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Chapter five: Sh’zon

Appreciate your Wingseconds. No one can make you look incompetent faster than a brown rider with a grudge.

– Peninsula Weyr saying

100.02.19 (100TH TURN, SEVENTH INTERVAL)
MADELLON WEYR

Sh'zon (Micah Johnson)Sh’zon had woken early, roused by his randy dragon, but the morning watch was almost over by the time he arrived at the Weyrleaders’ table in the dining cavern, damp from a hasty bath and still fastening the top few buttons of his shirt.

“Sorry I’m late, T’kamen,” he said, and tucked his chin to Valonna. “Apologies, Weyrwoman.”

T’kamen glanced up from the slate he was studying to wave off Sh’zon’s apology with a flick of his hand. “Take a seat and have some breakfast.”

Sh’zon seated himself next to H’ned and beckoned to a nearby kitchen girl. “Bread and bacon and three eggs fried up runny, missy, quick as you like.”

“Dragon problems?” H’ned asked disingenuously as Sh’zon jiggled klah pitchers to find one with some left.

“I’ll say.” He poured the tarry dregs from the likeliest jug into his cup, tried a mouthful, and almost spat it out. “Bring some more klah while you’re about it!” he shouted after the girl. “Kawanth’s had his eye on a green for a few days. She takes off this morning, he gets on after her, I’m staggering out of my bed in my skin trying to find where her rider’s got to.” He looked over his shoulder to see if the klah was on its way. It wasn’t. “So I burst in just as Kawanth’s about to make his move, all ready to grab her and have at it, and this skinny little runt of a blue swings in from out of nowhere, swipes the green and does the deed!”

“Bad luck,” said H’ned, smirking. “We’ve all been done by blues, don’t you agree, T’kamen?”

“Uh huh,” said T’kamen, still reading his slate.

“But that’s not the half of it,” Sh’zon went on. “So there we are, the two of us, all stoked up and nothing to flame. I tell Kawie to go put himself out in the lake while I head on back to the weyr to have myself a w–” He caught himself just in time, throwing a look at Valonna. “Er, to have myself a wash, and I’m just, you know, getting done with washing, and suddenly Kawanth’s telling me there’s another green just taking off and him still hot for a piece of tail, so up he goes after that one, and he’s in such a stew by now I think he’s scared off everything else from chasing, because I never saw no other dragon.” He stopped to catch his breath and take another sip of the thick, gritty, lukewarm klah. “Achh, that’s terrible.”

“Faranth, Sh’zon, have mine,” H’ned said, pushing over his own mug. “That stuff will give you a bellyache.”

“You’re a class act, H’ned.” Sh’zon gulped at H’ned’s half-cup of klah. It was a bit sweet for his taste, but a big improvement over the black sludge in his own mug.

“So you caught the second green?”

“Oh, we caught her. Don’t think she knew what’d hit her, poor thing. Rider turned out to be one of the young chappies from T’gat’s Wing, which wouldn’t’ve been my first choice, but Kawie’s impossible when he’s het up and we’ve a ton to do today. He’ll have his little snooze now and he’ll be right as rain by noon.”

“I’m glad he’s got it out of his system,” said T’kamen, putting his message slate aside at last and picking up the piece of toast he’d been neglecting.

Now, there was a man who could use a few extra pieces of toast of a morning, Sh’zon thought, and maybe a dollop more butter too. T’kamen was one of those riders who burned through more energy in an afternoon than most did in a sevenday, and even in the months Sh’zon had been at Madellon, he’d noticed him losing flesh and gaining lines on his face. Sh’zon had seen Weyrleaders come and go in his time at the Peninsula Weyr, and the role seldom left them untouched. It could go either way. Some got fat sitting on their rumps all day and enjoying the hospitality of Hold and Hall; some worried themselves to bones, unable to balance their own health with the demands of the position. Both types had a habit of taking themselves to early graves. Sh’zon’s own first Weyrleader had died of a heart attack during a mating flight, trying to outfly fitter bronzes to win back his queen, and he hadn’t been old at all.

