Dragonchoice 3 teaser chapter
This chapter is taken from the final story in the Dragonchoice trilogy, Dragonchoice 3: Weyrleader of Pern.
The full story is coming soon…
Chapter Three: C’mine
The sun had been up for some time when he finally came awake, though no morning light could penetrate the depths of the cavern, nor breach the tangle of sheets and pillows in which he lay. It took the first touch of the sun rays cresting the Rim to wake Darshanth, and then the blue dragon’s own persistent urging to goad him out of the comforting void of unconsciousness.
If he ignored him, he thought foggily, he’d give up.
Darshanth pushed harder at him. Wake up.
He pushed back. Go away.
Wake up, C’mine.
The shove that accompanied the command was too firm for him to ignore, and reluctantly, unhappily, C’mine let it propel him into wakefulness.
You’re late, Darshanth told him.
There’d been a time when such a warning would have snapped him into high alert. Punctuality is the soul of civility. If he’d cared to try, he could probably have summoned up the ascetic face of the Harper journeyman whose adage that had been from the depths of a memory twenty Turns old.
He didn’t care.
As he dragged a hand across his face, feeling the scruff of three-day stubble, his elbow came into contact with something – something that yielded and shifted and complained drowsily – and he was still just sleepy enough, just groggy enough, just stupefied enough that for a tiny shining fragment of a second he could believe that the last nine months had been nothing more than a hideous dream, and when he sat up and looked over…
Mine, said Darshanth; sorrowful, regretful.
The fantasy evaporated, bursting like a bubble under Darshanth’s touch. For one repellent moment C’mine hated him for it with all the passion in the world. And then the guilt broke over him in a sickening rush, and he reached out helplessly to his dragon in self-loathing shame.
Darshanth wrapped his thoughts close, a grip closer even than the tight clasp he’d maintained for more than half a Turn now, accepting the remorse, smothering it, dismissing it.
I didn’t mean it, Darshanth. I love you. I love you.
I know. I know. I know.
C’mine clung to his steadfastness until the nausea passed. I don’t deserve you.
Darshanth bore it patiently for a long moment, and then, softly, nudged him away. You’re late, he reminded him.
C’mine gathered himself. Another phrase flashed into his mind. Face the day. Master Isnan’s advice. Rising may be the hardest part, but you must face the day. It was ragged around the edges, dog-eared and torn from the number of times C’mine had rejected it in despair. But this morning, this time, he would let it guide him.
The weyr was unfamiliar; the fact that it was, less so. He’d stopped – or perhaps never started – counting the number of strange places in which he’d woken recently: first amongst friends, then amidst wineskins, and now…now, with whichever rider had been luckless enough to share a flight with him. In that, Darshanth had been more than obliging, and if C’mine suspected that his dragon chased as often and as ardently as he did for his rider’s sake, not his own, he was too selfishly grateful to dissuade him. He liked to think that he’d retained enough self-awareness to know that his acquaintance with the whiskey jar and the ale jug couldn’t go on indefinitely, but in his most candid moments he knew he couldn’t have given up flights. A dragonrider enjoyed many privileges over other men: the surrender of self to a dragon’s passion was one of them.
Even that wasn’t all of the truth. Darshanth didn’t always win. Sometimes he was tired, sometimes there was a faster dragon, sometimes the green wanted a different mate. Sometimes, C’mine was sure, Darshanth just wasn’t sincere in his desire. It did a blue no harm to lose, but where there were other losers, there were other riders, and where there were other riders, C’mine didn’t have to cope with the frustration alone. It was a poor substitute for the real thing. But poor substitutes were all he had now. They were all he would ever have.
Face the day.
Darshanth had won yesterday’s flight, a sundowner, late in the light summer evening, flown westward into the setting sun. He’d outsmarted two bronzes – C’mine recalled that much – and the rest was a blur, so indistinct from a dozen other flights like it that he couldn’t even remember if the green’s rider had been a man or a woman.
Woman, Darshanth said, negating the need for C’mine to look too closely. You’re late for the Wing briefing. Valth’s rider wants to know where you are.
Wing briefing. C’mine felt the familiar apathy creep over him at the prospect. Tell him we had a flight.
Valth says you’re to come to the briefing room immediately.
C’mine threw off the sheet that had been covering him and swung his legs off the edge of the mattress. From the other side of the bed, his partner of the previous night mumbled sleepily. He ignored her, and picked up his clothes from the floor. The trousers were grubby and wrinkled, and the shirt not much better. Good enough. He dressed in the dimness of the strange weyr and, inattentively buttoning his shirt, walked out towards the light.
It was a high one, far up on the northern face of the Bowl, inaccessible by anything but dragonback. The brilliant rays of the mid-morning sun, above and behind, bathed the opposite wall of the Madellon crater in golden light, and deepened the shadows of the north and east quadrants.
Darshanth awaited him on the ledge, silver-blue and beautiful even in shadow. He was still half-twined with his latest mate, but as C’mine emerged he disentangled himself from the dozing green dragon with practised ease. He dropped onto his forehand, arching his back in a languorous stretch, then tilted his elbow to C’mine. Come.
No harness, C’mine noted, stepping onto the blue’s forearm.
No shoes, Darshanth countered.
C’mine glanced down at his bare feet as he swung up onto Darshanth’s neck. Epherineth’s weyr.
T’kamen’s bronze was the only other dragon on the ledge when Darshanth glided down to land. He turned his head to regard them impassively. He didn’t make a sound. Epherineth had never been a vocal dragon. But once C’mine had dismounted, and before Darshanth took off again, bronze and blue gravely touched muzzles.
