all. He had a nice face, even if foreign and he could be perfectly polite when he wanted to; he was intelligent and made Will happy and if he went away both him and Will were going to be miserable so that seemed wholly unreasonable and unnecessary.

Temeraire was still looking at where Tharkay disappeared from his eyes, when he heard familiar footsteps from behind him and Will's voice:

"Very well, we may go now"

The dragon looked back at him.

"Are we going to live in the palace?" he asked.

"No" Will replied, shaking his head "Not for a while at least"

"They did not want you there?" Temeraire asked "That is rude of them"

"Maybe they did" Will replied, shrugging "But I realized it would be utter foolishness to let myself be locked up once more, before having seen even a small fraction of what there is to see"

He looked around.

"Where has Tharkay gone off to?" he asked.

"Oh, oh! Will, we must go find him!"

"What?"

"He said that your family would not want him there and it is better if he goes away"

"Oh, did he really think that I would have that?!" Will exclaimed "What a... Temeraire, where did he go?"

Temeraire flew above the rooftops, while Will hurried down the cobblestone road, both looking all around to find the insufferable Tharkay.

"It is better if he goes away, what a half-wit" Will muttered to himself angrily "If he wants to go haring off he can say so to my face, that damned coward"

"He is at the eastern bridge" Temeraire announced, landing on the rooftop of a brick, one-storey building.

Will quickened his pace, manoeuvring between the people filling the street, running wherever he could. He saw the familiar figure as Tharkay walked off the bridge and onto the highway.

"Hey!" Will called, crossing the distance between them "Where do you think you are going?"

Tharkay turned around, with the expression of utmost surprise on his face.

"Will?" he asked "What are you doing here?"

"Chasing some moron " Will said, standing in front of him "who is, oh, so intelligent and yet daft enough to think that I would trade him for some kingdom"

Temeraire caught up with them, landing on the ground.

"I told you he would not like it" he said in a very complacent tone "I told you"

Tharkay looked from him to Will. Oh, how Will wished he could somehow preserve the astonished look on his face!

"I... I do not understand" Tharkay said.

"I politely declined the entire prince business" Will said, taking his hand "For now, anyway. Maybe if we get bored one day we can go live in a palace, though, frankly, I saw it and I can hardly think of anything more dull than living in a palace"

Tharkay stared at him for a few more seconds.

"But..." he said quietly "...your family?"

"They seem like decent people" Will replied, grinning "but I already have my family"

"I told you, I told you!" Temeraire chirped once more "You ought to listen to me more often. Everyone should"

"I will definitely have to keep that in mind in the future, indeed, Temeraire" Tharkay replied, slowly allowing a smile to appear on his lips.

"So, what say you?" Will asked, running his fingers through his hair and smiling somewhat uncertainly "Will you accept a pair of tag-alongs for the journey? Or... all the journeys?"

In response, Tharkay intertwined his fingers with Will's.

"I cannot wait to hear the account of your meeting with the King" he said, as they were walking away from the capital.

"This is not a long story" Will said, shrugging "And we have time aplenty. Where are we going, by the way?"

"Oh, that" Tharkay smiled mysteriously "Well, I hope you are not too tired of royals yet, because we are, in fact, due for a meeting with one"

 

***

 

The building they found themselves looking at after a weeks' journey looked however nothing like a palace, as far as Will could tell from his limited experience. It was undeniably more imposing than the other homesteads nearby, but not more so than other wealthy estates in the villages they passed on the way. The orchards, vegetable gardens, animal pens and stables that they could glimpse around the house proved that the residence was less than a manor and more of a wealthy farm, whose residents stayed anything but idle.

"Here we are" Tharkay said, as they stood in front of the opened gate "I am sorry, Temeraire, but you better wait here"

The dragon, now the size of a draft-horse muttered leniently, snuggling down on the shadowed patch of grass and curling comfortably. He would not be able to fit in there anyway, although Will was pretty sure the speed of the dragon’s growth was already decreasing.

"I am sure they will not mind getting you something to eat; we will let them know" Tharkay added as they walked towards the house.

"They have a deep respect towards dragons" he explained to Will a few days ago, when they entered the first village on their way "They are not a very often sight around here, but not so scarce as to cause fear when one is spotted"

The inside of the house was pleasantly cool and as soon as they entered, a neatly dressed man approached to ask them in an official tone if there is anything he can help them with.

"We came to see Mianning" Tharkay said "If you tell him Tharkay is here he will know what this is about"

They were led to a small living room and no sooner had they been served tea when Mianning himself appeared. He has obviously been pulled from field work, judging by his disarrayed hair and trousers grimed with soil and when he smiled widely seeing them, Will thought it will not be difficult to like him.