He didn’t think T’kamen was going anywhere, though. He was a few Turns younger than Sh’zon, and Epherineth was a handsome fellow. Sh’zon was man enough to acknowledge a good bronze when he saw one. It would be at least another two Turns before Valonna’s queen rose again. T’kamen and his bronze would both still be in their prime.

Kawanth could have outflown Epherineth, of course, but Sh’zon doubted there’d ever be the opportunity to prove it. Berzunth would rise sooner than Shimpath, but neither Epherineth nor Kawanth would be chasing her: Epherineth because no bronze with half a brain pursued another female when he was already mated to the senior queen; Kawanth because Sh’zon had known Tarshe from a babe in arms, and he found the idea repugnant. Some bronze riders wouldn’t have scrupled to pursue a queen ridden by a cousin, but Sh’zon wasn’t that desperate. There’d be no queen flights for Kawanth; not at Madellon, anyway.

The kitchen girl returned with Sh’zon’s breakfast, the eggs yellow and wobbly atop a fat rasher of bacon that still sizzled and a thick doorstop of brown bread. “Thanks, missy,” he told the girl, digging in.

“All right,” said T’kamen, wiping toast crumbs off his fingers, “what have we got today. H’ned?”

Izath’s rider tugged a limp, much-scraped piece of hide out of the breast of his shirt. “V’stan’s Wing is exercising over the north-west ranges this morning,” he reported. “Manoeuvres only, no flame. F’yan’s Wing is doing a refresher run over the Kellad-Peninsula border, and East Flight has the south this afternoon, a three-sack flaming drill.”

“How was the quality of the Buckmore firestone shipment?” T’kamen asked.

“Not the worst,” said Sh’zon, through a mouthful of bacon. He swallowed, and went on, “Thought it was going to be a duff batch when we picked it up. Very oxidised. The colour looked all right when the weyrlings broke up the first couple sacks, though.”

T’kamen nodded. “Let East Flight’s Wingleaders know it’s a new load.”

“I’ll tell A’keret to get his stokers onto it,” said Sh’zon. The Weyr Miner had already graded the stone, but the dragons themselves were the best judges. Most Wings had a few with a knack for assessing flame yield from the taste and texture of the rock they sampled.

“Have him be prepared to report on the stone at the Wingleader meeting this evening,” said T’kamen. “What else?”

“Sweeps went out at dawn, reporting high pressure west-southwest that might just turn into rain, if we’re really lucky,” H’ned continued.

Valonna stirred from her usual quiet place beside T’kamen. “Might you ask the watchdragon to look for it coming in?” she asked. “Kirosahf is airing the old bedfurs we found in the storage caverns, bales and bales of them. It would be a shame for them to get wet on the first rainy day we’ve had for a month.”

“I’ll brief the watchriders,” said H’ned. “I’ll tell them to report directly to you if it starts to look threatening.”

“Thank you, Wingleader.”

She was a curious one, T’kamen’s Weyrwoman: so timid beside her forceful Weyrleader, but when she spoke up it was usually with someone else’s ease or comfort in mind. Valonna was hardly older than Tarshe, and as indoor-pale as Sh’zon’s cousin was outdoor-tanned – more like a Lady Holder than a queen rider, really. But her hands, rough and blistered from recent hard work, told a different story. Valonna had dismissed the Headwoman and appointed a woman of her own choice in her place, and now spent more time than most Weyrwoman would working alongside the women of the lower caverns. Sh’zon supposed someone had to, though he didn’t know that he’d allow a Weyrwoman of his to do it. More the place of a junior weyrwoman, he thought. Then again, Madellon wouldn’t actually have one until Berzunth grew up, and Sh’zon doubted Tarshe would much like skivvying.

“Anything else, H’ned?” T’kamen asked. H’ned shook his head, and the Weyrleader turned to Sh’zon. “What do you have, Wingleader?”