F’halig was waiting outside the door of the ready-room, adjacent to T’kamen’s office. C’mine dipped his head, but there was no avoiding the Wingsecond. F’halig extended his arm across the doorway, blocking the way, before he could go through. “We started ten minutes ago.”
“We had a flight,” C’mine murmured.
“Last night. That doesn’t give you an excuse this morning.”
C’mine kept his eyes fixed on the floor. “I’m sorry, sir.”
“Look at me, blue rider.”
Slowly, C’mine raised his eyes to F’halig’s.
F’halig condemned him with a glance. “Late. Dirty gear. Unshaven.” He ticked each infringement off on his fingers. “And where are your shoes?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“You’re a sharding disgrace, C’mine.”
“This can’t go on.”
F’halig stared at him. It wasn’t the first time they’d had this confrontation, or a variation of it, in the last two sevendays. “Every time you do this you let the Weyrleader down. Do you understand that?”
C’mine just looked at him.
F’halig gave up. He withdrew his arm from the doorway. “Get in there.”
It was a mark of how the riders of the Weyrleader’s Wing had come to expect C’mine’s tardiness that none of them looked askance as he preceded F’halig into the ready-room. B’ward, the other Wingsecond, didn’t pause as he wrote daily orders on the blackboard. V’mersin and Z’fell said nothing as C’mine took the empty seat between them. And T’kamen, his fist propped against his temple where he sat at the head of the room, only glanced up once to register C’mine’s belated arrival before he returned his attention to the slate in front of him.
“Now we’re all here,” F’halig began, with a censorious glare in C’mine’s general direction.
C’mine didn’t pay much attention to the briefing. The Wing drilled, in full or in part, only every other day; this was an off-day. T’kamen’s attendance was itself the most noteworthy thing. Preoccupied as he clearly was, T’kamen may as well have been absent in fact as well as in mind, and if that was the example he intended to set, C’mine had no issue with following it.
He and Darshanth had served under three different Wingleaders before T’kamen, mostly through the restructuring that came with a change in Weyrleader. F’drov had been their first, a titan of his era and still spoken of as the finest bronze rider never to become Weyrleader of Madellon. Then they’d been traded off to R’yeno on account of Darshanth’s Search sensitivity, missing by a matter of sevendays T’kamen’s first promotion to Wingleader. In the chaotic days of L’dro’s misguided premiership they’d been transferred yet again to fly under the erratic authority of L’pay, a brown rider elevated far beyond his competence. It had taken T’kamen’s overdue ascension to the Weyrleadership to secure them a place under his direct command, and even that had been delayed by their brush with death in the wildfire at Kellad Hold last Turn’s End. It was the assignment they’d wanted – that T’kamen had promised them – ever since that day more than fourteen Turns past when three young men had bedded down in the weyrling barracks for the very first time, their newly-Hatched dragonets beside them, and made the grandest of plans for the future.
Now one of the three was gone, and with him every hope and every dream C’mine had ever had.
“C’mine.” V’mersin’s elbow in his ribs interrupted his bitter introspection.
He lifted his eyes from the featureless back of the rider on the bench in front of him. F’halig and B’ward were both looking at him: B’ward expectant, F’halig severe. From the front bench, Edrann averted her gaze with a wince, and Suzallie shook her head. “Sir?”
“I said, you have the afternoon watch tomorrow,” said B’ward. “Is that going to be a problem?”
T’kamen’s junior Wingsecond didn’t yet disapprove as openly as F’halig, but C’mine supposed it was only a matter of time. “No, sir. It’s not a problem.”
“See that it isn’t,” B’ward said. “Does anyone have any other business?”
No one did. F’halig turned to T’kamen, still absorbed in his record slate at the table up front. “Wingleader?”
“Nothing from me,” T’kamen replied, not looking up.
F’halig nodded and sketched a salute. “See you all at tomorrow’s briefing, an hour into forenoon. Wing dismissed.”
“C’mine,” T’kamen said, amidst the scraping of bench legs and burst of chatter that always accompanied the Wing’s release. “Stay a minute.”
C’mine had already started to rise from his place. He stopped halfway between sitting and standing, then sank back onto the seat.
Now you’ll catch it, said Darshanth.
T’kamen continued to study his slate as the rest of the Wing filed out around them. Only when the last rider had gone, closing the door behind her, did he finally push it away. He looked at the chalkboard, then at a bench that someone had left crooked, and finally he looked directly at C’mine. “What am I going to do about you?”
T’kamen’s expression combined disappointment and sadness in a whole that shamed C’mine more deeply than any amount of F’halig’s contempt ever would. He would have liked to look away, but T’kamen’s stare wouldn’t be broken. “I don’t know, Kamen.”
“Faranth, C’mine,” T’kamen said shortly. “Don’t Kamen me.” He shoved his chair abruptly back, and added, “Not you too.”
C’mine just watched mutely as he paced the length of the ready-room in quick, loping, agitated strides.
When he turned back towards him, T’kamen wore a grim mask. “If you were anyone else,” he said, “anyone else at all, I’d send you to Jessaf to sit on a fire-height for a season, and see how you sharding well liked that.”
“If you think that’s best,” C’mine said dully. “Weyrleader.”
“So you do remember that part, do you?” T’kamen asked. “The part where I’m your Weyrleader?” He hammered his fist on his thigh, and C’mine flinched. “Well, do you?”
