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Chapter one: T’kamen

By the midpoint of any Interval, when no Thread has fallen in living memory, and no one yet born will live long enough to see it fall again, the Dragonweyrs of Pern have nowhere to vent their frustrations but upon themselves.

— Masterharper Gaffry, Chronicle of the Seventh Interval

100.02.10 (100TH TURN, SEVENTH INTERVAL)
MADELLON WEYR

T'kamen (Micah Johnson)It was hot that night, as hot as between was cold, and the last of T’kamen’s ice was long gone. They’d put it in cups of an appalling red wine from Welford Hold that H’ned had initially pronounced undrinkable but, once dilution and chilling had masked the loutish tannins, turned out to be a remarkably tolerable accompaniment to a late-night poker game.

A poker game that T’kamen had just comprehensively lost.

Chuckling dirtily, L’stev scraped his accumulated winnings into his belt pouch: quarters and eighths, mostly, but with a few half-marks, and even a Beastcraft two-bull that Sh’zon had thrown into the pot in a futile attempt to stay in the final hand. “I’m much obliged to you gentlemen,” he said, pulling the drawstring of his purse carefully closed. “Letting a poor old Weyrlingmaster join your game. It’s nothing short of charity.”

“Charity?”

Poor?”

H’ned and Sh’zon roared at the same moment: equally incredulous, equally annoyed. Well, T’kamen thought, maybe not equally annoyed. Sh’zon had kicked his chair over in frustration when he’d gone out of the final hand with every last mark on the table. H’ned, more familiar with L’stev’s canny mind, had bowed out before he was cleaned out.

L’stev just cackled. “Blame the Weyrleader,” he said, stabbing a thick finger in T’kamen’s direction. “He invited me.”

“All right for him,” said Sh’zon. “He gets low on marks, he can dip into Madellon’s purse to make himself good.” He looked around, wide-eyed and innocent, as H’ned exclaimed at the accusation, and L’stev shook his head. “What? A man can’t make a joke?”

“That’s a little near the knuckle even for you,” H’ned told him.

Nearer than any of them realised, T’kamen thought, but he didn’t say that. “I’d forgotten I was only supposed to invite bad poker players to my games.”

“That would explain these two,” said L’stev.

Amidst their howls of indignation, and L’stev’s gleeful laughter, T’kamen started to clear the table of cards and chips and wine cups. L’stev’s, he noticed, was still almost full, and he put it back in front of the Weyrlingmaster.

He was putting the poker chips away when the Weyrwoman appeared in the passageway that connected their two weyrs. “Valonna,” he said, surprised. “I’m sorry. Have we been keeping you awake?”

“Oh, no, T’kamen, not at all,” Valonna assured him, with characteristic earnestness. “I was only just about to go to bed myself.”

“Weyrwoman,” H’ned said from across the room, standing up, and Sh’zon leapt up beside him.

“No, please, that isn’t necessary,” Valonna said.

As far as T’kamen was concerned, it was. “You can sit down,” he told the two bronze riders. “Is there something I can do for you, Weyrwoman?”

“It’s only that there’ve been responses from two more artists,” Valonna said. “I know you’d decided on the journeyman from Kellad, but I thought you’d want to see these too.”

“Two more?” T’kamen asked. “How many is that now? Ten?”

“Twelve, I think.”

T’kamen shook his head. “Faranth.”

Valonna offered him two little scrolls. “Talladon’s from Peranvo Hold, and he’s very well regarded there.”

“Expensive, too,” said T’kamen. “Nothing from Peranvo is ever cheap.”

“And Gellera painted the new picture of Lord Meturvian that he had commissioned for his Turnday,” Valonna went on. “Meturvian’s very pleased with it. It’s a very, er, sympathetic portrait of him.”

“Sympathetic,” said T’kamen, wryly. “That sounds like what I need from an artist. Sympathy.”

Valonna looked stricken. “I didn’t mean to imply…”

“It’s all right, Valonna,” he said. “I know you didn’t.” He looked from one scroll to the other. He’d been putting off having his official Weyrleader’s portrait painted for months. The idea of having to sit for a painting filled him with dread – and Madellon could ill afford the marks. But he’d been Weyrleader for more than a Turn now, and the empty space on the wall of Madellon’s Council chamber had begun to strike him as faintly accusatory, so he’d asked Valonna to put the commission out. He just hadn’t expected so many responses. “I’m sure all these artists are equally capable of painting me with the appropriate number of eyes and my nose in the right place. I’m more concerned that they can do dragons. Epherineth’s the handsome one out of the pair of us.” He handed the scrolls back to her. “Just choose someone who’ll do him justice, and let’s get this thing done.”

“I…will, Weyrleader.”

She looked so uncomfortable at having the decision placed in her hands that T’kamen nearly relented, but he resisted the urge to let her off. Valonna might have been thrust into seniority at Madellon too young, too soon, and painfully under-trained, but she was still the Weyrwoman, and T’kamen would treat her accordingly. L’dro, her first Weyrleader had allowed her – encouraged her, even – to doubt herself, and in weakening her position strengthened his own, to the whole Weyr’s detriment. But Valonna had been showing flashes of the Weyrwoman Shimpath must have sensed she could be, and T’kamen wouldn’t undo the progress she’d made by undermining her or patronising her or lying to her. He wasn’t sure he was best equipped to nurture a shy young woman to her full potential, but he was her Weyrleader, and he would try. “Thank you, Valonna. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Good night, T’kamen.”