Sh’zon had always thought it a shame that Deputy Weyrleader was too much of a mouthful to be used as a salutation. K’ken, who’d been Deputy at the Peninsula for about the last three Passes, had long since resigned himself to answering to Wingleader despite his seniority. “A hundred green hides to pick up from the Tannerhall,” he said. H’ned had been given oversight of sweeps and watches; Sh’zon’s responsibilities now included coordinating tithe collections, supply runs, and conveyance. “Twelve transports, four of them courtesy lifts. Ice run, Wingleader meeting, my Wing’s on inspection, and I’ve a few odds and sods to drop off with my kin late this evening.”

T’kamen, to his credit, didn’t even blink at that. Some Weyrleaders would have balked at the thought of their riders flying in supplies to holders who had been exiled for massacring the occupants of a neighbouring cothold, but Sh’zon had learned that T’kamen was very decent about such things. As long as he didn’t remove anyone from the desolate place – and Sh’zon had taken an oath not to – T’kamen accepted his wish to help them eke out an existence there.

T’kamen turned to Valonna next. “Weyrwoman?”

Valonna had a slate with her notes on it. “Master Gerlaven has asked for permission to start work with black powder on the south-eastern inner of the Bowl.”

H’ned looked suddenly interested. “Really? He’s got to the bottom of what went wrong in 65?”

“What happened in 65?” asked Sh’zon.

“Blasting accident,” said T’kamen. “The Weyr Mason brought about five hundred tons of rock down on himself.”

“There are still bodies under there,” said H’ned, with macabre relish. When T’kamen frowned at him, he protested, “What? No one in your weyrling class ever told ghost stories about how, if you went to the south-eastern corner of the Bowl after midnight and listened very carefully, you’d hear the shades of Master Imarr and his team, still chipping forlornly away at the stone, chisels blunt with age clutched in their skeletal hands…”

“I’d wager you were the one banging rocks together to get the full effect,” said T’kamen.

“They had it easy,” said H’ned. “They weren’t here when it actually happened. I was only seven or eight. The worst of it was that Imarr and his crafters weren’t crushed to death – they were buried alive. You could hear them shouting through the rubble. The dragons tried to dig them out, but the more they dug, the more rock they dislodged. Eventually the voices stopped.”

“How horrible,” said Valonna, with a little shiver.

H’ned grinned at her reaction. “It properly spooked us kids. No one wanted to sleep inside the caverns. We’d creep out at night and camp in the Bowl instead. It drove all the foster-mothers spare, but even the threat of a hiding wasn’t enough to stop us.”

“What eventually enticed you back in?” asked T’kamen.

H’ned shrugged. “Winter.”

“Well, I’d be hoping the new Master Mason’s a tad bit smarter than this one who brought the Weyr down on his head,” said Sh’zon.

“Gerlaven’s been surveying the site for about the last five Turns,” said T’kamen. “He’s mapped out the fault that caused Imarr’s accident and he’s certain the face is stable.” He turned back to Valonna. “Weyrwoman, how many dragons will need to be relocated from that part of the Bowl?”

“We think it will only be seventeen,” Valonna replied. “There are weyrs they can move to, but we may have to come to an arrangement for the two Wingseconds. There’s nothing available that would compare to their current quarters.”

T’kamen frowned at that, but only slightly; the lines between his brows didn’t go deep. Relocating a couple of Wingseconds was likely the smallest of his worries. “You have Gerlaven’s list of requirements?”

“Extra journeyman from the Masoncraft,” said Valonna. “Labourers from our caverns…and the black powder.”

“That’s not going to come cheap,” said Sh’zon.

“Madellon committed to this work a long time ago,” T’kamen said. He sounded resigned to the necessity. “If you’ll put a copy of the list on my desk, Valonna, I’ll see it’s fulfilled.”

