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Tharkay was the son of a British gentleman, a man of property and possibly a senior officer, and a Nepalese woman. His father may have come from the border region of Scotland, as Tharkay showed some familiarity with an estate there for purposes of requisitioning cattle to feed the Aerial Corps' dragons during Napoleon's occupation of Britain (December 1807-March 1808). (There appear to have been some similarities between the life of Tharkay's father and that of the Scottish adventurer and diplomat, George Bogle.)
Tharkay's father took some pains with his son's education, and Tharkay spoke English with an upperclass accent, but Tharkay was not accepted as a British gentleman by others. At some point in his life he was embroiled in a lawsuit in Scotland and became "tolerably familiar" with the Court of Session in Edinburgh, Scotland's highest civil court. He once told Temeraire, rather sardonically, that lawyers were translators one hires to "say things properly", then added that, "Justice is expensive. That is why there is so little of it, and that reserved for those few with enough money and influence to afford it."
Tharkay's lawsuit apparently failed, and he went on to spend "the better part of his life in the wild places of the earth" as an experienced and highly competent traveler with a command of many languages, including Chinese, Turkish and the dragon language Durzagh (which he taught to Temeraire). He considered himself answerable to no authority but his own conscience and, in contrast to Laurence, had little "natural inclination" to hold himself "responsible for the sins of the world", rather than for his own.
In appearance Tharkay possessed a lean and angular face with somewhat Oriental features. His eyes were dark and slanting, but more Western in shape than Chinese, and although his skin was "much like polished teak wood" in colour, this was mainly due to sun and weather. He had something of a fondness for taming birds of prey. When Laurence first met him in the summer of 1806, he had an eagle as a companion, although she was later killed in an avalanche in the Pamirs inadvertently caused by Temeraire. Later on, during Napoleon's occupation, he acquired a kestrel.
At one point in his life Tharkay formed a romantic attachment to Sara Maden, the daughter of Istanbul banker Avraam Maden. He may have proposed marriage, as when she decided to marry another, whether by her own wishes or out of respect for her parents' wishes, he told her he would not "ask again."
The Journey to Istanbul
Tharkay often carried messages for the East India Company and others during his travels. He and Laurence first met in Macao in the summer of 1806, when Tharkay appeared at the offices of the East India Company to deliver orders sent by Admiral Lenton from the Dover covert. The orders had been forwarded by way of Charles Arbuthnot, the British ambassador in Istanbul, and of Avraam Maden, who in turn had given them to Tharkay to deliver. Laurence and Temeraire were ordered to proceed without delay to Istanbul, there to receive by Mr. Maden's offices three dragon eggs which the British government had purchased from Sultan Selim III. Unfortunately, the dragon transport HMS Allegiance had just been severely damaged in a fire and would require at least two months of repairs. Against the advice of Captain Riley and George Staunton, Laurence, Granby and Temeraire decided to make the journey to Istanbul overland, hiring Tharkey as their guide. The latter was initially reluctant to accept the commission, saying that he "had not thought of returning to Istanbul" and had "no real business there." However, he eventually agreed.
Tharkay proved to be an expert guide, bringing the company through the Taklamakan desert and the Pamir Mountains to Istanbul with only two men lost, Macdonaugh and Baylesworth. However, his manner and behaviour initially caused Laurence to distrust him. Experience had taught Tharkay that his face and descent barred him "from the natural relations of gentlemen," who treated him at best as "a superior servant, somewhere between a valet and a trained dog." Knowing that he would not be trusted, he had formed "a habit of anticipation" and preferred to rather "provoke a little open suspicion, freely expressed, than meekly endure endless slights and whispers."
Tharkay's political views were also somewhat different from those held by Laurence. Laurence, who was the son of a wealthy British lord and whose claim to a gentleman's status had never been questioned, had a deep faith in the rule of law in Britain and was convinced of Bonaparte's tyranny. Tharkay, on the other hand, thought it "quixotic" of the French "to have chosen to be unjust to the noble and the rich, in favour of the common," but this did not seem to him to be "naturally worse; or, for that matter, likely to last long."
As a result, when Tharkay was discovered to have gone missing in the desert just before the appearance of several horsemen armed with sabres and bows, Laurence immediately assumed that he meant to abandon the party. This suspicion remained even after they followed the horsemen's tracks and found Tharkay waiting for them at a sardoba (store of water). Laurence was thus completely baffled when, during the horsemen's attack that night, Tharkay fought beside the British with gun and knife. On reaching the town of Yutien, Laurence tried to make Tharkay promise that he would not leave camp again without permission. Instead, Tharkay immediately exposed the weakness of Laurence's bargaining position by politely offering to part ways with the British, leaving them to spend perhaps as much as three weeks trying to hire a local guide. With no time to spare, Laurence was forced to keep Tharkay on as their guide.