"Tharkay, my friend" he said in an official, but honest tone, crossing the distance between them in a few long steps and shaking Tharkay's hand "It would be an understatement if I said I was glad to see you"

"I am sure it would" Tharkay replied "Allow me to introduce to you – Will Laurence. He is my friend, who... aided the case"

Will shook Mianning's hand, amused by the fact that his unconscious involvement has been, of all options, described as 'aid'.

"Then he is my friend as well" Mianning said "I assume you managed to fulfil my request?"

"I managed to fulfil you commission" Tharkay corrected, smirking "But I reckon you will be interested in knowing that the situation has altered a bit. To your benefit, fortunately"

"Altered?" Mianning asked, frowning.

"The emperor is dead" Tharkay said.

Mianning stared at him. Then he sat down and leaned towards Tharkay, almost knocking the tea set down.

"Are you certain?" he asked "Who gave you that information?"

"I was there" Tharkay replied "We both were"

"It is true" Will added.

He felt neither grief, nor satisfaction at the mention of Yongxing's death. When he studied his emotions, all he could find was emptiness.

"Did... you kill him?" Mianning asked quietly.

"It can be said he died of old age" Tharkay replied evasively.

"Well, I will be damned. Or rather, will not" Mianning muttered, resting back in his chair "The Heavens must be acquiescent towards me"

"I dare say there is more to it than the acquiescence of Heavens or the lack of it" Tharkay said "Just like in this case"

He took out the crown, carefully wrapped in cloth (and previously cleaned of breadcrumbs) and laid it on the table. Mianning took it with careful respect and unwrapped it.

"So this is it" he said "My ancestors' stolen legacy"

"I trust you will make good use of it" Tharkay said insouciantly.

"As do I" Mianning replied.

He laid the crown aside and invited them to eat and drink and even though they could not complain about the lack of hospitality heretofore, it doubled now that Mianning received the satisfying news and he was more than generous when asked to provide Temeraire with something to eat.

"What are you going to do when you have your throne?" Will asked with curiosity.

"Oh, I had years to figure out what I would do then" Mianning replied "My uncle has done a great job of keeping our country self-sufficient and reducing the foreign import, which economical benefits I shall not deny, but there is only so far a country can get with its own resources. I would like to open our borders to a more extended trade and diplomatic relations; both between our nearest neighbours and the overseas continents. But for that we would need a solid fleet and presently our ships are fit for a few-days' voyages at best – no chance of sailing to the farther lands"

He rubbed his chin thoughtfully, apparently already far away in the future with his mind.

"We do not have enough timber by far to create a bigger quantity of such vessels" he continued "But just behind the mountains we have an excellent source of wood of all kinds. However, when I think how many years uncle has been turning the envoys from Allendale away, I cannot imagine how we could establish relations with them"

"Well..." Will said slowly "With that I could probably be of some help"

Mianning stared at him.

"Are you a merchant by any chance?" he asked.

"Not at all, but..." Will hesitated "You may say I have friends in high places"

Tharkay snorted into his teacup.

"Well, all the more reason to call you my friend" Mianning said "Now, if you excuse me for a minute"

"I am not sure I see how simply getting the crown will make him the emperor" Will said quietly when Mianning left the room.

"Getting the crown itself will not" Tharkay replied "Mianning decided to use Yongxing's weapon against him: the late emperor claimed that his immortality is a work of some higher power, a part of some ineffable plan or whatnot; a blessing, which silenced a lot of voices that were still upset about his seizing the reign by force, even after years of being the Emperor"

He seemed slightly amused while saying this.

"Kings often like to claim themselves chosen by a god or gods of choice" Tharkay explained "Yongxing is nowise alone in this"

"So... by taking the crown from him, even illegally, could deliver the message that Yongxing's reign is... no longer desired or supported by... a higher power?" Will asked uncertainly.

"Something of the sort, I suppose" Tharkay replied "And now that Yongxing is dead, it will seem even more obvious"

"Or maybe the Heavens is aiding him indeed" Will said.

Tharkay glanced at him.

"I find it difficult to argue with those words said by a man who is a living casts doubt on everything I used to believe in" he said "Maybe you are right"

"But... I thought you disapproved of monarchy" Will said "Why are you helping Mianning then?"

"Because he hired me to do so" Tharkay replied "I do not delude myself that I can change the world in this particular matter. He seems like a reasonable fellow, he has every chance of being a good ruler, but that does not mean I pledge my loyalty to him or his successors"

Mianning came back, carrying an inconspicuous-looking box made of mahogany wood. Its appearance betrayed nothing of its contents, seeing which Will felt glad they told Temeraire to wait outside, for the dragon, with its newfound addition to shiny objects would surely find it impossible to remain tranquil.