“…and of course those dragonets had never seen a fish bigger than the minnows in our lake,” L’stev was saying as T’kamen returned to his guests, “so when Epherineth sucked up a drink from Jessaf’s fishing pond and found a silverfin the length of your arm dangling from his mouth along with it, what’s a young dragon to do?”

“Faranth,” H’ned said, half in delight, half horror, “he ate it?”

“Ate it, liked it, went back for seconds,” said L’stev. “And thirds. And the rest. That’s not a big pond, and it was teeming.” He paused for effect. “Was being the key word there.”

“That was a very long time ago, L’stev,” T’kamen protested.

“Not in Winstone’s mind. He brings it up every time we take weyrlings to Jessaf. You should just be grateful that he doesn’t recall it was your dragon who ate nearly his entire stock of sport-fish and then – for good measure – puked up the evidence on his doorstep.”

Loooovely,” said Sh’zon, drawing the word out.

“Speaking of dragonets and their appetites –” T’kamen began.

“That’s right, change the subject,” said L’stev, with relish.

“– it’ll be nice when you get the weyrlings going between so they’re not eating us bare every time they come back from an excursion.”

“It’ll be soon,” said L’stev. “I’m not going to rush them, but they’re not far off. A sevenday, two at the outside.”

“Suppose you’ll be wanting to borrow some Wingseconds to help with them, won’t you?” asked H’ned.

L’stev nodded. “Three-stripers, please. Some of those junior-grade Wingseconds are barely older than my kids.”

“I’d be happy to lend a hand myself,” Sh’zon offered.

“Good try, Sh’zon,” said L’stev. “You know the rules. No interfering with my weyrlings. It confuses them.”

Sh’zon held his hands up, as if to surrender. “Don’t have to bite my head off.”

“Well, I’m turning in,” said H’ned. “I want to get my Wing drill over early tomorrow, before it gets too hot. Thank you for the game, T’kamen, and the sharding dreadful wine. And no thanks to you, L’stev, for making me a pauper.”

“Aye, best I take my penniless self home, too,” said Sh’zon. “Pleasure as always, Weyrleader. Weyrlingmaster.”

T’kamen seated himself opposite L’stev as the two bronze riders made their way out of his weyr. He heard Sh’zon wish Epherineth a boisterous good-night, and then the sounds of retreating footsteps as he and H’ned went their separate ways home.

Then he looked at L’stev. “Well?”

L’stev was studying the wine cup he’d ignored during the game, as if to decide if its contents were toxic or not. “Well what?”

“What do you think?”

“I think you’d be a better poker player if you didn’t lose confidence in the strength of your hand,” L’stev said, “but I suppose that’s not what you meant.”

“It wasn’t,” said T’kamen, “though I appreciate the pointer.”

L’stev swirled wine contemplatively around the cup. “They’re your short-list.”

“I don’t have all that much choice,” T’kamen said. “Once you rule out the ones who are too young or too old, the ones who can’t spell their own names, and the ones who still like to mutter about how they had it better when L’dro was Weyrleader…”

L’stev snorted. “The fact that that’s true just shows you’re doing something right.”

T’kamen accepted the rough compliment with a nod. “You were Wingsecond to H’ned. You know him better than I do.”

L’stev contorted his mouth into the downturned grimace that meant he was thinking. “He was very raw then, just made up. Competent enough, though. He almost never spelled his name wrong. But he didn’t exactly make a stand against L’dro.”

“I’d have even fewer options if I made that a requirement,” T’kamen said. “But that’s why I like Sh’zon. He has no axe to grind.”

“That’s true,” said L’stev. “Dangerous move, though, advancing a foreigner over a Madellon native. And there was a reason H’pold wanted rid of him from the Peninsula. Kawanth knows how to catch a queen.”

“I don’t think that’s going to matter,” said T’kamen. “By the time Shimpath rises again, Sh’zon won’t be here.”

“Because of Berzunth,” L’stev surmised. “Suppose you’re right. Though he and Tarshe are only cousins, not siblings.” His mobile face went even more graphic with distaste. “Odder things have happened.”

“Even if he weren’t averse to the idea, I wouldn’t allow it,” said T’kamen. “I’ll have to trade him on to one of the northern Weyrs if the Peninsula won’t have him back by then.”

“Well, you can burn that Thread when you come to it,” said L’stev. “Berzunth’s at least a Turn and a half off maturity. A lot can happen in a Turn and a half.”

“A lot has happened in a Turn and a half,” T’kamen said.

He meant it reflectively, but it came out sombre. L’stev narrowed his eyes at him. “Don’t say that like it’s all been bad. You flew your queen. Kicked L’dro out on his arse. You even have twenty-five weyrlings that might not all turn out to be completely shaffing useless.”

And I let a maniac run riot in my Weyr and stab my oldest friend to death, T’kamen thought. “I know,” he said. He made an effort to divert his thoughts off that grim and well-worn path. “But I can’t do this alone.”