“Yes,” he replied. He swallowed. “Of course I do.”
“And you remember what we went through to get me here? Do you remember that? You and me and him?”
C’mine could feel the colour mounting in his face and the choking lump rising in his throat. “Yes.”
“Then why the shaff are you doing this to me?”
The room reverberated with the force of T’kamen’s ire. C’mine shrank from it. His cheeks burned with stifled reaction. “It’s not about you.”
“No?” T’kamen stepped forwards, his shoulders squared like an angry dragon mantling his wings. “Then who is it about? Because if he were here to see you like this he’d be tearing off a strip bigger and bloodier than I could ever dream of.”
C’mine heard himself groan – at the name left unspoken, at the fact that even T’kamen feared to speak it to his face – and somewhere nearby Darshanth, helplessly immersed in his misery, uttered a soft cry of despair.
T’kamen tilted his head to the sound. “The way you involve him in this,” he said critically. Disgustedly. “The way you drag him down into your void. How can you do that to your dragon, C’mine? Do you think you’re the only man who ever lost his weyrmate? I miss him too!”
“Not the way I do,” C’mine said. He ground the words out. “You didn’t love him the way I did. No one did.”
T’kamen took a breath, and then the rage went out of him all at once. “I know. Faranth, C’mine, I know.” He stared at him from across the room, his mouth twisted in a grimace of his own grief. “But this attitude you’ve been pulling, the last couple of sevendays. Missing Wing briefings; chasing tail indiscriminately; wandering around the Weyr half-dressed and unshaven and looking like shit. If he were here now he wouldn’t even have you in his weyr. He’d kick your ass all the way down one side of the Bowl and up the other until you got a hold of yourself.”
C’mine looked pleadingly at the man who was now his oldest friend. “But he’s not here now. So what’s the point?”
“The point, C’mine? How about being a good rider to your dragon? Doing your duty to your Weyr? What about the responsibility you have to Carleah? To the Weyrwoman? To me?”
“I don’t think I’m strong enough for all that any more.”
“Whershit,” said T’kamen. “I have to be the Weyrleader, and a Wingleader, and Epherineth’s rider, and your friend; and I’ve never been as good a man as you.”
“Don’t say that,” C’mine begged.
“I will say it. As your friend, I’ll say it as many times as it takes to get it through your skull.” T’kamen folded his arms. “And as your Weyrleader and your Wingleader, I’ll say this. I don’t want to punish you, C’mine. Faranth knows you’ve been through enough. But you have to help me out here. F’halig’s been complaining about you for sevendays, and I can’t keep turning a blind eye to your conduct. It’s bad for you, it’s bad for morale, and it makes me look weak. That’s how he’d have called it, and he was a better judge than you and me put together.” He paused, perhaps expecting some sort of encouraging response, and when C’mine didn’t offer one, shook his head. “Do you need more time? Do you want a change of scenery? Faranth, do you want to go and watchride at Jessaf for a couple of sevendays, just to get you out of the Weyr?”
C’mine didn’t answer for a long minute. He looked past T’kamen, wondering vaguely if he would recognise a second source of guilt in his eyes. If you knew what I’d considered. “I don’t know,” he said at last, softly. “I don’t think anything would change how I feel.”
“It’s not about changing how you feel,” T’kamen said. “Just distracting yourself from it enough to function.” He laughed, cynical and incongruous. “I should take my own advice.”
Engrossed in his own sorrow though he was, C’mine’s empathy hadn’t deserted him entirely. “What happened?”
T’kamen’s eyes went taut and his mouth hard, the familiar signs of an old wound newly aggravated. “I ran into Saren by the paddocks.”
T’kamen’s jaw set even more tightly. The fact that he didn’t reply was answer enough.
“Have Epherineth chase a green,” C’mine suggested bitterly. “Darshanth can spare one.”
“That’s unworthy of you, C’mine. I’m not going find what I’m looking for in some random woman’s bed. Nor are you.”
“I know,” C’mine said. He didn’t speak aloud the thought that accompanied it: But that won’t stop me trying.
“What’s prompted this, C’mine?” T’kamen asked. “I’d thought you were doing all right. What’s happened?”
C’mine couldn’t lie to T’kamen, but he could give him half a truth. “Janina.”
“Janina?” T’kamen’s brow furrowed. “I didn’t know you were close to her.”
“I wasn’t. But when Amynth went between…”
He didn’t finish the sentence. He didn’t have to. “It brought it all back,” T’kamen realised. “I hadn’t thought… I suppose they were the first we’ve lost, since…”
“I couldn’t bear it,” said C’mine. “The keen.”
“I don’t know what to suggest, Mine,” T’kamen said. “Dragons are going to die from time to time. I can’t shield you from that. And I don’t really want to send you out of the Weyr. I’d rather have you where I can keep an eye on you.” He shook his head. “Not that I’ve been doing a very good job of that.”
“You’re the Weyrleader. You have bigger things to worry about –”
“I was your friend long before I was Weyrleader,” T’kamen told him. He raked his fingers frustratedly through his hair, staring at C’mine, as if trying to solve a puzzle. “Look,” he said finally. “I’ve got to go. I’m supposed to be at Blue Shale. But do one thing for me.”
“If I can,” C’mine said slowly.