Sh’zon mopped up the last traces of egg yolk from his plate with his bread. The Peninsula faced the issue of expansion, too. Like Madellon, it had been established by a few dozen dragonpairs early in the Interval with the expectation that its population would increase steadily over the two hundred Turns of the Interval. Neither Weyr had yet come close to their intended Pass capacities, and even now the combined dragons of the Peninsula and Madellon would barely fill Madellon alone. But while Madellon had a planned fighting strength of almost six hundred dragons, it could only weyr half that number. The rest of the caves and ledges intended for the use of future dragons were still just hollows in the crater walls. The most accessible had been claimed by enterprising riders willing to spend their spare time chiselling more space from the rock, but the Weyr Mason had oversight of all the rest. Sh’zon knew that the Master at the Peninsula had never had all the crafters or equipment he really needed for his building programme, and he didn’t think Master Gerlaven would have much more luck here.

“I have a few things,” said T’kamen. “First is that L’stev says he expects the first weyrlings to go between the day after tomorrow. Let your riders know.”

He didn’t elaborate; he didn’t have to. “I hope your Weyrlingmaster’s good,” said Sh’zon. “My cousin’s precious to me.”

He intended it as a joke, but T’kamen and H’ned both frowned, and the Valonna looked uneasy. “He’s very good,” said T’kamen, flatly.

“And you’re not the only one with family in that class,” H’ned added.

Sh’zon held up his hands. “Beg pardon.”

T’kamen carried on as though Sh’zon hadn’t interrupted. “Secondly, the Long Bay Hold Gather next month. Some of my wingriders have been asking if they’ll get their stipend early.”

“So they can waste it all before the quarter’s even done?” said Sh’zon.

“Better that than having them all complaining they have no marks to spend,” said H’ned.

“I’ll be raising it in the Wingleaders’ meeting tonight,” said T’kamen. “Give it some thought. Does anyone have anything else?” He glanced around, picking up his slate. “Fine. You all know where I’ll be.”

As T’kamen left the table, the original kitchen girl came hurrying up with a steaming pitcher. “I’m so sorry, sir!”

“So you should be, missy,” Sh’zon told her. “Ah, well. Better late than never, eh?”


The promised rain came mid-morning, a short sharp shower that started as Sh’zon sat down to assign dragonpairs to transport jobs and finished before the last rider came in to be briefed. Outside, a rejuvenated Kawanth amused himself by paddling his forepaws in the shallow puddle that had formed on his ledge, but the water evaporated off the ground almost faster than it steamed off his hide.

Put a word through to the Weyrlingmaster’s dragon, would you, and tell him I want to come down and exchange a word with my cousin, Sh’zon told his bronze, pushing back his chair.

Vanzanth says that’s nice for you, and what did you want him to do about it, Kawanth reported back.

“Faranth save us all from mouthy brown dragons!” Sh’zon strode out of his office and onto the ledge. Kawanth looked back at him peaceably. “Tell him I’m coming down now and he can like it or not for all the difference it makes to me.”

He says he’s very impressed with your impeccable courtesy and that you should consider yourself at liberty to come and teach it to his weyrlings at any time of the night or day. Kawanth paused. I don’t think he was telling the truth.

He swore. “Tell him – no, ask him, nicely, if he could see his way clear to letting me visit my cousin, my uncle’s little girl, my own flesh and blood, so when I see her father later on today I can tell him how his only daughter’s doing, please and thank-you!”

He says in that case you should feel free, and Hinnarioth’s rider will be expecting you.

“Hinnarioth’s rider?”

Vanzanth is not here.

“Not here? You might’ve told me he wasn’t in the Weyr, Kawanth!”

You didn’t ask.

“Pah!”

Truth be told, Sh’zon thought, as he descended the steps from their weyr and set out towards the training grounds, he approved that L’stev was so touchy about adult riders mixing with the weyrlings. If the Weyrlingmaster had his dragon put up that sort of resistance to family visits, there was no chance he’d let an unconnected rider anywhere near the juveniles. Sh’zon had taken it on himself to have words with each of Madellon’s bronze riders on the subject of his young cousin. Most of them had taken it well enough, and the ones who hadn’t…well, he was keeping an eye on them.