Tharkay disappeared again in Istanbul, reappearing again just after Dunne and Hackley had been flogged. Furious, Laurence told him to take his money and possessions and go - only to once again be brought up short, since Tharkay had returned carrying a dinner invitation from Avraam Maden. Laurence needed to speak with Maden, and he needed Tharkay to bring him to Maden's home. After the dinner, they returned to the palace in which they were being held as "guests" (prisoners) and were about to climb back over the wall when they were spotted by Turkish guards. Tharkay risked his own life to save Laurence's, leading him through an abandoned underground waterway in order to escape the guards.
It was because of this incident that Laurence, realizing that Tharkay was intentionally setting himself up to be distrusted, offered to exchange oaths with Tharkay, promising "to give no less than full measure of loyalty" in return for the same. To Laurence, raised to serve his country but also to believe that he would be respected for his service, Tharkay appeared to have been driven "to abandon country and companionship for his present solitary existence, beholden to none and of none." In Laurence's view of the world, this existence must necessarily have been "utterly barren, a waste of a man proven worthy of something better" (i.e., something more interlinked with human society).
Tharkay appeared to be somewhat surprised that Laurence was willing to treat him as an equal in this way, but accepted the exchange of oaths. He was also surprised to learn that Temeraire had come to think of him as one of the crew. It became clear that the Sultan would not willingly release the three dragon eggs purchased by the British, so Laurence decided to steal them. The eggs were being kept in the palace baths for warmth, but none of British knew exactly where the baths were, and scouting them out would be extremely dangerous. When Temeraire decided that none of his crew could be allowed to undertake so dangerous a mission, Tharkay volunteered - only to have Temeraire snap, "Not you either!"
It must have been rather disconcerting to Tharkay to realize that, willy-nilly, he was no longer a solitary outsider but had become part of the company.
Twenty Feral Dragons
Tharkay helped Laurence, Granby and other crew members retrieve the eggs from the baths, suffering a bad burn on one leg in this action. He then escaped with them and Temeraire first to Austria, then Prussia. On arriving in Prussia, however, they were refused the promise of safe passage that would have allowed them to continue on to Britain. The British Aerial Corps had promised the Prussians the assistance of twenty dragons, but had "mysteriously" failed to deliver. (The Aerial Corps did not want the word getting out that all its dragons had been stricken with the Dragon Plague.) Instead, the Prussians detained the party, and Laurence chose to participate in the coming battles under Prussian command. Tharkay chose to leave the company in Dresden, telling Laurence that being untrained, he would be little more than a dangerous nuisance in aerial battle.
He returned to the Pamir Mountains, where he located the band of feral dragons, led by Arkady, who had previously accompanied Temeraire from the Pamirs to Istanbul. He persuaded twenty of them to return to Prussia with him through "vanity and greed." Arkady was "not unhappy to engage himself to rescue Temeraire," as Tharkay explained to Laurence when he and ferals located Temeraire in the middle of the Siege of Danzig. Furthermore, Tharkay promised the ferals that they should each receive one cow every day while they remained in service to the British, a far richer diet than they would have been able to manage for themselves in their home territory.
With the assistance of the feral dragons, Temeraire and Laurence were able to rescue General Kalkreuth's troops from Danzig before the French invaded. The British party then finally continued on the last leg of their journey home to Britain, along with Tharkay, the ferals and Iskierka, a Kazilik whose egg - one of the eggs stolen from Istanbul - had hatched in Prussia and who had been harnessed by Granby. They landed in Scotland, near Edinburgh, in late December 1806.
Britain and Napoleon's Invasion
Laurence wished Tharkay to stay on in Britain and serve as translator for the feral dragons, now needed to patrol the coasts since all of the British dragons had been stricken by the Dragon Plague. But Tharkay did not find such work sufficiently interesting, and instead arranged with Admiral Jane Roland that he should return to Turkestan to attempt to recruit more feral dragons on the same terms as the first batch.
While in Istanbul on this journey, Tharkay had an interesting piece of equipment made for him, particularly useful when flying with groups of dragons. This was a long double strap of thick leather, attached to the harness of the dragon with whom he was flying, which he could clip to the waist of his own harness before leaping to the back of another dragon. Safely landed, he could unclip the strap, whose loose end the first dragon could then catch up and wrap around her or his forearm.
Laurence and Tharkay were not to meet again until December 1807, shortly after Napoleon's invasion of Britain. Laurence, under sentence of death for treason, had been imprisoned first on the HMS Goliath and then, after the Goliath was sunk, temporarily in Dover. Tharkay had returned from the Pamirs three weeks earlier, with another dozen ferals for British service, and had been commissioned as a captain in the Aerial Corps. Admiral Roland had sent him and Gherni, one of Arkady's ferals, to Dover to retrieve Laurence, with the plan of sending Laurence in turn to the Pen Y Fan Breeding Grounds to bring back Temeraire.