“Valonna said you’re meeting with her later. Have a bath, have a shave, put on some clean clothes. Make yourself decent. Go to stores and find something new if you have to; you can tell the Headwoman I sent you if she gives you any trouble.” T’kamen was all business again, concern replaced by command. “But if I hear that you’ve gone to see the Weyrwoman looking like a holdless vagrant, I’ll put you on double watches and short rations myself. Valonna still thinks the world of you, and I won’t have you being a cause for alarm rather than a source of comfort.”
C’mine sat in the ready-room thinking about what he had said long after the bronze rider had gone. Of all the reproachful things T’kamen had thrown at him, the last was the most bruising. C’mine had never been a proud man, and less so now than ever, but the fact that T’kamen saw a need to warn him against causing Madellon’s fragile young Weyrwoman distress left him feeling deeply ashamed. In that, if in no other way, C’mine resolved not to fail himself.
Darshanth returned him to their weyr. The bathing room, once one of the nicest in Madellon, showed evidence of C’mine’s disinterest. The thick stench of damp permeated the place. The walls were patchy with mould, the sweetsand had gone bad, and a long-abandoned towel had acquired a black crop of mildew. The Headwoman would have been appalled, but C’mine hadn’t let anyone into his weyr in sevendays. It was still more than he had the will to tackle himself. He took his straight razor – the one toilet item he hadn’t neglected – and went to the communal bathing rooms.
By the time the afternoon watchdragon had flown up to the Rim to relieve the forenoon pair, C’mine had complied fully with T’kamen’s orders. He’d bathed and dressed, razored back into definition his slim beard and moustache, and even run a brush over the receding black fuzz of his hair. There was nothing he could do about the smooth burn scars on both cheeks, still paler than the unmarred skin, or the rougher healed claw marks on his chest and back, but then they were the marks of past valour, not present opprobrium.
C’mine presented himself at the Weyrwoman’s weyr looking better than he supposed he had in days, and if inside he didn’t feel much improved…well, he could keep that between himself and his dragon.
Face the day.
He wasn’t late to the meeting, but he was last. Shimpath, coiled on her ledge, regarded him with one emerald eye, and a moment later Valonna called out from inside, inviting him in. C’mine crossed the voluminous cavern that housed the senior queen’s couch and stepped through the archway that led to Valonna’s own living space.
“Blue rider,” Valonna said, rising from her seat and smoothing the skirts of her gown as she did.
In the next armchair, Sarenya greeted him by raising her klah mug. “Mine.”
He approached the young Weyrwoman and kissed her on both cheeks. “Thank you for inviting me, Valonna.”
“Thank you for coming,” she replied. “I know that you’ve been having a difficult time lately.”
So Valonna was aware of his recent dissipation. That stung. “It’s been a…rough patch,” he said. As a euphemism for his recent behaviour that was conveniently imprecise. He didn’t want to admit to anything more specific. Valonna didn’t need to know the whole truth.
“And are you feeling better now?” Valonna asked, looking anxiously up into his face.
He managed to smile. “A little, thank you.”
Valonna gestured for him to take the third armchair, between hers and Sarenya’s. “Can I pour you a cup of wine?”
C’mine flicked his eyes to the dusty bottle resting unopened on the table. “Just klah, if I could,” he said. He found he was able to keep his voice steady. He sat down, averting his gaze from the bottle.
As Valonna poured from a covered pitcher, Sarenya reached over from her chair to brush his knee with one hand. “Everything all right, Mine?”
C’mine contained his reaction to a nod. “I’m fine.”
Valonna handed him a mug of klah, and C’mine took it, grateful for the chance to hide behind it. He could put on a show that would convince her, but Sarenya was another matter entirely. Like T’kamen, Saren knew him too well.
They’d been having these meetings, the three of them, since Sarenya’s return to Madellon last Turn. C’mine had missed a few recently, but to his best knowledge they’d gone on without him. They drank klah or wine and spoke of affairs. Valonna was acquiring an increasingly detailed knowledge of Madellon’s lower caverns, but she lacked a more rounded awareness of the Weyr at large. C’mine’s knowledge of the fighting Wings and Sarenya’s of Madellon’s crafter population completed the circle. In principle, they kept the Weyrwoman informed. In practice, C’mine knew he’d had little insight to offer of late.
“I spoke to Tahlienne again,” said Sarenya. “Master Laniyan’s definitely the father.”
Valonna sat marginally more forward. “He’s acknowledged it?”
“No, but Tahlie’s admitted she was having an affair with him. Laniyan’s always been a dirty old sod. I’d thought Tahlie had more sense, though. It’s the first rule of the Crafts. You don’t sleep with your Master.”
Valonna frowned. “Does she want to keep the baby?”
“I don’t think she knows herself,” Saren said. “She’s terrified that if Laniyan finds out she’s pregnant, he’ll make her either give up her apprenticeship or threaten to get her reassigned somewhere else. Tahlie was born here. She doesn’t want to have to leave. That’s why she wanted me to bring it to you.”
C’mine let their voices blur. There’d been a time when he’d have taken a polite interest, but it was more than he could do today. He sipped his klah, just grateful that they weren’t scrutinising him so closely.
The two women – queen rider and Beastcrafter, Weyrwoman and journeyman – had forged an unlikely friendship. In looks alone they could hardly have been more dissimilar. Valonna was petite and blonde and appealingly unaware of her own delicate beauty; her hair was always intricately dressed, and she favoured elegant gowns in soft colours that complemented her pale complexion and self-effacing nature. Even here, in her own weyr and the informal company of friends, she sat straight-backed and still, her hands folded neatly in her lap.