The burst of rain might have been brief, but at least it had dampened down the dust. Madellon wasn’t such a bad Weyr, but Sh’zon was tired of the continental weather extremes: blazing in summer, ball-numbing in winter. The Peninsula’s coastal location made it a lot more comfortable Turn-round. Some days, sweltering in fighting leathers under Madellon’s skies, he’d have given Kawanth’s tail for a sea breeze.

I need my tail, Kawanth objected mildly.

Suspect you’d look a mite strange without it, Sh’zon said, but I wouldn’t hold that against you.

You would when I couldn’t fly for you anymore.

Best hold on to your tail, then, and keep practising with those greens.

Kawanth snorted so loudly from their ledge that Sh’zon heard him halfway down the Bowl. I never practise.

The weyrling riders had their dragons out on the grassy part of the training grounds – more dust than grass at present – for grooming and oiling. The assistant Weyrlingmaster, Jenavally, was supervising, leaning casually against her dragon’s side in the shade of the wing the green had extended for her. Sh’zon had always found it strange how much he fancied her. She wasn’t what he’d have called pretty: quite plain, in fact; broad-featured and almost homely. And she must have been ten or twelve Turns older than him, at least. He supposed it was the height and the red hair – reddish, anyway – that did it for him. Squint hard enough in dim enough light and even a green could look like a queen.

Not to me, said Kawanth.

Who asked you?

Still, Kawanth had flown Jenavally’s Hinnarioth a time or two since they’d been at Madellon, and those had been pleasant enough affairs – with seconds, no less. Not a girl to set his world on fire, but better than an empty hearth. “Ho there, green lady!”

“Me or her?” Jenavally asked, jerking her head at her dragon.

“Why, the both of you, of course.”

“Look out,” she said, in an exaggerated aside to her dragon. “He’s turned on the charm. He must want something.”

Sh’zon shrugged, not bothering to deny it. “Happens I’d like a moment or two with my cousin.”

“Thought so,” she said. “Didn’t I say he’d be down sooner or later, Hinns?”

“You’re saying I’m predictable?” Sh’zon protested.

“Well if it’s any comfort, you’re not the first and you won’t be the last,” she said. “Why else do you think L’stev isn’t here? He has a sentimental streak as broad as a bronze dragon’s backside, but that doesn’t mean he wants all of Pern to know about it.”

“They’ve all been getting visitors, then?” Sh’zon asked.

“The Weyrbred ones. H’ned was down straight after breakfast to give his lad a look over. Javerre fostered half the kids in this group at one time or another. Shells, even the Headwoman found an excuse to inspect the barracks supply room this morning.” Jenavally shook her head. “Poor R’von. He’s hardly got a choice but to kick off.”

“Bronze’ll be bronze,” said Sh’zon. “What about your boy?

“Oh, Naij. He’s just like his brother was at that age – brighter, if anything – and G’vor’s done all right. You know, they don’t call brown dragons the mother’s favourite for nothing. From personal experience – sorry, Hinns but it’s true – I’d be scared senseless if my boys rode greens, and you can keep your flashy bronzes. Blues are fine, but a brown – that’s the dragon you want for your son. Brown riders don’t get themselves in trouble.”

“I’ve known a few that’d put the lie to that,” said Sh’zon.

Jenavally laughed. “That says more about the company you keep than it does about brown riders.”

“I’ll wager it does,” he agreed. “My cousin?”

“I’ll take you over. Just a few minutes, though. You’ll put them off if you make too much of a fuss.”

Although Madellon’s weyrlings lived and trained apart from the rest of the Weyr, Berzunth’s presence made them the subject of more attention than would otherwise have been the case. Dragons were always very conscious of their queens, however young. Sh’zon had even caught Kawanth watching her. His attention was innocent enough while Berzunth was still a juvenile, but it wouldn’t stay that way forever. Most Weyrs didn’t allow related queen and bronze riders to stay together – the lure of a queen was too strong, and Sh’zon had heard of a near miss with an aunt-nephew situation somewhere up north; Igen, or maybe Telgar. They had about a Turn and a half before Berzunth’s age made his presence at Madellon a problem. Then either he’d have to go, or she would. Not that the latter was out of the question – Madellon could probably use a queen exchange to diversify its stock – but he didn’t think it would be necessary. He expected to be gone from here long before his cousin’s queen forced him out.