“Of course you can’t. No Weyrleader flies Fall all by himself,” said L’stev. “And no one’s asking you to take the weight of the whole world on your scrawny shoulders.”

“Thank Faranth,” T’kamen agreed. “Madellon’s heavy enough for me. I have too much to do, and not enough time to do it. I need a deputy I can depend on to take some of it off me, but I’m not sure I trust H’ned that much, and Sh’zon’s a Peninsularite.”

“So deputise them both. You’ll have twice the manpower, and they’ll be so busy competing with each other they won’t have time to undermine you.”

“That means I’ll have to pay them both,” T’kamen pointed out.

“If Madellon’s so far gone that twenty marks here or there is going to leave it destitute, you have bigger problems than I can solve,” said L’stev. “Either of them would do, but if I were you, I’d promote them both.”

“Thank you for the advice,” T’kamen said.

“Advice is free,” said L’stev. He grinned. “Asking me to a poker game, less so.” He pushed the wine cup, still full, across the table. “Best I get back to my weyrlings. There’s not been a squeak from Jenavally, so either they’ve been good, or they’ve got her tied and gagged in the harness room.” He shrugged. “One or the other.”

T’kamen walked with him out onto Epherineth’s ledge and then stayed there beside his bronze to watch as the Weyrlingmaster disappeared across the dark Bowl.

“Both of them, then,” he said aloud. “I’ll have to find the marks.”

Bottom drawer on the left, in the strongbox.

“Very funny.”

Epherineth’s eyes turned fractionally faster with his amusement. He was relaxed but alert, despite the late hour. It had been warm at dawn and scorching by noon, and it wasn’t very much cooler now even hours after the sun had slipped below the horizon. Dragons didn’t mind the heat of the day. They thrived on it, soaking up the rays when even the most sun-loving humans had long since fled for shade. The greens had been launching themselves off the Rim at a rate of a dozen a day as the soaring temperatures and cloudless skies woke their more primal instincts, and the queens were so radiantly gold that a rider less familiar with Shimpath’s schedule or Berzunth’s youth might have thought they were close to rising, too. But the muggy nights that followed in the wake of the sweltering days were intolerable even for dragons, and the black inner walls of the Weyr were punctuated by many pairs of wakeful eyes, shining in the darkness.

Up by the Star Stones, nightfall had robbed the watchdragon of her colour, but it was middle watch, so she would be green. The fact that the late watches were always assigned to greens had been a point of contention for some time, and T’kamen had been meaning to overhaul the duty roster for months, but he just hadn’t got round to it He’d give it to H’ned, he decided, and the thought cheered him. After fifteen months as Weyrleader, he’d learned to separate the critical from the merely urgent, but he looked forward to being able to delegate some of the lesser but still important tasks to his deputies. The business of the Weyr often kept him from Wing duties, and while his senior Wingsecond, F’halig, was a more than capable stand-in, T’kamen missed drilling. He and Epherineth did go out together at least once a day, but too often those flights were squeezed in between T’kamen’s other commitments. He’d promised his dragon he’d do better, and if that meant appointing two bronze riders he didn’t entirely trust as deputies to take up some of the slack, then that was a compromise he was prepared to make. L’stev’s guarded approval of his choices gave him some comfort. The shrewd old brown rider had been a source of wisdom and counsel to T’kamen for many Turns, and if he hadn’t been so irreplaceable as Weyrlingmaster, T’kamen would have deputised him. The thought of how horrified L’stev would have been by that made him smile.

He’d promote the two Wingleaders in the morning. The sooner he could put them to work on the day-to-day business of running the Weyr, the happier he’d be. He could start drilling with his Wing again; spend more time working with the Weyrwoman; take a closer interest in the weyrlings as they progressed through their training. Maybe he’d even have a little time to spend on himself: improving his poker game, or playing the gitar that he’d barely picked up since he’d become Weyrleader.

Or maybe you could find someone, said Epherineth.

It was more reflection than proposal: the echo of something T’kamen had left unthought. Epherineth always knew what was going on in his head – sometimes better than T’kamen did himself. They had occupied each other’s thoughts to such an immersive degree for so long that T’kamen would have been more surprised if Epherineth hadn’t picked up on the unformed desire. “We both know it’s not that simple.”

Nothing worthwhile ever is.

It would have been politick – and convenient – if he had been attracted to the Weyrwoman, but he wasn’t. He felt protective towards Valonna, respectful of her position and her queen, even fond of the young woman herself, but he didn’t desire her. She was too shy, too diffident, too nervous of him. Still too fragile. And young. A decade of age difference didn’t have to be an insurmountable gap, but Valonna was young for her Turns, and T’kamen knew he was old for his. R’hren, his first Weyrleader, had once said that each Turn he’d spent as leader had aged him by five. T’kamen wondered if that ratio wasn’t even a little on the optimistic side.

Valonna wasn’t the only female rider in the Weyr, of course, but T’kamen had never formed a strong attachment to a green rider even before he’d become Weyrleader. He’d had girlfriends and lovers, and Epherineth had pursued his own fancies among the greens, but they had always been tenuous connections, and Epherineth’s days of flying green dragons were over for now. No bronze who was the mate of a queen would risk her wrath by chasing tail. That didn’t preclude T’kamen from seeing a green rider on his own terms, and – ironically, he thought – he’d had more approaches in the last six months than he had in Turns, but he couldn’t build up the enthusiasm to respond to any of them.