Sarenya, by contrast, had tucked one slim ankle comfortably under the opposite knee where she sat in her armchair. The thick, dark braid of her hair hung halfway down her back. She had a terrific smile, and remarkable blue eyes, and the piecemeal tan typical of her Craft – sun-browned face and hands and arms, and dramatic contrasts where her clothes protected her from the light. She wore a sleeveless vest and shorts and sandals, making her tan lines more visible than usual. Where Valonna was sweetly pretty, Sarenya was striking. But as unalike as they were physically, that was nothing compared with the dramatic difference in their characters.
Valonna was still very much the shy girl C’mine had first befriended somewhat more than a Turn ago – indeed, still the girl she’d been when, seven Turns before that, L’dro had plucked her from obscurity and put her to a queen egg. Consensus was, in retrospect, that the then-Weyrleader R’hren had been irresponsible in allowing such a young woman to stand for what turned out to be Cherganth’s final clutch. Madellon’s redoubtable Weyrwoman Fianine had been failing, and it was clear that whichever candidate caught the eye of the infant queen would have to assume the mantle of Senior before very long. But every bronze rider in the Weyr offered up a girl or two that day – almost thirty crowded the Hatching sands, more than C’mine had ever seen before or since – and half a dozen of those were convincing enough prospects that no one gave much consideration to the diffident fourteen-Turn-old from Jessaf until the moment when the hatchling Shimpath made her choice and changed the course of the Weyr forever.
Valonna didn’t have an easy transition into the arena of Madellon’s politics. Seven months after Impressing Shimpath she became Senior by default when Fianine, her health in steep decline, stepped down from her position. Scarcely a month later, Valonna was left as Madellon’s only queen rider. She was fifteen Turns old, still a weyrling – and in love with the rider whose Wing had brought her to Madellon in the first place. By the time Shimpath rose in her maiden mating flight, there was small doubt that L’dro would become Weyrleader.
All might not have been lost, had L’dro been a decent man. But his treatment of Valonna degenerated quickly from attentive to thoughtless, from thoughtless to indifferent, and from indifferent to callous. Valonna’s training in the duties of a Weyrwoman, curtailed by Fianine’s death, was never completed. And L’dro, keen to wring every personal advantage from his elevated position, presided unchecked over an administration whose profligacy brought the Weyr to the brink of ruin.
They were dark times for the riders of Madellon’s smaller dragons. Any man or woman who didn’t wear at least a Wingsecond’s knot found their stipend cut, their access to Madellon’s resources greatly reduced, and their complaints left unheard by L’dro’s bronze rider Council. Madellon ran on bribes and backhanders, on favours traded over expensive wines in Weyr and Hold and Hall while blue and green and brown riders found themselves obliged to sell their services to make ends meet. L’dro had sowed the seeds of his own downfall with those same ordinary riders, but not before he’d carved off a slice of Madellon’s assets, and despoiled much of what remained.
Yet, even now, no one blamed Valonna for L’dro’s self-indulgence. She’d been too young and too quiet and too inexperienced to be capable of curbing a forceful Weyrleader’s excesses. And those were the qualities that most riders still ascribed to her. Valonna went about her work as Weyrwoman with more agency now than she ever had before, but while it should have been obvious that any woman who had Impressed a queen must have resources of wit and will far beyond the average, C’mine wondered if anyone else saw the hidden depths that he did.
Sarenya’s depths, on the other hand, had never been hidden. C’mine still remembered vividly the day when he and Darshanth had found her. They’d been on a routine conveyance assignment to the Beastcrafthall with Master Ranoklin, the Weyr’s Beastcrafter of the time, as their passenger. As they flew over Peninsula South, Darshanth went oddly quiet – the telltale sign that someone had tripped his Search-sense. There wasn’t a clutch on the sands, but Darshanth insisted that C’mine seek out the individual who’d caught his attention. Fortunately, Ranoklin’s sojourn at the Hall proved lengthy enough to give them the time. The Beastcraft had hundreds of apprentices scattered across its extensive acreage, and C’mine spent the day trekking from paddock to paddock looking at a handful here, half a dozen there. Lacking any guidance to the contrary, and with nine in every ten of the apprentices male, he assumed he was searching for a boy. Instead, he found Saren.
She was eighteen Turns old and a senior apprentice on the verge of promotion to journeyman. She regarded C’mine’s interest with a mixture of curiosity and scepticism, as though suspecting someone had put him up to approaching her for a prank. She’d never talked to a dragonrider before, or been close to a dragon. But Darshanth insisted that C’mine bring her to meet him, and when he did, the blue’s reaction was rapturous. A dragon could make almost anyone hear him, but some people were harder to reach than others. Darshanth had never found anyone more receptive to his advance, or as easy to hear in return.
C’mine could have Searched her there and then, even before there was a clutch to put her to, but Sarenya wouldn’t hear of it. As much as she liked Darshanth – and she liked him as much as he liked her – she was too close to walking the tables to throw in her apprenticeship and run off to the Weyr. C’mine persuaded her to let him come back if the situation at Madellon changed, and she promised that she wouldn’t turn him down without proper consideration.
Four months later, the situation changed. The gold egg in Cherganth’s clutch prompted a mad scramble amongst Madellon’s bronze riders for likely candidates. Darshanth, as one of only half a dozen Search-sensitive dragons in the Weyr, was pressed into service by more than one Wingleader with an eye on the prize, but C’mine kept his prospect a secret from all but one of them. What he hadn’t anticipated was the impact that introducing Sarenya to T’kamen would have. They were smitten with each other from the moment they met. And for all C’mine’s persuasion, and Darshanth’s insistence, and the not-insignificant allure of a queen, T’kamen proved the pivotal factor in Sarenya’s eventual decision to accept Search to Madellon Weyr.