Madellon did breed a good-looking dragon, Sh’zon thought, as Jenavally escorted him along the long line of dragonets. Some of the browns seemed a touch lighter of bone than he’d have liked, but there were two exceptionally nice bronzes and several greens that would have stood up against any of the Peninsula’s. And Berzunth was as striking a queen as he’d ever seen – almost more silver than gold.

Nine months ago, when Tarshe had Impressed, the sun-bleached highlights in her hair had almost matched her dragon’s light hide. The mandatory weyrling haircut and several months of Madellon’s winter had done away with those streaks, and even the recent weather hadn’t yet brought them back. The deeply-burnt tropical tan had faded a little too. But the biggest and best change was in Tarshe’s physique. She – and all the other people on Shevran’s island, adults and children – had always been scrawny; not quite malnourished, but just the wrong side of underfed. Sh’zon’s best efforts on his family’s behalf hadn’t ever quite alleviated their struggle to produce enough food to make life comfortable. Tarshe would never be fat, but the combination of decent, regular meals and the healthy exertion of caring for a growing dragon had put ten pounds of muscle on her frame.

Berzunth noticed him before Tarshe did, but only by a second or so. She turned, obviously tipped off, already smiling that half wary, half defiant smile that had always been her hallmark. “Cuz. I’m filthy with oil.”

“No shame in that, Tarshe.” Sh’zon opened his arms wide, and with a shrug, Tarshe stepped into the embrace.

“Come to see me one last time in case we go between and never come back?” she asked.

“Don’t you even think that, missy,” Sh’zon warned her. “I don’t care what colour your dragon is. You’re not too high and mighty for me to give your arse a smack that’d stop you sitting down for a sevenday.”

“True,” she admitted, absently wiping her hands on her dragonet’s side. “Though if you did that to me I’d be fascinated to see what Berzunth would do to Kawanth.”

“I’d wager he’d enjoy his end of it more than you would yours.” Sh’zon folded his arms, looking down at her appraisingly. “You look well. The both of you.”

“I am.” She put a more proprietorial hand on Berzunth’s elbow. “We are.”

“Weyrlingmaster treating you all right?”

“L’stev?” Tarshe flicked her head back in a short laugh. “Fine, if you ignore the shouting, the sarcasm, and the fact that he’s impossible to please.”

There was no rancour in her voice. That was a good sign. “Sounds like my Weyrlingmaster at the Peninsula,” said Sh’zon.

“And I’ve learned more new swear words from him than I knew when I left the island.”

“You can never know too many shaffing swear words,” Sh’zon told her. He grinned at her; she grinned back. “And what about your classmates?”

Tarshe shrugged. “Where do I even begin?”

“The bronzes?” Sh’zon suggested.

“Faranth, cuz. It’s true what L’stev said about bronze riders, isn’t it?”

“Depends what it is he said.”

“That you’re all obsessed with other bronze riders.”

“Because they’re the only riders worth worrying about,” Sh’zon declared. “Well. Almost.”

Tarshe sighed, mock-exasperated. “The dragonets suck up to Berzunth, and their riders suck up to me.”

“You’d better not be talking literally,” Sh’zon growled.

“Please. K’ralthe’s all smarm, H’nar overcompensates for his dragon being all smarm, and R’von seems to think that I’m impressed when he swears back at L’stev.”

Sh’zon relaxed a bit. “None of them taking your eye, then?”

Tarshe spread her hands to indicate Berzunth. “By comparison to her, I’m not sure anyone ever will.”

“That’s as it should be.” Sh’zon cocked his head. “I’m heading up to the island later on. Anything you wanted to pass on to your da?”