That left Madellon’s non-rider population, and the inequality that such an association implied. A rider was already one half of a partnership, and not many women could truly accept coming second to a dragon. Nor should they. Dragonriders didn’t often make good partners – even to other dragonriders. That was why weyrmated pairs were unusual, and most riders just enjoyed the freedom to love or bed or fly whomever they pleased without ever formalising the interest. But even if T’kamen’s position, and his wish not to offend Valonna, hadn’t stopped him from seeking casual encounters, his heart would have. A willing body wasn’t enough, and if he couldn’t have more than that, the reward wasn’t worth the complication.

Shimpath was Pierdeth’s before she was mine, said Epherineth. I took her from him.

T’kamen realised he’d been squinting through the darkness in the direction of the Beastcraft cothold, its windows dimly outlined by the soft illumination of the glow-baskets inside. He looked away, irate with himself. “Sometimes the ways of dragons and people are just too far removed from each other, Epherineth.”

If Epherineth had been a more vocal dragon, he would have snorted. Go to bed, T’kamen, he said instead, in a tone that made it plain he expected him to do nothing of the sort.

It was too hot to sleep inside, and certainly too hot to sleep beside a bronze dragon who radiated heat just by existing. Some riders had banished their dragons up to the Rim and spread their own blankets out on their ledges to sleep, but T’kamen wouldn’t have sent Epherineth away. It was usually cooler in his office, which had become his excuse for working late on these last few sticky nights of late summer. He touched Epherineth’s shoulder, and went inside.

The Weyrleader’s desk was skybroom, a massive piece of furniture that squatted belligerently at one end of the room, as if daring anyone to defy the rider who sat behind it. T’kamen had dared a few times. But now that the desk was his he found it oddly reassuring to know he was sitting where every previous Weyrleader of Madellon had once sat, struggling with the same problems that had faced each of his predecessors. He wasn’t the first and he wouldn’t be the last. And by this time tomorrow, he wouldn’t be alone.

But tomorrow was tomorrow. Tonight, there was a slate hanging precariously over the edge of the desk. The slightest nudge would knock it onto the floor and probably shatter it. T’kamen scooped it up, shoving several documents that had rested atop it back onto the desk. He didn’t mean to look at it, but he couldn’t help himself. It was a Wing transfer request, nothing more complicated than that. T’gat had asked for a green rider from V’stan’s Wing to move to his own. Both Wingleaders had marked their approval, and the transfer only needed T’kamen’s consent to proceed.

The Winglist was chalked up on the black-painted wall behind the desk: four Flights, twelve Wings, more than two hundred dragonpairs. The transfer would leave V’stan short a green, but T’gat had been down two since Janina had passed away last month. She’d been one of the longest-serving riders at Madellon, and elderly enough that her death was more shock than surprise. She’d been talking about retiring to South Cove, where many of Madellon’s oldest riders chose to live out their final Turns in peace, but no one had expected her to die so suddenly. It was the other space in T’gat’s Wing roster that drew and held T’kamen’s eyes, the space where another green rider’s name should have been: still as ugly as the dark gap of a missing tooth, still a jab to the gut every time he looked at it.

He signed the slate and reached over to put it in the Wings pile. He’d need to start new piles for Sh’zon and H’ned, he thought, looking at the stacks that held the line – just – between order and chaos on his desk. On his left, new items mostly went into the Attention heap, and on a good day he might move half the stack into the piles on the right: Wings and Weyrlings and Tithe, Crafters and Headwoman and Weyrwoman. It hadn’t been a good day. Attention was overflowing. T’kamen sighed, threw a glance over his shoulder towards the door, and then sat down to do some work.

He signed off three conveyance requests and threw them into Wings; the Wingleader of whichever Wing was on the roster for transports tomorrow would assign riders to each job. Buckmore Minehold’s quarterly firestone shipment was ready for collection: that went into Tithes. He read enough of a request for a Mediation to be sure it was nothing serious – it wasn’t, just a matter of two former weyrmates squabbling over who got to keep their weyr – and put it on Valonna’s pile. A request from the Weyr Tanner for more harness-grade leather went onto the Weyrwoman’s stack, too. Valonna had been spending a lot of time in the storage caverns recently, doing an inventory of Madellon’s stores; she might know if there were any spare hides lying around. He scanned the sweeprider reports, noted resignedly that the current weather didn’t look likely to break for at least another day or two, and then wiped those slates clean and put them on the reuse pile. He looked at the sicklist, underlined two names that had come up on it too regularly, and wrote himself a reminder to ask their Wingleaders about it in the morning.