They still had to petition her Craft for approval, and in that the presence of the queen egg helped. The Beastcrafthall wouldn’t have surrendered Sarenya, writing off the Turns of keep and training it had invested in her apprenticeship, if the most she could have achieved was the Impression of a green dragon. But when at last the Hall did release her, it was into the custody of a Wingleader, not just a blue rider. C’mine wondered if Sarenya’s Master would have been quite so sanguine if he’d known that she would spend most of the next four sevendays in that same Wingleader’s weyr.
In a Madellon teeming with candidates for Cherganth’s long-awaited golden daughter, Sarenya nonetheless stood out – calm, competent, confident. She was a good age, came from a reputable Craft, and she’d been Searched by a dragon of proven sensitivity. Rumour even went that Fianine, scrutinising the candidates from whose ranks her successor would arise, had remarked favourably on Saren’s chances. Marks always changed hands before a Hatching, but the lively betting market on that all-important gold egg would have sent a Bitran into paroxysms of glee – and as the clutch hardened and the critical day approached, Sarenya emerged as the clear favourite.
Even now, with all that had happened in the intervening Turns, C’mine still wondered what had gone wrong. Darshanth had been so sure. But it struck him as a great irony that the history Sarenya and Valonna shared was what should have most alienated them: the dragon who could have been Saren’s, and the Weyrleader who, once, had been. It gave him a vague, undefined sense of satisfaction that they had become friends in spite of the circumstances.
Darshanth’s prompt poked him out of his reflection. What is it?
He knew he should be abashed by the fact that his dragon – his blue dragon – had cause to tell him to be more focused. Mindful of T’kamen’s warning, he sat up a little straighter, and picked up the thread of Valonna and Sarenya’s conversation.
“…to provide the hides to Kishop’s people,” Sarenya was saying. “But our apprentices aren’t trained to take a skin off in one neat piece. They won’t be very tidy.”
“Perhaps if Master Kishop could supply some of his apprentices to do the skinning,” Valonna suggested.
“It makes no difference to us,” said Sarenya. “So long as we co-ordinate the process to keep the time from field to butchery to a minimum. They still won’t make good leather, though, even with a Tanner doing the skinning. Second or third grade at best. I wouldn’t want anyone’s safety relying on it.”
“We won’t be using it for harness,” said Valonna. “But if we can supplement our stores with even poor quality hide for boots and belts and things, we can save the good hides for when they’re really needed.”
Saren nodded. “I’ll speak to my Master about it.”
“And I’ll see about that paint for your apprentice dorm,” Valonna promised. “I’m sure we’ve something in Stores that will suit.”
The conversation lapsed for a moment, drawing to a natural end, and then Valonna turned to C’mine. “And is there anything I can do for you, C’mine?”
She asked the same question every time they met, and even knowing that to ask a boon would please her, C’mine always gave her the same answer. “Thank you, Valonna. There’s nothing.”
“M’ric tells me that you turned down a place in his Wing, Mine,” Sarenya said suddenly. “He’s quite disappointed. He really wanted you.”
C’mine deliberately didn’t look at her. “I’m sorry he’s disappointed.”
“This is for the special operations Wing?” asked Valonna.
“Don’t you think Darshanth would be perfect for it?” Sarenya asked her. “He’s one of the fastest blues in the Weyr, and –”
“There are other blues,” C’mine said.
“– he has experience from the fire at Kellad, and –”
“There were other riders there that day.”
“– it might be just what –”
“Saren.” C’mine heard his own voice crack hard, cutting Sarenya off. An awkward moment passed. Then he raised his eyes to hers, and spoke more gently. “It’s not for me.”
“All right, Mine,” Sarenya said. She touched his knee again, apologetically this time. “I shouldn’t have pushed.”
Valonna cleared her throat, clearly discomfited. “I should let you both get back to your work,” she said. “Same time next sevenday? Your duties permitting?”
Darshanth had kept his opinion to himself through the exchange, but when C’mine returned, on foot, to their weyr, he raised his head to look at him with mute reproach in his spinning eyes.
C’mine sighed and crouched down by his dragon’s elbow. “I didn’t mean to speak so sharply.”
No. I know.
Darshanth didn’t respond for a moment. We might like to fly with Trebruth’s Wing.
“No.” C’mine replied immediately. “We wouldn’t.”
The Weyrleader’s mate was right.
“Saren isn’t T’kamen’s mate any more.”
Don’t change the subject.
We would be good at it.
C’mine stood up so suddenly his knees cracked. “No, Darshanth. Just no.”
Darshanth exhaled a long breath through his nostrils, then dropped his head morosely back onto his forepaws.
They spent an unsatisfying afternoon doing nothing in particular. C’mine buffed the beginnings of some rust off the buckles of Darshanth’s fighting harness. It wasn’t bad enough to create a weakness, but if F’halig noticed he’d make an issue of it, and for T’kamen’s sake if not his own, C’mine wanted to keep a low profile with the Wingsecond. He ate, bringing bread and meat back from the dining hall, and Darshanth contemplated, then discarded, the idea of eating his mid-sevenday meal a day early. They went out for an afternoon flight, because no dragon maintained the fitness required for Wing drill if he was indolent on his off-days. When they returned Darshanth took himself to the lake for a swim, declining the offer of a bath, and C’mine sat alone on their ledge, watching without interest as the Weyr went about its business.