“Just my love,” she replied. “Tell him I should be able to come and see him soon. Tell him he’ll be able to meet Berzunth.”

“Aye, you will at that. He’s so proud of you, Tarshe. His daughter, a queen rider of Pern!”

“Still doesn’t mean I can get him out of there, though, does it?”

Sh’zon sighed. “You know why –”

“I know, I know.” Tarshe scowled. “I understand the rules. Doesn’t mean I have to like them.”

“Sh’zon.” Jenavally had drifted politely away to let them talk; now, she drifted closer again.

“I’ve hardly had two minutes,” he objected.

“It’s all right,” Tarshe told him. “We’ll be fine.” She patted her queen’s elbow. “She’ll look after me.”

“Well, she’d better,” said Sh’zon. He glared at Berzunth, who returned the look with placid blue eyes. “You hear that? You keep her safe! And you, missy…” He stabbed a forefinger at Tarshe. “You keep your visuals clean and do as your Weyrlingmaster says, and when you’re out the other side of this thing we’ll go to the Long Bay Gather and I’ll buy you more pies than you could eat in a season.”

“Still the pies?” Tarshe asked. “Really? You’ve been trying to bribe me with pies since I was about six!”

“Worked then,” said Sh’zon. “And once a weakness, always a weakness.”

“You’d be the authority on that one,” Tarshe pointed out.

“Don’t get pert with me, missy!” He planted a kiss on top of her head. “Be careful.”

“I will,” Tarshe replied.

With his duty to Tarshe done, Sh’zon couldn’t procrastinate any longer. Kawanth needed a bath to get him fit for inspection, especially after his morning dalliance. Most of their wingriders were already at the lake, industriously scrubbing away at their dragons, and it wouldn’t do for Kawanth to look anything less than sparkling. That meant packing up brushes and oil and harness grease and heading out of the Weyr to their favourite alpine lake. As a matter of principle, Sh’zon never did his dragon’s pre-inspection ablutions where his riders could see just how much grot the bronze had accumulated.

When they returned – Kawanth spotless, his rig shining, and Sh’zon himself immaculate – their Wingseconds were waiting with the other thirteen dragonpairs of North Central Wing. Sh’zon had inherited J’tron from his ill-fated predecessor D’feng, and the two-stripe Wingsecond was a classic brown rider: steady, competent, unambitious. M’ric, his own senior-grade Wingsecond of many Turns, was less typical of his colour. Oh, he was steady and competent, but he was also clever, cunning, and very ambitious. If M’ric had been a bronze rider he would have been worth fearing, but his little brown Trebruth meant he wasn’t any sort of threat, and there wasn’t a rider on Pern Sh’zon would rather have had at his right hand.

They’d been a serious force together at the Peninsula before Weyrleader H’pold had uncovered Sh’zon’s family connections and forced him out. Sh’zon might have resisted harder, but the leadership change at Madellon had opened his mind to the possibilities there. Even then, it had been M’ric who’d persuaded him to accept the transfer to Madellon and the demotion that had come with it. But it hadn’t taken either of them long to recover their prior rank, and indeed they’d both exceeded their Peninsula status in their different ways, M’ric with his Ops Wing, and Sh’zon in his new role as Deputy Weyrleader to T’kamen.

Feolth, J’tron’s big rusty-coloured brown, and little Trebruth were both impeccably turned out. Sh’zon made a big show of examining both dragons in close detail. After the hours both Wingseconds must have spent getting the gloss on their very different dragons’ hides, they deserved the credit of passing his closest scrutiny with distinction. Then he signalled to J’tron to proceed with the inspection of the wingriders.

As J’tron walked over to the first green dragon in the line, M’ric stepped up to stand beside Sh’zon. “I’m hoping he won’t find anything wrong with Orsalth,” he said. “She could take off at any moment, and you know how emotional V’ley gets.”

“Good thing she didn’t go off this morning, or he’d have had something to be emotional about,” said Sh’zon. “All well with you?”