A handsome missive bearing the seal of Long Bay Hold stood out among the scratched slates and tatty scraped hides that comprised most of the Attention pile. T’kamen held it by the edges, loath to ruin the best-quality vellum with his dirty fingers. It was a Gather notice, inviting the riders of Madellon Weyr to attend the celebrations of Lady Coffleby’s fortieth Turn of rule, and requesting T’kamen and Valonna’s company at a luncheon in the Lady Holder’s honour. Long Bay must be doing all right to afford vellum and calligraphy of such quality, T’kamen thought, let alone the expense of playing host to foreign Weyrleaders. The Seahold was in Peninsula territory, so H’pold and Rallai would be there, and since Coffleby had invited Madellon’s Weyrleaders, she’d probably asked P’raima and Margone of Southern, too. The thought of having to break bread with the other Weyrleaders of the south didn’t exactly fill T’kamen with elation. H’pold didn’t like him, and P’raima didn’t like anyone – which was probably what came of being Weyrleader for thirty Turns. T’kamen wondered if he’d even turn up at Long Bay. Southern’s Weyrleader had made it clear that he’d attended Madellon’s last Hatching only grudgingly.

Much though T’kamen hated having to make polite conversation in stuffy company, he would never have dishonoured Madellon by refusing Lady Coffleby’s invitation. He dropped the notice onto Valonna’s pile. Her handwriting was much more elegant than his. Besides, it was the kind of diplomacy that was explicitly the Weyrwoman’s business. The invitation should have gone to Valonna in the first place. So should the Mediation request, and the Weyr Tanner’s, but the people of Madellon – riders and otherwise – were still too accustomed to bringing everything to the Weyrleader. T’kamen pushed as much of it on to Valonna as he dared, and the average size of her stack on his desk had grown noticeably since he’d first become her Weyrleader, but the public attitude would be much slower to change.

Valonna had made one very significant decision since T’kamen had become her Weyrleader – though, perversely, she’d received almost none of the credit for it. Her appointment of Crauva as Headwoman had caused a massive shift in Madellon’s domestic affairs. Adrissa had been Headwoman for nearly twenty Turns, and her ways of doing things had become deeply entrenched in Madellon’s culture. Crauva, with brutal efficiency, had overhauled everything, from kitchens to cleaning, quarters to maintenance. There’d been an initial outcry, but the improvement in the Weyr’s domestic condition was already startling. Madellon looked cleaner and tidier, the kitchens were making better meals, and the inventory Crauva and Valonna had begun between them had already turned up all manner of lost, forgotten, and occasionally hidden, treasures.

It had also exposed just how close they were to calamity.

T’kamen had known that Madellon was under-resourced from day one, but he’d made promises to the riders who’d supported him, and he’d done his best to deliver on them. D’feng, who’d managed Madellon’s finances under L’dro, hadn’t liked it, but he hadn’t refused T’kamen’s demands, either. Then D’feng and his bronze Sejanth had been injured, badly, in Wing drill. Responsibility for fiscal affairs had dropped back into T’kamen’s lap. And the full magnitude of the Weyr’s dwindling funds had come crashing down upon him. Madellon had been running a deficit for the last three Turns, consuming more resources than it received in tithe, and making up the difference from its reserve fund.

Any Weyr took a certain amount of currency as part of its tithe, mostly from the Crafthalls of the territory. It paid for stipends – rider, crafter, Weyrfolk – and for incidental purchases that the goods tithe didn’t cover. Madellon’s reserve fund, held with the Woodcraft at Kellad Hold, had been built up over the Turns by the surplus of that monetary tithe. The Woodcrafthall’s records showed a steady increase in the size of Madellon’s deposit over the first fifty or so Turns of the Interval, followed by slower but still healthy growth – and then, six Turns ago, a plateau, followed by a sharp reversal in the trend. It corresponded too neatly with L’dro’s accession to the Weyrleadership to be a coincidence. He’d never added so much as a thirty-second to the fund, but he’d withdrawn substantial sums – hundreds of marks at a time – on thirteen separate occasions. D’feng had made some effort to account for the expenditure in Madellon’s records, but it was clear where the marks had gone. L’dro had spent them on wine and clothes for himself, bribes to keep his senior riders loyal, and – once – the engagement of a certain crafter in an attempt to distract a rival from Shimpath’s upcoming mating flight.

T’kamen wasn’t interested in wine or clothes or bribes, but all the promises he’d made in good faith cost money. He’d promised the green and blue riders of Madellon fairer treatment, starting with equalising their stipends. There’d seemed no good reason in T’kamen’s mind for a green rider to get fewer marks per quarter than a brown rider of equal rank. He’d soon realised how expensive equality could be. But even after he’d reduced the pay rise he’d pledged for wingriders, the stipend bill had gone up by nearly five hundred marks per Turn.

Crafters cost a lot, too. Each Crafthall did its duty to the Weyr in a mixture of goods, marks, and people, but Madellon still had to pay its crafters their stipend, and any Craft personnel employed over and above tithe agreements incurred a fee to the Hall. T’kamen had contracted new staff to the Tanners, Beastcrafters, and Healers when he’d become Weyrleader, but he was regretting it now, because almost every single craft represented at Madellon was costing a fortune in excess staff. It wasn’t that Madellon didn’t need all its crafters – the Tanners were always swamped with work; the Masons were Turns behind with Madellon’s weyr-building programme; and any drop in the Brewers’ production would cause riots – it just couldn’t afford them.