During a break in their return flight to the British forces headquarters, Tharkay offered to have "not found" Laurence. Laurence refused, saying that to run away would be to make himself "truly a traitor." Tharkay pointed out that Laurence was a traitor and that allowing himself to be put to death might be "a form of apology", but it did not make him less guilty. Laurence did not know what to say to this, and they continued on their way.
Roland's plan did not turn out quite as she foresaw, since none of the humans knew yet that Temeraire had raised a regiment of unharnessed dragons, but in any case, Temeraire and Laurence were soon back in the thick of battle, along with Granby, Iskierka, Tharkay and the ferals.
Tharkay was aboard Arkady when Iskierka and the ferals decided to turn back towards London, occupied by Napoleon's troops, and do a little private raiding while the rest of the British forces fled northwards. When Granby and Iskierka were captured, the ferals managed to escape, and Tharkay and Gherni located Temeraire and Laurence to tell them what had happened. Laurence and Tharkay snuck into London to effect a rescue, which they managed successfully except for the death of Bertram Woolvey, the husband of Laurence's former sweetheart.
Shortly after this, Laurence agreed to accept unwritten orders from General Wellesley to undertake a kind of guerrilla warfare, knowing that the tactics Wellesley demanded violated all rules of "civilized warfare" (if such a thing can be said to exist). The ferals remained on patrol duty until nearly two months later, in the first week of March 1808, Tharkay and Arkady with three other ferals for escort arrived with a message from Wellesley for Laurence.
Wellesley intended that Laurence should make use of them in carrying out the guerrilla tactics, but Tharkay refused, pointing out ironically that he - unlike Laurence - had not "the luxury of setting aside, for a time, the veneer of civilization." "A temporary viciousness" that "may be pardonable in a gentleman, even admirable," would brand Tharkay "forever a savage." Tharkay then asked Laurence quite plainly, "What are you doing?" indicating his unwillingness to come under Laurence's command, as long as Laurence's modus operandi remained unchanged.
Tharkay's independent habits of thought are further illustrated in the ensuing exchange with Laurence, as he displays no compunction against reliance upon a personal and idiosyncratic moral code, rather than an external one, in stark contrast with Laurence who balks at the notion of having "no authority but your own conscience".
Six days later, the British forces met Napoleon's troops at the Battle of Shoeburyness and expelled the French from Britain. In order to cover Napoleon's escape, the Celestial Lung Tien Lien used the Divine Wind to destroy almost all of Admiral Horatio Nelson's fleet.
Suspicious of Temeraire both for his political organizing and for his ability to replicate Lien's feat, the government agreed to commute Laurence's death sentence to transportation and labour in Australia on the condition that he take Temeraire with him. They were sent aboard the Allegiance, which was serving as a prison ship for the journey and carrying many, many other convicts.
Somewhat to Laurence's surprise, Tharkay also chose to travel aboard the Allegiance. Technically he travelled as Captain Riley's guest, Riley's wife Captain Harcourt had formally introduced them. Tharkay gave to Laurence only the excuse that he was "tolerably well in pocket, at present," thanks to Admiral Roland's generosity, and that since he had never been to Australia, the journey tempted him. Why he had selected the Allegiance for the voyage, when his funds would have allowed him to choose otherwise, he did not say. There is sufficient indication that he was motivated by a deep and profound respect for Laurence's character, and as a matter of conscious choice decides to remain in the latter's immediate circle of companionship: "Wanderlust might drive a man across the ocean or to the furthest edge of the world; it would not drive him aboard a ship with one he despised, when funds would have allowed him to choose his passage."
East India Company
Once the company reached New South Wales, Tharkay finally revealed to Laurence that he had taken a commission from the East India Company to uncover a smuggling ring in the new colony. The company was losing a steady amount of money from the smuggling, and Tharkay feared it was Lung Tien Lien or her supporters in China that were funneling goods through an unknown port in the Australian continent. Laurence, a seaman himself, knew trade was greatly important to Britain and if the French had found away around them, it would greatly impact Britain's economy.
Once the smugglers stole one of the three Aerial Corps eggs, Tharkay and the aviators shared a common goal. He helped them track a band of smugglers across the entire continent. Laurence remarked on Tharkay's prodigious tracking abilities and said he would not have believed it. Even Temeraire, who had great eye-sight, was not able to notice the things Tharkay could notice.
Eventually the group arrived at Larrakia, where Tharunka had lately hatched, and discovered that the Chinese government was using trained sea-serpents to ship goods to the port, from where they'd be shipped all over the world, including Portugal and the United States. With this intelligence, Tharkay took his leave of Laurence and Temeraire's company so he could return to Bombay. He gave Laurence the address of his lawyers, and said he hoped they would meet again.
According to the non-canonical drabbles, Tharkay's father called him "George," but he refused to accept it. The personal name he uses is "Tenzing" in honor of his Nepalese mother, though it is unclear what is on his birth certificate (if he had one).