The weyrlings were still practising take-offs and landings in relays, one leaping aloft for a circuit of the Bowl as another touched down behind him. Down in the kitchen gardens the children of the Weyr picked salad for the evening meal under the sharp-eyed supervision of the Headwoman’s kitchen staff. Farther still, Madellon’s dairy herd was being driven up towards the milking shed by runner-mounted Beastcrafters. A green and a blue glided in over the Rim together, flying in the close overlap of wings that marked a weyrmated pair.
Face the day.
C’mine had had enough of facing this day.
Kistrith is thinking of rising, Darshanth offered.
It took C’mine a moment to locate the green shifting restlessly up on the Rim, and then her rider, pacing outside one of the low-level flight weyrs not far from Darshanth’s ledge. It took less time than that for him to make his decision. Let’s go.
He jostled shoulders with two brown riders as he took the short run of steps up to the flight weyr at a jog: J’red, an older rider from North Flight, and L’kor, one of C’mine’s old classmates. J’red blocked his way with his body, glowering down at him. “This isn’t an open flight, blue rider.”
“Just get up there and let the dragons sort it out, J’red,” L’kor told him. He looked at C’mine and shrugged. “May the best dragon win, huh, C’mine?”
N’jol, Kistrith’s rider, had grown more agitated, bouncing lightly on the balls of his feet as he watched his green working herself up on the Rim. He scarcely glanced at the riders who’d come to participate, to wrapped up in his dragon. Another rider joined them a moment later, and the four of them eased closer to N’jol as their dragons’ lust increasingly dominated them.
Then, with a lash of her tail and a shriek of challenge, Kistrith sprang into flight. An instant later her four suitors took off in pursuit. And with a groan of relief, C’mine unburdened himself from the encumbrance of being himself, and slipped gratefully and utterly into Darshanth.
There was nothing else as he beat high and strong eastward from the Weyr: nothing but the hot summer air around him, and the dry wind in his face, and the swift, tantalising blur of wings and tail that was his quarry. No dragon could match that first blistering sprint of a green, but no green could maintain top speed for long. Nor would she want to, with him on her tail: him, Darshanth, quickest and nimblest of Madellon’s blues, the most handsome, the most vigorous, the most worthy! Let her tire herself; let that burst of speed fade, and then the real race would begin. He could feel another dragon behind him, flying in his wake, and another higher, off his shoulder, and he knew there was one more out there somewhere, but they weren’t the competition: Kistrith was, and Kistrith would be his.
She used up her speed quickly, and in moments she had come back to them, but no green ever counted pace as her only tool. Kistrith folded her wings and swooped effortlessly beneath them, teasing them with her closeness. Darshanth had expected such a ploy. He wheeled nearly in place, spilling air from one wing to descend upon the green dragon with talons outstretched. Kistrith rolled playfully out from under his grip and pumped her wings, once, twice, thrice, to regain altitude. Darshanth banked hard to check his descent and beat upwards again. He flashed past the one other blue, leaving him behind, still intent on the flirting green who’d turned her head back to bugle at him with an inviting tone. He closed and closed – she was letting him now, no longer trying to best him – gaining her level, pulling alongside; one more wingstroke and he’d be above her, and then he’d drop his forehand and plunge and –
The brown dragon came from nowhere, plummeting like a stone. His shoulder buffeted Darshanth aside, sending him spinning, and as abruptly as that brown and green were falling, locked together, his bellow and her squeal fading as quickly as Darshanth’s hopes. He circled a moment, exchanging bewildered looks with the other blue and the second brown who still wheeled nearby, equally nonplussed by the sudden conclusion of Kistrith’s flight.
And C’mine found himself unceremoniously dumped back into his own body, sweaty and uncomfortable and unfulfilled. He swayed on his feet, disoriented, and put his hand out to catch himself.
“Whoa, easy there, C’mine,” L’kor said, brushing his hand off his shoulder. He looked as dazed as C’mine felt.
“That ended faster than I thought it would,” said D’ros, the rider of the other blue.
“Should have known Whalth wouldn’t take any chances,” said L’kor. He looked over his shoulder at where N’jol and J’red were noisily emulating their dragons’ passion, and pulled the curtain across the alcove. “Well, so much for that. I guess I have a date with Lady Right.” He wiggled his fingers wryly, then ducked out of the cavern.
C’mine swallowed hard past the dryness in his throat and looked at D’ros. “You don’t want to…?”
D’ros shook his head. “Nah, a jump in the lake will have to do for me; my weyrmate would tan me for fighting straps otherwise. Maybe another time.”
Left alone in the flight weyr with only Kistrith and Whalth’s oblivious riders for company, C’mine grimaced and did some rearranging. Then, gingerly, he too stepped back out into the light.
Darshanth was already back on their ledge by the time C’mine got there. It really had been a short flight. His blue regarded him dolefully as he limped painfully back up the steps. Sorry.
You did your best, C’mine said shortly.
Whalth played us. Kistrith wanted me.
It’s fine. You can’t win every flight.
I did try.
C’mine put his arm around Darshanth’s neck, leaning against him. I know.
Even in late summer, shadow filled the Bowl long before the sky went fully dark. C’mine sat in the gloom far past the point when most other riders had opened the glow-baskets on their ledges, reluctant to admit, even to himself, that he faced another evening alone and undistracted.