And then there was flaming drill which – D’feng’s accident aside – had made the biggest positive difference to Weyr morale of any measure T’kamen had implemented. Madellon’s riders liked stoking their dragons with firestone. It made them feel like dragonriders – real dragonriders – in a way that nothing else could. Under L’dro, and even before him, flaming drill had been a rare privilege. T’kamen had reinstated it as a regular part of Wing operations. But it was hard on dragons, in minor injuries and overall fitness; hard on harness, which had to be replaced more often when it was put under the stress of real fighting manoeuvres; and very hard on Madellon’s firestone supply. And firestone was expensive. Madellon territory – like most of the southern continent – wasn’t rich in firestone ore, and the mines that did produce it had long since exhausted the surface deposits. Production relied on the Minercraft sinking deeper and deeper shafts to follow the veins, and that kind of industry was costly in materials and labour and lives.

But it was the availability of food beasts that worried T’kamen the most. Madellon’s population of more than two hundred adult dragons and twenty-five half-grown dragonets had to be fed. The Holds met their quotas each sevenday, but the animals that were driven up through the northern passes were sorry specimens. The last two summers had been hot and dry, and the domestic herds of Madellon territory were showing it in their lack of condition. The herdsmen insisted they were doing their best, and Madellon’s Beastcrafters did what they could to nurture the wretched animals along, but it wasn’t enough. T’kamen had already been forced to broker one deal with Jessaf to supplement Madellon’s herds with extra animals. He knew he’d need to do it again soon, and the marks he kept in the locked strongbox in his desk drawer wouldn’t be enough to cover it. He hated that Madellon’s Woodcrafthall reserve fund would be depleted still further on his watch. He hated that history would record him as having spent, not increased, the Weyr’s wealth. In the short term he saw no alternative. Madellon’s dragons had to eat.

Longer term was another matter. Once every five Turns, Madellon calculated its primary tithe requirements from the Holds and Halls of its protectorate. An annual renegotiation adjusted for unforeseen circumstances on both sides – a bad harvest or a good one, more or fewer new weyrlings than expected, the addition of a new Hold to Madellon’s territory – but the Charter that governed Holds, Halls, and Weyr alike forbade adjustments of more than ten percent in either direction. Major changes had to wait for the next primary Turn.

This Turn, the hundredth of the Seventh Interval, was a primary. T’kamen would need to present a detailed forecast of Madellon’s requirements for the next five Turns to the Lords Holder of the territory – present it, and fight for it. He’d learned from the previous Turn’s adjustment that he wouldn’t get everything he asked for, so he’d need to build in enough excess for them to refuse without leaving Madellon short. Even then, the Weyr would be asking for much more from its Holds and Halls than it had five Turns ago. It was going to be a grim, bitter battle, and T’kamen dreaded it.

He dreaded some of the hard decisions he was going to have to make at Madellon nearly as much. Reducing the stipends again – across the board – would be desperately unpopular. He’d already started to cut back on Madellon’s crafter population, asking several Weyr Masters to let crafters go once their contracted terms were up, but he knew he’d need to take even stronger measures before long. And he feared the backlash that would inevitably result from any curtailment of firestone drill. It was so potentially inflammatory an issue that he’d made his notes and calculations on the matter entirely in code, just in case the document went astray.

Crauva’s new regime would help, eventually, when her measures began to save Madellon more in efficiency than they cost in implementation. T’kamen was hoping that the Headwoman’s staff would be able to gather more in forage, too, which Adrissa’s never consistently had – though they were restricted to what grew in the unclaimed portions of the continent, as all the fertile land surrounding the mountain range on which Madellon itself perched belonged to Kellad Hold. Madellon dragons could still hunt their allotted share from the feral herds that roamed the unpopulated south, but that take was limited by agreement with Southern and the Peninsula, and while they could eat as many wherries as they liked, catching a wild wherry on the wing was a very different proposition to picking off a herdbeast in a pen.

T’kamen sat back in his seat for a moment, ruffling his fingers through his hair where sweat had stuck it down, wishing for a breeze, and feeling much older than his not-quite thirty-three Turns.

Then he made himself concentrate on simpler matters. Another Blue Shale holder was claiming that a Madellon rider had got his daughter pregnant and demanding money to support the child. It was the third such accusation in as many sevendays. T’kamen shook his head over it. Either one of his riders had been very busy, or the holders of Blue Shale thought they’d come up with a good way to make some marks. He penned the brief reply that had become his standard response. Madellon would take the child and his mother, but that was all. The Weyr didn’t pay compensation for dragonspawn. Real or fabricated, T’kamen could have added, but he didn’t. Some of the Holdbred children who ended up dumped on the Weyr probably were the offspring of careless dragonriders – they often ended up as dragonriders themselves – but even if they weren’t, they were still welcome. A community as geographically isolated as a Weyr always needed new blood. And people were much cheaper to feed than dragons.