“Well enough.”

“Trebruth?”

M’ric nodded at his brown. “As you see.”

“And that girlfriend of yours?”

“Working every hour in the day.” M’ric’s smile was wry. “I hardly see her. A man could take it personally.”

Sh’zon liked M’ric’s woman. Not his type – he didn’t much go in for brunettes – but a nice-looking girl. It had been a few Turns since M’ric had weyred up with anyone, and the female company seemed to be agreeing with him. Sh’zon hadn’t seen him so sharp and focused in a long time. He’d never been a slouch, but they’d been ploughing themselves a comfortable furrow at the Peninsula for Turns before H’pold’s dirt-digging had destabilised Sh’zon’s position. Then M’ric had lost his daughter to a training accident, and that had taken his eye off the bigger picture. Away from the Peninsula and those painful memories, he seemed to have regained his concentration. “Take her to the big Gather,” he recommended. “Buy her something expensive. That’ll make her grateful.”

M’ric’s mouth twitched. “Whatever you say, boss.”

Orsalth passed muster, and J’tron moved on to Gresath. Sh’zon and M’ric walked down to look at the blue from their slight remove as J’tron went through his inspection checks.

“Weyrlings start going between day after tomorrow,” said Sh’zon. “Any concerns with them?”

“Not with my two,” said M’ric. “I haven’t cleared them yet, though. They’re both too keen.”

“H’ned’s boy?”

“Yes, and C’los’ daughter.”

“I sneaked by the Weyrlingmaster and had a word with my cousin,” said Sh’zon. “I can’t see him letting her go in the first lot either, for the same reason. She’s desperate to visit her mum and dad. Would rather she didn’t push herself.”

“Don’t worry about Tarshe,” said M’ric. “She’ll be fine.”

Sh’zon eyed him warily. There was just something in his tone, an eerie conviction that he recognised. “Is something about to happen?”

M’ric’s face revealed nothing, but he hesitated for a long beat before replying. “Perhaps.”

“Because if you’ve had yourself one of your…premonitions…if you’ve been on an excursion…I want to know about it!”

“I’ll let you know when I know,” said M’ric.

“Is it Ipith?” Kawanth, speak to Galdiath at the Peninsula and ask him if anything’s changed with the queen.

“Not Ipith. But something’s coming. The other night…the noise that woke the dragons…”

That?” Sh’zon blew out his breath. “Probably just the ghost of the Mason who got himself blown up thirty Turns ago and doesn’t want his successor disturbing him with black powder.”

Galdiath says no, Kawanth reported.

“Ghosts, Sh’zon?” M’ric asked.

“No stranger than some of what you’ve come up with over the Turns, Malric.” Sh’zon subsided, relieved. “Well, don’t do that to me. You’ll give Kawanth palpitations.”

“Not everything comes back to Ipith, you know,” M’ric told him.

“Not for you, maybe,” said Sh’zon. “Where I’m concerned it does. I’d be obliged if you’d keep your eyes front. We can’t miss the next chance at Ipith now Tarshe’s on the queen here. If we do it’ll be north or nothing, and let me tell you, you won’t be making a Wingsecond’s stipend as a southern rider in the north, much less what you’ll get once I’m Weyrleader at the Peninsula.”

“You’ll have your queen,” M’ric said calmly.

“Ha. I’d better.”

Because that was the goal. That was the prize. That was what they’d been working towards for the last six Turns, ever since Rallai had become senior at the Peninsula and Kawanth had failed to fly her queen. He would correct the injustice that had cheated them of their rightful place as the Peninsula’s Weyrleaders.

Sh’zon would never have predicted the road as it had unfolded, but M’ric had. M’ric and his premonitions. M’ric and his excursions. M’ric had promised him that, however indirect the route, his path would lead back to the Peninsula Weyr, and to the queen Kawanth had flown, and lost, and wanted back again.

And however M’ric came by his information, he hadn’t been wrong yet.

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