However, even not being a dragon, Will found it very enjoyable to look at the smooth, shining surfaces of the gold bars that were put in the box.

Tharkay glanced at them and nodded with satisfaction. He took the box and slid it into the satchel.

"Well, I would hate to see you leave after so fruitful a visit" Mianning said standing up "But I fear there are many things I have to see to now"

"Understandable" Tharkay said.

Mianning walked them to the gate where he apparently wanted to bid them farewell, but he stopped dead in his tracks when he saw Temeraire napping under the maidenhair tree.

"As I live and breathe" he breathed out, staring at the dragon "You did not say your friend is a Celestial"

Temeraire lifted his head, apparently his nap not so deep as to not hear when he was being talked about.

"Hello, my name is Temeraire" he said politely "What is yours?"

Mianning bowed deeply.

"Welcome, Temeraire, it is an honour to meet you" he said "I am Mianning"

"What was that you called him?" Will asked with curiosity.

"Why, a Celestial" Mianning said "The rarest and most remarkable of dragon races. My grandfather met one, once, but I have never thought I would be so fortunate as to encounter one as well"

Temeraire bowed his head modestly, clearly very much content with the respect he heard in Mianning's tone.

"If you should ever care to visit my home again, you are more than welcome to do so" Mianning said.

"Oh, certainly, that is ever so polite of you" Temeraire replied "We have an awful lot of places to visit, but we will definitely come here again someday. May we, Will?"

"I cannot see why not" Will said "We have all the time in the world"

 

***

 

Tharkay has been trying to figure out what to do with the money for a good while, even before he actually got them. The initial concept of stowing himself away in some desolated estate did not posses its previous appeal. It still possessed some appeal, but right now neither the settled, nor the solitary life seemed too alluring to him.

However, Mianning's mention of his plans to create a fleet did give him an idea.

Another two weeks later they entered the Snuggly Hatchling inn, with a considerably lighter purse and a proposition to make.

"A ship?!" Tom exclaimed, jumping up to his feet.

"A very fine vessel" Will said with a smile "In impeccable shape and only in need of a crew. We promised her previous captain she will be in good hands and we hoped those would be yours, if you would have that"

Neither Tom, nor the rest of the frequenters needed long persuasions. Berkley took the position of the chief cook upon himself; John Granby – the commander, Catherine agreed to put her plan of getting back in the flower business aside for a while in exchange for the position of nothing lesser than a first mate, to which Tom agreed with suspicious lack of opposing.

It took everyone a while to learn the proper management of a vessel and, more troublesome, the upholding of discipline necessary to sail it, but they managed nevertheless and soon made a fine crew of which the captain could not complain (too much).

Will did not know what kind of future would have awaited for him had he decided to go back to the palace and live the life he was supposed to lead, but as he looked at the deck of the ship from the crow's nest Will thought he would not trade it for any palace in the world.

"Thought I might find you here" Tharkay said, climbing up to the platform.

Will moved to make room for him.

"Happy birthday, Will" Tharkay said, leaning against him as they looked at the horizon, rested against the handrail.

"Again?" Will asked.

"Well, you know, it is kind of an annual thing"

Will bumped his shoulder against Tharkay's.

"I meant: so soon" he said "This year has passed so quickly, I can hardly believe"

"Tell me about it; I died" Tharkay said.

"And I know, in terms of gifts we can hardly complain about the lack of anything" he continued after a while "But I thought of something. It is not really a present... it is pretty much worthless, considering...”

"Tenzing, you do not need to give me anything" Will said quickly.

"Please do not interrupt me; I am trying to make an introduction here"

Will smiled apologetically and Tharkay realized all the carefully prepared words have fled from his mind. He leaned forward and pressed a soft kiss against Will's lips. They have kissed many times since that first one in the tower, almost a year ago, yet it has never ceased to make small fireworks go off in their chests every time.

"Marry me, Goldilocks" Tharkay breathed out, before he forgot what he had to say once more.

Will did not know what kind of future would have awaited for him had he decided to go back to the palace and live the life he was supposed to lead. But it certainly was not the most rollicking wedding the sea has ever seen (neither was it the first or the last on the deck of their ship, though once they had to call at a port, since Tom Riley could not quite preside over his own wedding); it was not a group of lawfully-wise dubious folks cheering loudly for him and Tharkay; it was not Temeraire curled on the sterndeck to watch the ceremony as well; it was not the hours and hours of singing and dancing and piano music playing until dawn with one hand and one hook.

It definitely was not waking up to the sight of the sun on the horizon, next to an outlaw he was married to, with nothing and everything ahead of them, with not a shred of a plan, effable or ineffable, for the rest of his life, apart from his strong intention of living happily ever after.

And they did.