He had to look in the top drawer of his desk for a new stick of sealing wax. As he hunted through the detritus of broken pens and scraps of hide, his fingers snagged on the weave of a shoulder-knot. T’kamen knew what it was even before he pulled it out. He held the braid in both hands, and felt himself smile at the sight of it. It was the plain double-twist of a Madellon wingrider, indigo and bronze, but the two strands were loose and sloppy where a third cord had been unthreaded from the braid. He’d removed the silver cord himself from his Wingleader’s knot when L’dro had demoted him, six Turns ago, rather than making a new one to reflect his diminished status. It had been an act of defiance to imply that the confiscation of his rank was a temporary thing. His Weyrleader’s shoulder-knots were far more elaborate, tailed and tasselled to leave no doubt about his seniority, but he hadn’t thrown away the old one he’d worn for so long. He supposed he never would.

He put the ragged braid back in the drawer and rummaged until he found a fresh stick of wax in Madellon’s dark indigo. Then he sealed his response to the Blue Shale holder with the impression of the heavy gold signet ring of Madellon’s Weyrleader, and put it on the pile marked Everything Else.

The next document he pulled towards him had a seal of its own: the arrowheads of Speardike Hold. It opened cleanly with the wax intact and he scanned the message inside. It was something to do with a medicinal herb, so he refolded it and began to put it on the Crafters pile for the Weyr Healer’s attention. Then something about the motif stamped into the wax caught his eye, and he pulled it back to look at it.

Offset trio formation, said Epherineth. Nearly.

But staggered, T’kamen said. He turned the letter over and drew the Speardike insignia as a Wing formation on the blank side. You could get more coverage this way, if you put a brown in the anchor position in every other trio.

Lay it out, Epherineth told him.

T’kamen cleared a space on his desk and replicated the pattern using mark pieces from the strongbox for dragons: half-marks for bronzes, quarters for browns, sixteenths for blues and thirty-seconds for greens. The front of the desk was always east; the back, his side, west. He leaned back, narrowing his eyes, visualising the scene. Angle the flanking trios forward, Epherineth suggested, and T’kamen nodded, redeploying his markers. It was a pattern that would allow a rider in the centre to take a turn out of Fall without leaving more of a gap than the dragons either side could manage. T’kamen moved the northmost set of marks to the southern end and shifted the rest up; a constant rotation of the micro-formations would give every dragonpair the opportunity to duck out for a breather while leaving the other two dragons in the trio covering their airspace. He set out more mark pieces, defining an entire Flight. That leaves too many gaps, said Epherineth. Reverse the stack of the middle Wing.

T’kamen did that. It was a good formation, especially for heavy weather conditions when dragons would get tired easily. And then the familiar sense of gloom set in. He could draw a diagram, he could move marks representing dragons around on a table, he could even roust North Flight out tomorrow to try out the formation in a drill, but he’d never have the chance to pit it against a real Threadfall.

They were as far away from Thread as they ever could be, at the very midpoint of the Interval. If T’kamen lived to be seventy he’d still be dead six decades before the Pass began. For every fifty Turns when dragons fought Thread in the skies of Pern, there were two hundred when they could only play at it with ropes and paint and their imaginations. It was no wonder the Holds and Halls were so grudging in their support. Madellon wouldn’t rise in their defence for another century. Everything the Weyr consumed – food, goods, firestone – was an expensive waste.

And if we weren’t here now, who would be the sires of the sires of the dragons of the future? asked Epherineth. If we didn’t learn how to fight imaginary Thread, who would pass on the knowledge to the dragons who will fight real Thread?

They’d had this conversation before, more than once. T’kamen didn’t disagree with his dragon, but the knowledge that anything they did halfway through an Interval would be long forgotten by the Pass still left him feeling pointless and apathetic.

He resisted the topple into self-pity. He was a Weyrleader of Pern. Epherineth had sired a queen. They had more power, more influence, more immortality, than all but the tiniest handful of dragonpairs. The good they did now would resonate down the Turns to the Pass. Did it really matter if they were remembered for doing it?

Go to bed, T’kamen, Epherineth told him, before either of them could answer that question truthfully.

He meant it this time. T’kamen submitted to his dragon’s better judgement.

His bed had been turned down, and a glow-basket opened a crack to provide a dim radiance. T’kamen lay down on top of the covers and tweaked the basket shut. It wasn’t quite as stifling as it had been earlier, but it was still a close and sticky night. Between that and his restless thoughts, he didn’t expect to go to sleep any time soon.

He was wrong about that.

The sound of the world falling in on him jolted him awake, and he flailed in the darkness, disoriented and deafened. It was a moment before he grasped that the world had not, in fact, fallen in on him; that was just the closest explanation his brain had been able to make for the titanic splitting sound that still shuddered through his bones. “What the shaff…”

…was that? Epherineth finished for him. He sounded as shaken as T’kamen felt, startled into wakefulness just as abruptly.

T’kamen knocked the glow-basket open and flinched away from the sudden brightness. Watchdragon, Epherineth! Has somewhere caved in?

Zemmath doesn’t think so.

But she heard that?

The whole Weyr heard it.

T’kamen pulled on the shirt and trousers he’d discarded earlier. Get the Wingleaders to roll call their dragons. I want to know if anyone’s missing. He picked up the glow-basket and hastened out of his bedchamber and through the passageway that led to Valonna’s weyr.

“Weyrwoman,” he called, holding up the glows to light his way.

Valonna was coming out of the archway from her own chamber. She’d put on a robe over her night-clothes. “What’s happening, T’kamen?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “Shimpath’s all right?”