Finally he went in. The bathing room was still disgusting, but he couldn’t face another trip to the communal pool. He didn’t even have a clean towel, but it was still warm enough that he drip-dried after a few minutes.
In searching for something moderately clean to wear, he came across half a bottle of Southern whiskey, hidden beneath a heap of unwashed bedfurs. He sat on the edge of his unmade bed, holding the bottle in his hand, turning it over. Cheap, nasty booze, and he didn’t doubt the veracity of the claim that it was made with a pinch of firestone for extra kick.
Don’t drink it, C’mine. Darshanth said imploringly. It makes you go away.
C’mine shook the bottle, hearing its contents glug. Sometimes going away is the only thing that keeps me here.
Please don’t. Darshanth paused. We can do the other thing.
C’mine set the bottle carefully down on the floor. You said you wouldn’t do that again.
Darshanth took a long moment to reply. Promise me you won’t drink the stuff that makes you go away.
I won’t. C’mine stood up. His stomach had contracted into a hard ball of excitement. I promise. I’ll throw it away.
Yes. Do that. Darshanth sounded unhappy, but insistent. C’mine tried not to contemplate what sort of rider would broker such a deal with his own dragon. Then I will take you. If you’re sure.
C’mine poured what remained of the whiskey away down the grate in the bathing room. Then he dressed with nerveless fingers, hardly able to button his shirt or tighten the buckles on his jacket. He pulled on his long, hooded foul-weather cape. He went into the other sleeping alcove of his weyr, checking the chart he could have replicated in his sleep, opening the thick hide-bound journal to the relevant, well-thumbed page, cross-referencing it for the tenth time with the record he’d lifted from the Weyr Archives a month ago. Yes. I’m sure.
He harnessed Darshanth, his hands shaking. The newly-scoured metalwork of the buckles gleamed in the faint light of the crescent moons. Darshanth shook himself, then insisted, Tighten it. I don’t want to lose you.
C’mine obeyed. In this he was at the mercy of his dragon. Better?
Strap in well.
He did. He cinched the fighting strap snug and heaved on the safety with all his strength.
Darshanth angled his head up to look at the brown on watch by the Star Stones. What am I to tell the watchdragon?
Tell him the truth. We’re going to Peranvo Hold. To see a friend.
Darshanth pushed himself aloft. At any other time C’mine would have commented on the weariness in his movements, the fatigue of the day’s exertions. Kistrith’s flight had cost Darshanth more than he was willing to admit. But he couldn’t distract him. Not now.
Give me the visual, Darshanth commanded.
C’mine had constructed it lovingly, painstakingly. He offered it up in all its vivid detail and felt Darshanth examine it, testing each facet for authenticity.
Very well. Breathe deeply.
As C’mine filled his lungs, he wrapped one hand tight around the fore-strap, and pressed the other flat against Darshanth’s soft neck.
Darshanth took them between.
C’mine had always been a counter. He counted to his pulse – or what he thought was his pulse. Some riders said they couldn’t even hear that between. Perhaps he was imagining it. But if so, then his imagination had accurately conjured the racing cadence of his heartbeat, almost too fast to tally. Ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five…
They emerged from the ice of between into cool night air, crisp and fresh when C’mine took a great sucking gasp of it, bringing tears to his eyes. He wiped them away with the sleeve of his cape, looking up into the darkness. Belior hung fatly full in the sky, and the great winter constellations of the Vintner and the Little Shipfish twinkled behind the ornate fireheights of Peranvo Hold. Below, glowlight and torches and lanterns marked out the shape of a heaving Gather square.
You did it. C’mine thumped Darshanth’s neck-ridge, ecstatic. You did it!
Yes. Darshanth spiralled downwards to the landing area, deserted so late in the evening. We must not stay long.
I understand. C’mine tore the safety strap free and slid recklessly down from his dragon’s neck.
Darshanth lunged for him, catching his arm in his mouth. The sharp points of his teeth pressed uncomfortably through the sleeve of C’mine’s jacket and cloak, and his brilliant eyes whirled amber with threat. Don’t try to change anything!
C’mine pulled up the hood of his cape with his free hand, tugging it down so it covered his head and shaded his face. I know. I won’t talk to anyone. And I’ll keep my face hidden.
Darshanth relaxed his jaws, and C’mine retrieved his arm, slightly soggy with saliva. Be careful.
The music coming from the Harper platform was the lively sort, even so late on in the Gather. C’mine cocked his head as he stole along the glow-lit corridors between canvas-shrouded booths towards the square, recognising My Weaver Girl And Me. Faranth: he hadn’t heard that since…since this Turn. The realisation gave him a shiver that had nothing to do with the wintry chill. He ignored it, and slipped into the crowds of revellers filling the square.
The lanterns cast a festive light down onto the square, painting features that might have been familiar in a hundred shades of red and yellow and green. From within the concealing shadow of his hood, C’mine struggled to make out faces. He moved slowly through the throng, trying to stay casual and inconspicuous.
Someone bumped into him from behind. He spun, alarmed, and a girl giggled up at him. “Oh, I’m so sorry!” She pouted, her pretty face streaked blue and gold by the lantern light. “Why the hood, sweetheart? We’re all friends here!”
Before C’mine could stop her or slip away, she’d reached familiarly up and tugged his hood down. He could smell the wine on her breath. “There!”
C’mine! Darshanth snapped.
“You made it! I didn’t think you were coming!”
And as Darshanth moaned with dread, C’los grabbed C’mine in an elated, drunken hug, and kissed him hard on the mouth.
Continue to The Impression: this time it’s awkward