“Yes, but she’s very upset.” Valonna looked even younger and smaller than usual in her night-dress, with her long hair unpinned from its braids. “Was it an earthquake?”

The ground sometimes shook at Madellon as the somnolent forces far below the old caldera shifted, but those tremors had always been minor rumbles. This had been more like a thunderclap, sudden and violent. “I don’t think so,” T’kamen said. “A lightning strike, maybe?”

The watchdragon says not, said Epherineth. Wingleaders are reporting in. No one missing, no casualties.

“We’ve accounted for all the riders,” T’kamen told Valonna.

“What about everyone else?” she asked. “We should check with the Headwoman…”

Izath’s rider and Valth’s are coming to my ledge, said Epherineth. Others, too.

“I’ll go and find Crauva and make sure no one’s hurt in the caverns,” T’kamen said. “We have riders incoming. Can you field them?”

“Yes, of course. What should I tell them?”

“Just reassure them,” said T’kamen. “No one seems to be hurt. The mountain hasn’t collapsed. Ask Shimpath to tell everyone to stay in their weyrs and keep calm. There’s no call for panic.” Yet.

Still barefoot, T’kamen descended the back stairs from his weyr two at a time. The stairwell opened onto one of the passageways of the lower caverns complex, not far from the dining hall. He headed that way. Even if the Headwoman wasn’t awake, someone would be.

“…don’t know what you’re talking about…”

“…swear…like the ceiling was coming down on me…”

“…ceiling’s fine…”

“…not imagining things…”

The dining cavern was always well-lit, by glows, and by the steady glow from the banked hearths where riders could find klah and hot food at any hour of the day, but the handful of people whose argument he could hear had clustered as far away from the fireplaces as possible. “Is everything all right down here?” he asked, raising his voice.

The speakers – two kitchen helpers and a blue rider from A’keret’s Wing – jumped up almost as one at his approach. “Weyrleader,” the rider greeted him apprehensively.

“You’re up late, A’wor,” T’kamen said.

“My weyrmate’s on watch, sir. I’m waiting up for him.”

T’kamen nodded. “Have you checked in with your Wingleader?”

“Yes, sir,” A’wor replied, relaxing a fraction. “Sir, what just happened?”

“We don’t know yet,” T’kamen replied. He looked at the two kitchen girls. “Would one of you go and find the Headwoman?”

“Weyrleader, sir,” asked the older of the girls, as the younger hastened away to do his bidding, “excuse me for asking, but what’s upset the dragons?”

“We’re trying to find out,” he said, “though being woken by a sound like that would upset me, too.”

“I told you I heard something!” A’wor exclaimed.

“You didn’t hear it?” T’kamen asked the woman.

She shook her head. “No, sir. Gerra neither. We thought Worry – wingrider A’wor, that is – was hearing things.”

“Weyrleader.” It was Crauva. Like Valonna, she had thrown a robe on over her night-clothes, but she didn’t look any less capable for having been woken in the middle of the night. “I was just on my way to find you. The dragons…”

“Is anything amiss down here?” T’kamen asked. “Are your people all right?”

“I’ve seen nothing to the contrary on my way here,” said Crauva, “though the dragons crying out woke a lot of people.” She cocked her head. “I didn’t think it sounded like a keen.”

“It wasn’t,” said T’kamen. “No one’s died. Everyone’s fine.” He frowned at her. “Then you didn’t hear a…noise? Like a rockfall, or a clap of thunder?”

“It was more like a crack,” said A’wor. “Like…” He picked up his plate in both hands. “Like something breaking in half. Not shattering, just breaking.” He tightened his grip on the edges of the plate. “Snap.

Crauva shook her head. “I’m afraid I didn’t hear anything like that.”

It wasn’t a sound, T’kamen said to Epherineth. Or if it was, then it was something only dragons could hear.

And dragonriders, Epherineth observed.

“You’re sure there’s nothing wrong?” T’kamen asked it aloud, for Crauva and Epherineth both.

All dragons have reported in.

“I can ring the emergency bell,” Crauva offered. “Take a full headcount.”

“No,” T’kamen said, after a moment. “There’s no point in waking everyone up.”

“You’re certain?”

“I’m certain,” he said. “I’m sure everything’s fine. I’m sure it’s nothing.”

Valonna was waiting in his weyr when he climbed back up the stairs. She’d dressed and put up her hair. “Is everything all right in the caverns?”

“It seems to be,” said T’kamen. “You handled H’ned and F’halig?”

“Shimpath told their dragons to go back to bed,” Valonna told him. “They didn’t get as far as landing.”

“Good. You should go back to bed, too.”

“But what was that noise?” she asked. “Shimpath doesn’t know what to make of it.”

T’kamen thought about telling her what he’d discovered in the dining hall: that only Madellon’s dragons and dragonriders had heard it. No. He wouldn’t burden her with that tonight. It would only keep her from sleep, trying to puzzle out what it meant. “I don’t know,” he said.

He paused, and then, in repeating what he’d said to Crauva, he broke his own rule, and lied to his Weyrwoman. “But I’m sure everything’s fine. I’m sure it was…nothing.”

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